Oct 13, 2021

Axios from Tel Aviv

Welcome back to Axios from Tel Aviv.

  • Every Wednesday we bring you my best scoops, reporting from a contributor in the region and the latest from Israel.
  • Today's edition (1,897 words, 7.5 minutes) comes to you from Washington. I'm here covering Foreign Minister Yair Lapid's visit.
1 big thing: Biden's new Iran dilemma

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 tell me.

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 me.

  • 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 me.
  • 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 me: "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.

2. Biden administration leans into Abraham Accords

Yair Lapid (R) meets with Kamala Harris (L). Photo: Jim Watson/AFP via Getty

The trilateral meeting this morning between Secretary of State Antony Blinken and the foreign ministers of Israel and the United Arab Emirates epitomized the Biden administration's belated embrace of the Abraham Accords.

Why it matters: The normalization deals struck between Israel and four Arab countries were Donald Trump's landmark foreign policy achievement, and while the Biden administration said has long said it wants to push them forward, it has only recently started taking steps in that direction.

  • Senior administration officials were reluctant at first to use the term "Abraham Accords," which is so closely associated with Trump.
  • But since the first anniversary in September, the administration has not only been discussing the accords but celebrating them.

The state of play: Blinken held a virtual meeting last month with his Israeli, Emirati, Bahraini and Moroccan counterparts to commemorate the anniversary.

  • U.S. diplomats also joined a public visit by the Israeli and Bahraini foreign ministers to the headquarters of the 5th fleet in Manama, and the U.S. charge d’affaires in Jerusalem spoke alongside Jared Kushner at an event to celebrate the accords at the Israeli Knesset.

Between the lines: Israeli and Emirati officials think the Biden administration is trying to counter the narrative that it is disengaging from the region, particularly after the withdrawal from Afghanistan.

  • "They understood it can be a win for them after Afghanistan," an Israeli official told me, noting that the accords provide a positive agenda in the region.

Driving the news: The issue of strengthening the Abraham Accords and getting more countries to join featured prominently in the meetings Lapid had on Tuesday with Vice President Kamala Harris and National Security adviser Jake Sullivan.

  • The main action item out of today's trilateral meeting was the formation of two trilateral teams, one on promoting religious coexistence and the other on cooperation in water and energy.

What’s next: The Biden administration is trying to get Sudan to sign a normalization agreement with Israel that has been sitting on the shelf for months. Sudan's domestic political crisis is holding up progress for now.

3. Iraq's elections boost al-Sadr

Al-Sadr supporters celebrate in Baghdad. Photo: Ayman Yaqoob/Anadolu Agency via Getty

Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr has emerged from Sunday's parliamentary elections as the leading figure in Iraqi politics, Mustafa Alrawi, assistant editor-in-chief of The National newspaper, writes from Abu Dhabi.

Why it matters: Al-Sadr has positioned himself as a bulwark against foreign interference in Iraq. He has a history of violent opposition to U.S. forces in the country but has more recently proved adept at presenting himself to regional and international partners as a more palatable alternative to pro-Iranian rivals.

  • He is arguably the most successful opportunist of the post-Saddam Hussein era, rising over the last 18 years from relative obscurity to nationalist kingmaker.

The state of play: Turnout is estimated at just 41% of registered voters, and would be lower still if all eligible voters were included. Millions chose to boycott, and young Iraqis are particularly disillusioned.

  • The vote had been brought forward after mass protests against corruption, poor public services and Tehran’s interference in Iraqi affairs.

Breaking it down: Preliminary results showed al-Sadr's bloc winning at least 73 seats in the 329-member parliament.

  • The Iran-aligned Fatah Alliance, made up of Shiite militias, won just 14 seats, down from 48 in 2018. That could be viewed as a rejection of Iranian influence and of the militias' violent opposition to the protests. The head of the alliance rejected the results.
  • Al-Sadr is a rival of the Fatah Alliance and positions himself in opposition to Iran’s influence over the Shiite political class. But Nouri al-Maliki, the Iran-aligned former prime minister, also had a strong performance, complicating the prospects for a Shiite alliance.
  • A coalition led by Sunni parliamentary speaker Mohammed al-Halbousi won 38 seats, making it potentially the second-largest bloc in parliament. Kurdish parties won 61 seats.

