Blinken tries to calm allies ahead of possible Iran deal

JERUSALEM (AP) — U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken on Sunday tried to soothe the fears of Israel and its Gulf Arab allies ahead of the possible renewal of global powers’ international nuclear deal with Iran.

Blinken made the comments shortly before joining his counterparts from Israel and four Arab countries at a special gathering where the Iranian nuclear deal was expected to top the agenda. Israel and many of its neighbors are fiercely opposed to the deal, which they believe with embolden and enrich Iran.

“When it comes to the most important element, we see eye-to-eye,” Blinken told a news conference with Israeli Foreign Minister Yair Lapid in Jerusalem. “We are both committed, both determined that Iran will never acquire a nuclear weapon.”

The Biden administration has been working to renew the 2015 nuclear deal, which placed curbs on Iran’s nuclear program in exchange for billions of dollars in sanctions relief. With support from Israel, the Trump administration withdrew from the deal in 2018, causing it to unravel.

Although Iran has since raced ahead with its nuclear program, Israel and Gulf Arab countries are deeply concerned about restoring the original deal. Israel fears it does not include enough safeguards to prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons. Both Israel and its Gulf allies also believe that relief from economic sanctions will allow Iran to step up its military activities across the region, including support for hostile militant groups.

Blinken said the U.S. believes that restoring the nuclear deal “is the best way to put Iran’s program back in the box it was in.” He added: “Our commitment to the core principle of Iran never acquiring a nuclear weapon is unwavering.”

He also vowed to cooperate with Israel to counter Iran’s “aggressive behavior” across the region.

It remains unclear if or when the nuclear deal will be renewed, but there are indications it could be soon despite several last-minute snags. The negotiations have been complicated by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Russia is among the six global powers negotiating with Iran, and condemnations by the U.S. and other western powers involved in the talks have added an element of uncertainty to the talks.

If a deal is reached, Israel has repeatedly noted that it is not a party to the agreement and reserves the right to take action, including a potential military strike, against Iran if it feels it is necessary.

“Israel and the United States will continue to work together to prevent a nuclear Iran. At the same time, Israel will do anything we believe is needed to stop the Iranian nuclear program. Anything,” Lapid said. “From our point of view the Iranian threat is not theoretical. The Iranians want to destroy Israel. They will not succeed, we will not let them.”

Underscoring regional anxieties, Israel’s government has hastily arranged a meeting of top diplomats from Arab countries that have normalized relations with Israel and Blinken. The two-day gathering is set to begin later Sunday at a kibbutz in the Negev Desert.

In addition to Blinken and Israeli Foreign Minister Yair Lapid, their counterparts from Bahrain, Morocco, the United Arab Emirates and Egypt will attend. All four countries are considered moderate Sunni Muslim nations that have deep concerns about Iranian activity across the region.

Meanwhile, U.S. preoccupation with Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and bolstering NATO’s presence in Eastern Europe has fueled concerns throughout the Middle East that America’s attention may be stretched thin.

It remained unclear whether any decisions would emerge from the diplomatic gathering. But for Israel, hosting such a gathering itself is a significant accomplishment. Egypt is the first Arab country to make peace with Israel, while the other three nations normalized relations with Israel in 2020 in the so-called Abraham Accords brokered by the Trump administration.

“For those who weren’t paying attention, the foreign relations of Israel are in a good period,” Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett told a Cabinet meeting on Sunday. “Israel is an important player on the world stage, and we are cultivating old connections and building new bridges.”

Yoel Guzansky, a senior researcher at the Institute for National Security Studies, a Tel Aviv think tank, said the meeting was truly historic by bringing together four Arab four ministers to Israel for a public, high-level gathering for the first time. He said it cemented Israel’s new role as a key regional player and bridge between the Arab world and the U.S., with shared concerns about Iran and the expected nuclear deal as the common denominator.

“This is quite remarkable, five of them in the same place at the same time on the eve of signing a deal with Iran,” Guzansky said. “This is the significance.”

He said the talks would likely focus heavily on how the region will look after a nuclear deal that the allies dislike is signed.

“I think there’s a lot to talk about,” he said. “It’s not a secret that the allies want something in return from the U.S. They see the upcoming deal with Iran as bad.”

He said each country would be looking for different things, whether it be security guarantees, weapons systems, intelligence or diplomatic support.

“Each country has its own wish list, but the common denominator is Iran,” he said.

While Iran may be the issue of most immediate concern to Israel and its neighbors, the war in Ukraine and efforts to persuade Russian President Vladimir Putin to end the invasion loom large.

That conflict has roiled world energy markets, leading the U.S. and Europe to appeal to Arab and other major oil suppliers to step up production. The war may also soon result in major food security challenges, particularly across the Middle East, which imports vast quantities of wheat from Ukraine.

Bennett has presented himself as a mediator between Putin, Ukraine and the West but his discussions with the Russian leader have yet to bear fruit. U.S, officials say Blinken plans to discuss possible roles that Israel, which has concerns about the Russian presence in its northern neighbor Syria, could play.

Israel has walked a fine line between Russia and Ukraine since hostilities began last month. Bennett has expressed support for the Ukrainian people but stopped short of condemning Russia’s invasion. Lapid has been much more outspoken in his criticism of Russia, giving Bennett some space to continue his mediation efforts.

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Associated Press writer Josef Federman in Jerusalem contributed to this report.

Copyright © 2022 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, written or redistributed.

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