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Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi. Photo: Majid Saeedi/Getty Images

The Biden administration is grappling with a new dilemma as nuclear negotiations with Iran remain frozen: whether more pressure on Iran would help push the Iranians back to the 2015 deal, or lead Iran to escalate its nuclear program, U.S. and Israeli officials told Axios.

Why it matters: The Iranian nuclear program has made significant advances in recent months that will be difficult to roll back — and that could potentially undercut the benefits of salvaging the 2015 accord, particularly if a deal isn’t reached soon.

Driving the news: Israeli Foreign Minister Yair Lapid told National Security adviser Jake Sullivan in their meeting at the White House on Tuesday that Israel feared Iran was becoming a “nuclear threshold state.”

  • Lapid told Sullivan that, given the current stalemate, there is a need for an alternative plan to the nuclear agreement.

Behind the scenes: This dilemma was at the center of the last round of U.S.-Israeli strategic talks about Iran's nuclear program last week, Israeli officials told Axios.

  • The Israeli side pushed the U.S. team, headed by Sullivan, to put more pressure on Iran through additional sanctions, sabotage operations against the nuclear program, and warnings that a military option could be on the table if Iran continues its nuclear provocations, the Israeli officials said.
  • The U.S. side agreed on the need to counter Iran’s latest actions but said it was concerned such steps could generate Iranian backlash. The sabotage attempts that damaged Iran’s advanced centrifuge facility, which Iran attributed to Israel, led the Iranians to escalate their program and provided a pretext to limit the access of UN inspectors, sources briefed on the talks said.
  • The Israelis then asked the U.S. side whether it had a deadline for ending the current limbo and taking any steps against Iran, Israeli officials told Axios.
  • The U.S. side said it hopes growing pressure on Iran from Russia and Iran's struggling economy could lead the Iranians back to the nuclear deal.
  • One of the decisions in the talks was to form joint working groups to assess the Iranian economy, identify pressure points and also identify which steps against Iran could be counterproductive.

What they’re saying: An Israeli official said the U.S. dilemma is real and Israel understands it. “We know they are looking for the right balance but we want to know how long it is going to take," he said.

  • A senior U.S. official told Axios: "Given the pressure that Iran is under, we want to see what steps will be effective and what steps might be counterproductive. Thus, we’re engaged in detailed, strategic conversations with partners and allies about what steps will truly lead us closer to our shared objective – ensuring that Iran can never develop a nuclear weapon."
  • But, U.S. envoy for Iran Rob Malley gave a more pessimistic assessment of where the nuclear talks are during a virtual event today at the Carnegie Endowment. 
  • Malley said every day that passes signals to the U.S. that the new Iranian government doesn’t want to go back to full compliance with the 2015 nuclear deal.
  • “We have to prepare for a world where Iran doesn’t have constraints on its nuclear program and we have to consider options for dealing with that. This is what we are doing while we hope they do go back to the deal,” Malley said.

What’s next: Malley said he will travel in the coming days to Saudi Arabia, UAE and Qatar to discuss the Iranian issue.

Go deeper

Jan 12, 2022 - World

China hosts string of Gulf officials in sign of growing influence

Wang Yi (right) greets Faisal bin Farhan on Jan. 10. Photo: Ji Chunpeng/Xinhua via Getty

The foreign ministers of Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Oman and Bahrain and the secretary-general of the Gulf Cooperation Council are all visiting China this week for talks on boosting trade and security cooperation.

Why it matters: The flurry of visits by Gulf officials is part of China’s push for deeper involvement in the Middle East. For Beijing, the Gulf in particular is key to its energy supply and increasingly to its geopolitical influence.

Updated 5 hours ago - Politics & Policy

British national named in Colleyville synagogue standoff

A law enforcement vehicle sits near the Congregation Beth Israel synagogue on Jan. 16. Photo: Brandon Bell/Getty Images

British national Malik Faisal Akram took four people hostage at a Texas synagogue outside Fort Worth on Saturday, the FBI said in a statement.

State of play: Authorities had initially declined to release the name of the 44-year-old suspect or identify the hostages, all adults, though police chief Michael Miller confirmed that one of those held was Rabbi Charlie Cytron-Walker, who leads the congregation.

Updated 5 hours ago - Politics & Policy

Omicron dashboard

Illustration: Brendan Lynch/Axios

  1. Health: Concerns grow over CDC's isolation guidelines — Experts warn of more COVID-19 variants after Omicron — WHO recommends 2 new treatments — What "mild" really means when it comes to Omicron — Deaths are climbing as cases skyrocket.
  2. Vaccines: America's vaccination drive runs out of gas— Puerto Rico expands booster shot requirements— Supreme Court blocks Biden's vaccine mandate for large employers.
  3. Politics: Vivek Murthy calls SCOTUS vaccine mandate block "a setback for public health" — Focus group says Biden weak on COVID response, strong on democracy
  4. Economy: America's labor shortage is bigger than the pandemic— — CDC COVID guidance for cruise ships to be optional starting Saturday — The cost of testing.
  5. States: West Virginia governor feeling "extremely unwell" after positive test — Youngkin ends mandates for masks in schools and COVID vaccinations for state workers — America struggles to keep schools open
  6. World: Beijing reports first local Omicron case weeks before Winter Olympics — Teachers in France stage mass walkout over COVID protocols.
  7. Variant tracker