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Blinken and Biden at the State Department. Photo: Saul Loeb/AFP via Getty

Israeli national security adviser Meir Ben-Shabbat told his U.S. counterpart Jake Sullivan in a secure video call two weeks ago that Israel thinks Iran's nuclear program should be dealt with separately from its regional activity in future negotiations, two sources briefed on the call tell me.  

Why it matters: While many critics of the 2015 Iran nuclear deal note that it did nothing to curtail Iran's aggression in the region, Israel is concerned that linking the two issues will give American and European negotiators incentives to compromise on limitations to Iran's nuclear program.

The state of play: The Biden administration says it'll return the U.S. to the 2015 nuclear deal by lifting sanctions if Iran returns to compliance by reversing its recent nuclear steps.

  • The main sticking point is the sequencing those moves. The U.S. offered last week to open direct talks to work through those issues, but Iran has not formally responded.
  • Between the lines: Some in the Biden administration want to push for a broader and longer-lasting deal now — with Iran's regional behavior and its missile program on the table — but Biden's stated objective is to restore the 2015 deal and use it as a platform for further negotiations.

Driving the news: Ben-Shabbat told Sullivan in their call on February 11 that there shouldn't be an attempt to balance non-nuclear steps from Iran — curbing its presence in Syria, for example — with nuclear limitations like those on research and development on advanced centrifuges.

  • Ben-Shabbat said Israel's position is that Iran's nuclear program is an existential threat and must be dealt with first, and the lesser threat of Iran's regional behavior should be dealt with on a separate track, the sources say.
  • The Israeli national security adviser added that a nuclear-armed Iran wouldn't abide by any regional commitments anyway.

Worth noting: In the last month there have been many contacts on Iran between the Biden administration and the Israeli government.

  • Israeli officials tell me they are generally satisfied with what they describe as the Biden administration's constructive approach and willingness to listen to Israel’s concerns.
  • Secretary of State Tony Blinken have spoken three times with Israeli Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi — more than with any other foreign counterpart. Blinken also discussed Iran with Yossi Cohen, the director of the Mossad intelligence agency.

The latest: On Wednesday, I reported that Israel and the U.S. agreed to reconvene a strategic working group on Iran, with the first round of talks on intelligence surrounding the Iranian nuclear program expected in the coming days.

Go deeper

Feb 24, 2021 - World

Scoop: U.S. and Israel to convene strategic forum on Iran

Biden and Netanyahu in Jerusalem in 2016. Photo: Debbie Hill/AFP via Getty

The United States and Israel have elected to reconvene a strategic working group on Iran, with the first round of talks on intelligence surrounding the Iranian nuclear program expected in the coming days, Axios has learned.

Why it matters: President Biden and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu have sharply contrasting views of the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, but the resumption of the working group is a signal that their governments are starting with a serious and professional dialogue rather than a political fight.

Feb 24, 2021 - World

Scoop: Netanyahu asked Biden to keep Trump's sanctions on International Criminal Court

ICC chief prosecutor Fatou Bensouda. Photo: Bas Czerwinski/ANP/AFP via Getty

Netanyahu asked Biden in their first phone call last week to keep sanctions imposed by the Trump administration on the International Criminal Court (ICC) in place, Israeli officials tell me.

Why it matters: Israeli officials are concerned that removing the sanctions would hamper Israel's efforts to stop a potential war crimes investigation into Israel, and that the court's prosecutor could see it as a signal that the U.S. isn't firmly opposed to that investigation.

Feb 24, 2021 - Politics & Policy

Scoop: Biden will call Saudi king ahead of damning report

King Salman speaks during the 2020 U.N. General Assembly. Photo: Tiffany Hagler-Geard/Bloomberg via Getty Images

President Biden plans to call Saudi Arabia’s King Salman on Wednesday, ahead of the public release of a potentially damning intelligence report about the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, a source briefed on the call told Axios.

Why it matters: The call, if it happens as scheduled, will be Biden’s first conversation as president with the Saudi king. While they are likely to discuss a range of issues, the conversation will be colored by the imminent release of the explosive report expected to involve one of the monarch's sons.