US seeks to reassure Israel on Iran talks in high-level meetings this week

Rob Malley had 'excellent' meetings in Israel, as deputy secretary Wendy Sherman received her Israeli equivalent in Washington

ROME, ITALY - NOVEMBER 30: Robert Malley, Vice President for Policy of the International Crisis Group speaks during the Forum MED Mediterranean Dialogues summit in Rome, Italy on November 30, 2017. (Photo by Riccardo De Luca/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
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US special envoy on Iran Rob Malley has held "excellent" meetings in Israel, the State Department said on Monday, in a visit to address Israeli concerns and differences with Washington over the resumption of talks with Iran this month.

Mr Malley, who arrived in Israel on Monday for his first visit since he took the position in June, met Israeli Foreign Minister Yair Lapid and Defence Minister Benny Gantz, and is expected to meet Mossad chief David Barnea.

State Department spokesman Ned Price said the meetings were heavily focused on the Iran talks.

“As we prepare for the resumption of those talks, a seventh round in Vienna, this is an opportunity to compare notes and to prepare,” Mr Price said on Monday.

Negotiations between Iran and world powers are expected to resume in Austria on November 29, in a bid to restore compliance with the nuclear deal.

Israeli news website Ynet reported that Mr Lapid had told the US envoy Iran has no intention of returning to the nuclear deal it signed in 2015, which the US abandoned in 2018 under former president Donald Trump.

The administration of President Joe Biden has been trying to revive the agreement but talks froze in June after the victory of hard-line politician Ebrahim Raisi in Iran's presidential election.

The Raisi government has insisted that lifting sanctions was a condition for any return to the deal, while the US has called for an end of Tehran’s breaches of the nuclear agreement before any economic relief.

Iran has increased its uranium enrichment levels to 60 per cent from 20 per cent in recent months. It has also restricted access to inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency into its plants.

US ambassador to the UN Linda Thomas-Greenfield is also visiting Israel and met Prime Minister Naftali Bennett on Monday. Mr Bennett took a subtle jab at the UN during the meeting.

“There’s such a stark contrast between the reality on the ground here and what one might hear in the corridors of the United Nations,” he said.

At the State Department, US deputy secretary Wendy Sherman hosted Israeli deputy foreign minister Idan Roll in a meeting that also discussed the resumption of indirect US negotiations with Iran.

Ms Sherman was the principal negotiator of the deal during the administration of president Barack Obama.

Experts regarded the meetings as a US attempt to assuage Israeli fears over the Vienna talks and avoid a wedge in the relationship.

Ryan Bohl, a Middle East expert at the intelligence firm Stratfor, said there were differences between US and Israel on the issue.

“There is some daylight between them – that is, the Israelis under a new government are still worried the United States will not enact a strong enough deal with Iran to restrain Tehran’s regional behaviour, which directly threatens Israel,” Mr Bohl told The National.

Other disagreements relate to sanctions relief Iran would acquire from a return to the deal, and the sunset clause.

But despite these differences and Israel’s reservations about the US approach, Mr Bohl did not foresee a public confrontation between Washington and its closest Middle East ally over the issue.

“The Israeli government is aware that the diplomatically cheaper option is to watch negotiations go forward rather than publicly attempt to scuttle them,” he said.

“They'd prefer either the talks to fail on their own or they'll focus on follow-on talks should a new deal be made, all while continuing Israel’s covert war against Iran.”

Mr Malley is also visiting the UAE, Saudi Arabia and Bahrain on this trip.

Updated: November 15, 2021, 11:07 PM