Middle East

Gallant, Austin talk upping cooperation on Iran as US said close to interim nuke deal

Defense Minister Yoav Gallant and US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin discussed expanding bilateral Israel-US cooperation against Iran in a meeting in Europe on Thursday, as Washington is reported to be closing in on an interim nuclear deal with Tehran that would aim to reduce the risk of military confrontation in the Middle East. These efforts are said to have Israel’s approval.

Gallat and Austin met on the sidelines of a gathering of NATO defense ministers in Brussels on Thursday and agreed to work together to “address the wide range of threats posed by Iran,” according to a readout from the US Department of Defense. These threats include Iran’s “nuclear program, destabilizing regional activities, and proliferation of uncrewed aerial systems and other lethal assistance” to the Middle East and to Russia, which has been deploying Iranian-made attack drones in Ukraine for close to a year.

Hours before the pair sat down, The New York Times reported that the interim deal would see Tehran pledge not to enrich uranium beyond its current level of 60 percent purity, cooperate with nuclear inspectors from the United Nations’ International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), stop its proxy terror groups from attacking US contractors in Iraq and Syria, avoid providing Russia with ballistic missiles and release three American-Iranians held in the Islamic Republic.

In return, Washington would promise not to tighten its existing economic sanctions, unfreeze billions in Iranian assets held abroad alongside assurances that the money will only be used for humanitarian purposes, and not pursue punitive resolutions against the Islamic Republic at the United Nations or at the IAEA.

The “mini-deal” in the works is reportedly one Israel “can live with,” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, a fierce opponent of the 2015 nuclear deal, reportedly told ministers and lawmakers on Tuesday

In an unsourced, unattributed follow-up to the New York Times report, Channel 12 said Israel did not receive some of the details in the report ahead of time but managed to glean information through the negotiations between Washington and Tehran. Unlike the NYT report, which cited three unnamed senior Israeli officials, a US official and several Iranian officials, Channel 12’s report did not cite any.

Iranian-made UAV engines presented at an expo in Iran in October 2014, in an image Israel will present to US officials in Washington on October 26, 2022. (President’s office)

Channel 12 said that not everything published by The NYTimes was accurate, including the paper’s claim that the interim US-Iran deal will allow Iran to enrich uranium up to 60 percent purity. The Israeli TV network asserted that the interim deal will actually only allow Iran to continue enriching up to 20% purity.

Israel is still trying to influence where it can, Channel 12 said.

In his meeting with Austin Thursday, Gallant raised the importance to Israel that the interim deal include a commitment from Iran to cease manufacturing ballistic missiles and attack drones.

Israel is very concerned about this issue and ostensibly worked to leak a story related to these Iranian threats in the UK Jewish Chronicle, Channel 12 said.

That unsourced report stated that scientists at British universities are helping Iran develop drone technology that would allow hundreds of UAVs to operate simultaneously, posing a much more significant threat to Israel.

The Chronicle has in the past published reports revealing details about Iran’s nuclear program as well as Israeli efforts to thwart it and is believed to be a preferred publication of the Israeli defense establishment to leak such information while evading the military censorship rules to which they’d be subject in Israel.

In addition to raising its concerns about Iran’s UAV and ballistic missile programs with the US, Israel is also in talks with British officials to make sure the issue is not neglected in the nuclear talks, Channel 12 said.

A handout picture from Iran’s Defense Ministry shows a 4th generation Khorramshahr ballistic missile being launched at an undisclosed location in Iran, May 25, 2023 (AFP)

The veracity of the network’s claim that the US has not updated Israel on the status of the Iran nuclear talks was also not entirely clear as Biden officials have insisted that they would do so and Netanyahu just this week hailed the defense and intelligence cooperation with the US.

Netanyahu also spoke publicly on Tuesday about Israel’s position regarding a potential interim deal with Iran at a Knesset hearing, indicating that his government is in fact aware of the status of the Iran talks.

In the subsequent private portion of the Knesset’s Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee hearing, Netanyahu informed MKs about the details of a potential nuclear deal between the US and Iran that Israel would be able to accept.

Netanyahu downplayed the US-Iran negotiations as closing in on a “mini-agreement, not an agreement,” reports by Walla and Channel 13 said, citing several unnamed lawmakers who took part in the closed-door, three-hour meeting of the Knesset’s Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee.

“What’s on the agenda at the moment between Washington and Tehran is not a nuclear deal, it’s a mini-deal,” Netanyahu was reported to say. “We will be able to handle it.”

“This isn’t the deal we knew,” the prime minister reportedly said, referring to the 2015 nuclear deal staunchly opposed by Jerusalem, which Washington left in 2018.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (C) addresses a meeting of the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee on June 13, 2023 (Haim Tzach/GPO)

In their Brussels meeting Thursday, Gallant and Austin discussed “opportunities to expand military cooperation to counter regional threats,” the US Defense Department said.

“Secretary Austin noted that increased Iranian-Russian military cooperation is resulting in profoundly negative consequences for Ukraine, as well as the Middle East region, which are being attacked with Iranian-made uncrewed aerial systems,” it added.

For its part, the Israeli readout stressed that the two defense chiefs “discussed the progress in security and military coordination between Israel and the United States regarding the Iranian issue, with the aim of preventing Iran from gaining military nuclear capabilities.”

“Minister Gallant also raised the challenges faced by the State of Israel as a result of Iranian aggression via regional proxies in Syria, Lebanon, Gaza and Judea and Samaria. In this regard, Minister Gallant emphasized the right of the State of Israel to defend itself against any threat,” the Defense Ministry said.

Notably, the US readout included a line about Austin having expressed concern during the meeting “over the deteriorating security situation in the West Bank and [his] encouragement of further cooperation, including via the United States Security Coordinator, to deescalate conflict and reduce tensions.”

“The Secretary emphasized US support for a two-state solution and ways to advance equal measures of freedom, justice, dignity, and prosperity for Israelis and Palestinians,” the Defense Department said, stressing a heavily used Biden administration talking point.

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