Jun 28, 2023 - World

Scoop: White House expressed concern that Israel is leaking info on indirect Iran talks

U.S. national security adviser Jake Sullivan (left) meets with his Israeli counterpart, Tzachi Hanegbi, in Jerusalem on Jan. 19. Photo: Israeli Government Press Office/Handout/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

White House national security adviser Jake Sullivan in a tough call with his Israeli counterpart last week expressed concern that Israel is leaking information to the press about indirect talks between the U.S. and Iran, three U.S. and Israeli officials told Axios.

Why it matters: Recent press reports by Axios and other media outlets about the indirect talks, which have been confirmed by Iran but not officially by the Biden administration, generated criticism among congressional Republicans, who are demanding the Biden administration seek congressional review for any agreement with Iran.

  • The talks are aimed at reaching understandings on Iran's nuclear program and regional de-escalation.

Catch up quick: Israeli national security adviser Tzachi Hanegbi and Ron Dermer, Israel's minister for strategic affairs, met Sullivan at the White House in early June and were briefed in detail about the indirect talks, two Israeli officials said.

  • "We are trying to do what we can to get on the same page with the U.S. and we will continue to try and do that," Dermer said at an American Jewish Committee conference in Tel Aviv shortly after the meeting, adding the discussions at the White House were "open, frank and candid."

Behind the scenes: Most press reports about the talks began to surface in June, and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told Israeli lawmakers in a classified Knesset hearing that the U.S. was working on a “mini-agreement” with Iran.

  • In his call with Hanegbi last week, Sullivan mentioned frustrations around Netanyahu's remarks, according to a senior Israeli official.
  • Hanegbi told Sullivan that Netanyahu must speak about the talks with Israeli lawmakers because he is being criticized by the opposition, according to an Israeli official. Henegbi stressed, however, that the prime minister is limiting his public remarks about the issue as much as possible, the Israeli official said.
  • Hanegbi also stressed to Sullivan that under guidance from Netanyahu, he gave several interviews in recent weeks in which he emphasized coordination with the Biden administration on Iran is better than ever.
  • A spokesperson for Netanyahu did not immediately respond to Axios' request for comment.
  • Israel officially objects to any new deal with Iran, but Netanyahu has not campaigned against any possible understandings between Tehran and Washington as he did during the negotiations of the 2015 nuclear deal.

Sullivan claimed during the call that a lot of the information in the press was inaccurate and didn’t reflect what was being discussed in the indirect talks with Iran, the U.S. official said. It's unclear what exactly in the reports the Biden administration sees as inaccurate.

  • The White House National Security Council declined to comment.
  • One U.S. official said the feeling at the White House was that Israel was behind the leaks and was also feeding Iran hawks in Congress with the same information directly and indirectly.

The big picture: The complaint about the alleged Israeli leaks was only one of the grievances Sullivan raised, the U.S. and Israeli officials said.

  • A senior Israeli official told Axios the call was friendly but said Sullivan also expressed deep concern about the Israeli government's decisions regarding the expansion of Israeli settlements in the occupied West Bank and violent attacks by Israeli settlers against Palestinian civilians.
  • Sullivan’s concerns about the situation in the West Bank were included in the White House readout of the call, but his complaint about the alleged leaks on Iran was not mentioned in the statement.

State of play: It is unclear whether Iran and the U.S. are close to agreeing on any understandings about regional de-escalation and Iran's nuclear program.

  • The parties are also discussing separately a possible prisoner exchange deal that could take place in the context of these understandings, as Axios has previously reported.
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