The US remains committed to preventing Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons, President Joe Biden said in a White House meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, touting “other options” if diplomacy with Tehran fails.
Despite his opposition to Washington’s efforts to revive the Iran nuclear deal, Bennett said he was “happy” with Biden’s statement in a sign of bridging the gap between the Israeli and American approaches to Tehran.
Speaking to reporters ahead of the talks at the White House on Friday, Biden voiced “unwavering commitment” to Israel’s security.
“We’re also going to discuss the threat from Iran and our commitment to ensure Iran never develops a nuclear weapon,” Biden said.
“We’re putting diplomacy first and seeing where that takes us. But if diplomacy fails, we’re ready to turn to other options.”
Bennett, like his predecessor Benjamin Netanyahu, has been an outspoken opponent of the multilateral nuclear deal with Tehran.
Still, he welcomed Biden’s remarks, underlining the US president’s reference to alternative policies to diplomacy.
“I was happy to hear your clear words that Iran will never be able to acquire a nuclear weapon and to emphasise that we’ll try the diplomatic route, but there’s other options,” the Israeli premier said.
Iran responded to Biden’s “illegal threat” against another country by warning of its “right to reciprocal response to ‘available options’.”
The Iran deal
The two leaders were set to meet on Thursday, but their bilateral talks were postponed as Biden turned his attention to Afghanistan after a bombing outside the airport in Kabul killed about 175 people, including 13 US service members.
The White House said Biden spoke by phone to Bennett to “thank him for his willingness to postpone their meeting in light of the terror attacks in Kabul”.
Iran appeared to be the top item in the bilateral discussions on Friday.
The nuclear agreement, signed in 2015, saw Iran scale back its nuclear programme in exchange for lifting sanctions against its economy.
Former President Donald Trump nixed the agreement in 2018 and started a maximum pressure campaign of sanctions against Iran.
Tehran retaliated by loosening its commitments to the pact, including by increasing uranium enrichment levels, shortening the time it would need to develop a nuclear weapon.
Iranian leaders stress that they are seeking nuclear technology for peaceful purposes and are not looking to acquire nuclear weapons. Israel’s critics often point out that the country has its own nuclear arsenal, and unlike Iran, it is not a party to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT).
On Friday, Bennett called Iran the top exporter of “terror, instability and human rights violations”.
“We’ve developed a comprehensive strategy that we’re going to be talking about with two goals,” he said.
“The first goal is to stop Iran on its regional aggression and start rolling it back into the box. And the second is to permanently keep Iran away from ever being able to break out the nuclear weapon.”
As a candidate, Biden promised to restore the agreement. But six rounds of indirect talks with the Iranian government in Vienna failed to produce a path back into the deal.
Talks have been paused since June with the election of conservative President Ebrahim Raisi whose cabinet was approved by the parliament on Wednesday.
Earlier this week, Washington said it is still seeking a return to the deal, formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA).
“We have made very clear that it remains profoundly in our national interest to seek to effect a mutual return to compliance of the JCPOA,” State Department spokesman Ned Price said.
No mention of Palestinians
Bennett, who has long opposed Palestinian statehood, did not mention Palestine or Palestinians once. He had said early in the week that he would not revive peace talks with Palestinians.
A former settler himself, he also ruled out a freeze on settlement activity.
“This government will neither annex nor form a Palestinian state,” Bennett told the New York Times before arriving in Washington, DC.
For his part, Biden said relations with Palestinians would be on the agenda for the meeting.
“We’re also going to discuss ways to advance peace and security and prosperity for Israelis and Palestinians,” the US president said.
Khalil Jahshan, executive director of the Arab Center Washington DC, a think-tank, said the failure to mention Palestinians shows that the Palestine issue is not on Bennett’s political or moral radar.
“He has made it very clear before he left his country that he’s against a two-state solution; he’s against a Palestinian state; he’s against freezing settlements – three issues that are part and parcel of the core of the Biden approach to the Palestinians,” Jahshan told Al Jazeera.
While some advocates for the Palestinian cause may have hoped from pressure from Biden against Bennett, Jahshan said, the administration has its plate full with other priorities, chiefly Afghanistan.
“Some people were hoping that during this visit there would be some serious give and take. But again, Afghanistan came to the rescue, and the agenda shifted; it was diluted,” he said.