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- It's Inauguration Day in the U.S., and we're starting with Iran's plans for engaging with Joe Biden over the nuclear deal (1,882 words, 7 minutes).
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Welcome back to Axios from Tel Aviv.
Khamenei earlier this month. Photo: Handout/Anadolu Agency via Getty
Iran has been accumulating bargaining chips and laying out its strategy for engagement with Joe Biden, who arrives in office promising to return the U.S. to the 2015 nuclear deal if Iran returns to compliance.
Why it matters: Recent statements from Iran's leaders indicate that they're willing to strike such a deal. But the sides differ over who will have to make the first move, and when.
The big picture: Returning to the deal would require Iran to roll back its recent nuclear acceleration and the U.S. to lift sanctions. Biden views that as the baseline from which to negotiate a broader and longer-lasting agreement.
What's happening: Anticipating negotiations, the Iranians have taken or threatened several steps designed to build leverage, most notably by producing 20% enriched uranium in a clear breach of the deal's terms.
Driving the news: In a speech on Jan. 8, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei laid out his position, saying Iran doesn’t trust the U.S. and is in no rush.
In the ensuing days, a series of very senior Iranian officials — all members of a committee that oversees the nuclear deal — echoed that message in “interviews” published on Khamenei’s official website, in what seemed to be an orchestrated show of unity.
What they're saying: The officials repeatedly referred to a "road map" of steps both sides should take. It begins with the U.S. lifting sanctions.
The highest priorities for Iran are the lifting of sanctions on oil exports and the Iranian banking system, as well as the unfreezing of Iranian assets abroad.
After both sides return to compliance, Iran said it is ready for further negotiations on a nuclear deal 2.0.
What's next: Raz Zimmt, an Iran expert at the Israeli Institute for National Security Studies, says the Iranians won't renegotiate the 2015 deal or return to compliance without sanctions relief.
Photo Illustration: Eniola Odetunde/Axios. Photos: Pool, Gali Tibbon/Getty Images
Prime Minister Netanyahu and his main rival, Gideon Saar, will both have Republican strategists running their campaigns ahead of the elections on March 23.
Why it matters: The competition between Netanyahu and Saar’s American advisers will be an extension of the rivalry inside the Republican Party between the pro-Trump and "never Trump" camps.
Driving the news: Saar recruited Republican consultants Steve Schmidt, Rick Wilson, Stuart Stevens and Reed Galen, whose Lincoln Project aimed to push Republican voters away from Donald Trump.
Netanyahu, meanwhile, appointed former Breitbart Jerusalem bureau chief Aaron Klein to run his election campaign. Klein, who has been advising Netanyahu for the last year, worked closely with Steve Bannon during Donald Trump’s 2016 campaign.
Casting a ballot in Gaza in 2006. Photo: Mohammed Abed/AFP via Getty
Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas announced a date for parliamentary and presidential elections for the first time since 2006, in a move Palestinian officials say was intended in part as a goodwill message to the Biden administration, Abdel-Rauf Arnaout, political reporter for Al-Ayyam, writes from Ramallah.
Driving the news: Abbas' decision was also driven by his wish to end the Palestinian split during his tenure, a senior Palestinian official tells me. While his Fatah party controls the West Bank, the Gaza Strip is controlled by bitter rival Hamas.
Flashback: In the 2006 elections for the 132-seat legislative council — which includes members from the West Bank, Gaza Strip and East Jerusalem — Hamas won 74 seats to 45 for Fatah.
What’s next: Representatives from Fatah and Hamas will meet in Cairo next month. One issue Fatah wants to raise is the possibility of running on a joint electoral list with Hamas as well as members from other PLO factions and independents, according to a senior Fatah official.
What to watch: If Israel refuses to allow elections to be held in East Jerusalem — as it did in 1996, 2005 and 2006 — that may be used as an excuse by any of the parties to call off the elections.
Where things stand: Many Palestinians are still skeptical about the elections, saying that though the presidential decree was issued, the devil is in the details.
Netanyahu will be disappointed to see Trump wave goodbye. Photo: Menahem Kahana/AFP via Getty
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu attempted to execute a “Hail Mary” decision to legalize dozens of illegal settler outposts deep in the West Bank one day before Biden’s inauguration. He failed.
Why it matters: The mass legalization of outposts would have been a highly provocative step, broadening Israeli control over land in the West Bank and further reducing the chances of a future peace deal with the Palestinians.
Background: Trump dramatically changed U.S. policy on Israeli settlements in the West Bank, offering them new legitimacy and giving Israel a free hand with regards to settlement activity.
Driving the news: In recent weeks, Netanyahu tried to put several settlement plans in motion before Biden assumes office, knowing it will be more difficult or even impossible later.
Netanyahu resisted the pressure for a time, but he reversed course as part of his efforts to ensure the support of the settler lobby ahead of the March elections.
Worth noting: Last week, the Israeli government approved plans for 800 new housing units in West Bank settlements — half of them in isolated settlements deep in the West Bank.
What to watch: In the coming days, the Biden administration will have to publicly articulate its new policy on Israeli settlements. That could renew tensions with the Israeli government.
Tony Blinken during his confirmation hearing. Photo: Alex Edelman/pool/AFP via Getty
Some quick takeaways from Blinken's confirmation hearing on Tuesday: