Israel took advantage of the recent visit of General Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, to convey various messages to the next Biden government about Iran and other regional developments, senior Israeli officials told me.
Why it matters: Israel is very concerned about President-elect Biden’s plans for Iran and the 2015 nuclear deal, but has not yet opened up direct contacts with the new government. Milley is a potential bridge to the Biden White House because it is expected to remain beyond the transition.
What they are saying: “We wanted to present our case to the new government on Iran through someone who will still be in the room when Biden takes office and will play an important role in any policy review that occurs,” said an Israeli official. .
Driving the news: Milley arrived in Israel last Thursday after visiting several Arab capitals. It was his third visit to the region this year, and it came amid fears of Iranian retaliation for the assassination of Iranian nuclear scientist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh.
- Milley met with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Defense Minister Benny Gantz and the Chief of Staff of the Israeli Defense Forces, General Aviv Kochavi.
Behind the scenes: The Israelis’ main message to Milley was that Biden should not rush into the 2015 agreement, but should take advantage of the fact that Iran is in a weak position, Israeli officials who participated in the negotiations said.
- If Biden does not use the advantage the United States has accumulated through its “maximum pressure” sanctions regime, the Israelis argued, he will find it impossible to make a better deal later.
- “We emphasize that the starting point for any negotiations with Iran is much better for the United States today than it was in 2013. What is needed now is to be tough to get a better deal,” said an Israeli official.
Situation: Biden says he will return to the 2015 agreement if Iran returns to compliance and tries to use it as a platform to negotiate a broader and more lasting agreement. This would require the United States to suspend sanctions and Iran to end its recent nuclear activities.
Milley made it clear that he has not yet had a chance to speak with members of the next government, but said that Biden’s national security team has a pro-engagement approach with Iran, according to an Israeli official.
- Milley even mentioned John Kerry and Susan Rice among those who could influence government thinking about Iran, an Israeli official said, despite the fact that their roles (Kerry as secretary of climate, Rice as head of the Internal Policy Council) did not. have nothing to do with Iran.
The Israelis also told Milley that the next government should be more flexible when it comes to relations with Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, despite concerns over its human rights record, officials said.
- “We think it is important for the next government to maintain the momentum of the normalization process and we think that, at the moment, what it needs to lead US policy is this historic regional opportunity. So we hope that the new government will look at the complexities and not burn the bridges with those countries, “an Israeli official told me.
What is the next: The main political gaps between the Israeli government and the new US administration are likely to lead to tensions. These tensions may increase before Israel’s elections, expected in March, if Netanyahu objects to Biden’s policies as part of his campaign.