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Bennett and Biden. Photo: Sarahbeth Maney/Pool/Getty Images

The U.S. and Israel held secret talks on Iran last week to discuss a possible “plan B” if nuclear talks are not resumed, two senior Israeli officials tell me.

Why it matters: This is the first time a top-secret U.S.-Israel strategic working group on Iran has convened since the new Israeli government took office in June.

Driving the news: The meeting last week was held via a secure video conference call and led by national security adviser Jake Sullivan and his Israeli counterpart, Eyal Hulata.

  • The Israeli side stressed the need to move ahead with a “plan B” on Iran due to the stalemate in diplomatic talks and Iran's nuclear acceleration.
  • The U.S. side stressed that it was also concerned about the stalemate and said the U.S. would impose additional sanctions on Iran if talks don't resume soon, an Israeli official told me.
  • A White House spokesperson told Axios that the U.S. "remains engaged in ongoing consultations with the Israeli government on a range of issues related to the challenge posed by Iran."

Flashback: The working group, code-named “Opal” (Leshem in Hebrew), was established in the early days of the Obama administration and was headed by the national security advisers on both sides.

  • It was the main venue for strategizing over how to apply pressure on Iran during Obama’s first term, and it became the primary setting to air disagreements about the nuclear deal during Obama’s second term.
  • During Donald Trump's tenure, the forum convened to discuss the U.S. withdrawal from the nuclear deal and to coordinate the "maximum pressure" campaign.
  • In February, when Benjamin Netanyahu was still prime minister, the Biden administration proposed that the forum reconvene, and the group met in March and April.
  • When Prime Minister Naftali Bennett visited the White House last month, he and President Biden agreed to resume the working group.

What’s next: A spokesperson for Iran's Foreign Ministry said on Tuesday that Iran would be ready to resume Vienna nuclear talks in a few weeks.

  • They have stalled under Iran's new hardline administration, which says it will scrap the draft agreement reached before the Iranian elections and take a tougher stand.
  • Iranian foreign minister Hussein Amir Abdollahian met on Tuesday in New York with the EU's top diplomat, Josep Borrell, and will meet this week with the foreign ministers of Germany, France and the U.K. to discuss a possible resumption of the Vienna talks.

Go deeper

Oct 27, 2021 - World

Scoop: Blinken protests Israel settlements approval in "tense" phone call

Benny Gantz (L) and Tony Blinken. Photo: Jacquelyn Martin/Pool/AFP via Getty

Secretary of State Tony Blinken protested the decision to approve 3,000 new housing units in Israeli settlements in the occupied West Bank during a tense phone call on Tuesday with Israeli Defense Minister Benny Gantz, three Israeli officials tell me.

Why it matters: This is the first time new construction in the settlements has been approved since President Biden assumed office, and the Biden administration had been privately pressing the Israeli government not to proceed.

23 hours ago - World

Putin seeks Israel's help in easing U.S. sanctions on Syria

Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett (L) and Russian President Vladimir Putin in Sochi. Photo: Yevgeny Biyatov/Sputnik/AFP via Getty Images

Russian President Vladimir Putin asked Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett to encourage the Biden administration to ease some of its sanctions on Syria in order to allow Russian companies to take part in the reconstruction of the country, Israeli officials briefed on the talks tell me.

The big picture: The U.S. Caesar Act, which was signed into law by President Trump in Dec. 2019, imposed sanctions on several sectors of the Syrian economy, including energy and infrastructure. The law is the main deterrent for foreign companies interested in getting involved in the Syria reconstruction effort.

Oct 26, 2021 - World

Scoop: Biden administration objects to Israeli settlements plan

Israeli PM Naftali Bennett (L) meets with Secretary of State Tony Blinken. Photo: Olivier Douliery/Pool/AFP via Getty

The Biden administration has privately protested to the Israeli government over its plan to approve the planning and construction of more than 3,000 new housing units in the Israeli settlements in the occupied West Bank, sources briefed on the issue tell me.

Why it matters: The approvals for new homes in the settlements will be the first since President Biden assumed office, and come after Biden and his top aides personally pressed Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett to restrain settlement activity and decrease the number of new housing units.