What’s next: Official final results are also still pending with votes still to be counted and seats to be determined. Although this is unlikely to change al-Sadr’s position, the delay increases the already charged atmosphere. 

  • There is a real risk of intra-Shiite tensions spilling into violence on the streets as groups jockey amid negotiations to form a government and choose a prime minister, which could take several months.
  • Prime Minister Mustafa Al Kadhimi did not run in the elections, though he could still potentially retain his job. Under his leadership, Iraq has taken on a mediator role for the region, and the choice of prime minister will influence whether that continues.

Of note: The Iraqi government has denied reports that the commander of Iran's IRGC Quds Force, Esmail Qaani, made a secret visit to Baghdad on Monday. Tehran will be keen to massage any disputes between parties loyal to it.

4. Netanyahu's message to Putin: I'll be back soon

Netanyahu (L) with Putin in 2019. Photo: Alexander Zemlianichenko/AFP via Getty

Days after being ousted as prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu passed a message to Russian President Vladimir Putin promising a quick comeback, a source close to Netanyahu and a European diplomat told me.

Why it matters: Netanyahu and Putin had a close relationship that grew even closer after Russia began its military involvement in Syria in 2015.

  • Netanyahu flaunted that relationship during election campaigns — meeting with Putin days before the 2019 vote and even featuring a picture of the two together on a campaign billboard to emphasize his stature as a statesman.

Behind the scenes: Shortly after Naftali Bennett was sworn in as prime minister on June 13, the Russian ambassador to Israel, Anatoly Viktorov, visited Netanyahu bearing a personal letter from Putin which described their time working together.

  • Netanyahu read the letter and told the Russian ambassador: “Tell President Putin I will be back soon," the sources say.
  • Flash forward: Bennett will meet Putin next Friday in Sochi, the Kremlin has announced. This will be their first meeting and will focus on Iran and Syria, according to Israeli officials.
  • What they're saying: “We try not to compare Mr. Netanyahu to the current Prime Minister because Netanyahu worked with President Putin for lots of years and they knew each other very well and it takes time to develop new personal relationships," Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told i24News.

The state of play: Netanyahu has not been able to destabilize Bennett's government, which appears on course to pass a budget in early November and thus buy itself another 18 months in power.

  • Internal dissent is growing in Netanyahu's Likud party, but he remains highly popular with the party faithful and Likud has been ticking upward in the polls while in opposition.
5. Top State Dept. official visits battered Beirut

Blackout in Beirut. Photo: AFP via Getty

Under Secretary of State Victoria Nuland arrived today in Beirut for talks with Lebanese officials amid an escalating economic and energy crisis.

Why it matters: Lebanon has suffered through several total blackouts in recent days and the economic crisis shows no signs of abating. Nuland, the first U.S. official to visit since Lebanon's new government was formed last month, is expected to push for economic reforms as a condition for receiving international assistance, sources briefed on the issue tell me.

Between the lines: She arrived just six days after Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian, and her visit is being portrayed in the Lebanese press as part of a U.S.-Iran competition for influence in Lebanon.

  • Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah is pushing the Lebanese government to agree to Iranian proposals for assistance. Hezbollah managed to get two fuel shipments from Iran which violated international sanctions.
  • Abdollahian said during his trip to Beirut that Iran was ready to send more fuel to Lebanon and also build power plants.

On the other hand, the U.S. and several of its Arab partners are pushing a plan to send natural gas to Lebanon from Egypt, through Jordan and Syria, as an alternative to the Iranian fuel.

What’s next: The commander of the Lebanese armed forces, Gen. Joseph Aoun, is expected to visit Washington later this month.

  • Meanwhile, State Department energy envoy Amos Hochstein will travel to Israel and Lebanon next week to discuss the possibility of renewing talks over a maritime border dispute that has major implications for gas exploration.