Israeli officials believe U.S. National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan's visit to Israel this week will offer a window of opportunity to reorient the United States' approach to Iran, ahead of the resumption of nuclear talks this weekend.
A few days after the seventh round of talks between Iran and the powers in Vienna failed to make any progress, Israel considers Sullivan the person who could shift the American strategy towards Iran, as he is considered well-liked and respected by senior Israeli leaders.
“The United States is embarrassed,” said a senior Israeli official. “They were surprised by Iran’s decision to toughen their positions in the last round and by Iran’s list of demands. The administration approached the talks in Vienna without having a clear alternate plan in case the negotiations failed. It is too early to know where things will progress from here.”
Alongside his official and senior position, Israeli leaders think Sullivan is sharp, experienced, and has a central and influential role in U.S. foreign policy. “He is the strong man in the administration today,” said a senior Israeli official.
“Sullivan is brilliant, understands the material concerning Israel in every way, and is very attentive to our needs,” said another senior Israeli official.
On Wednesday, Sullivan is scheduled to hold a marathon meeting with Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, Foreign Minister Yair Lapid and Defense Minister Benny Gantz, among others.
Israeli officials' affection for Sullivan’s attentiveness is increasing, in part due to what Israel sees as President Joe Biden and Secretary of State Antony Blinken's diplomatic weakness, and their desire to divert the United States' foreign policy focus from the Middle East to China and other regions.
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Officials involved in the negotiations held over the past few weeks told Haaretz that Russia and China, which showed a more moderate approach toward Iran the entire time, have now toughened their stances behind the scenes given Iran’s new demands.
“Iran, in the positions it presented, has pushed Russia and China into the same square where the United States and European countries are,” said one of the officials.
In recent weeks Gantz, Lapid, Mossad chief David Barnea and other senior Israeli officials have pressured their American counterparts to retreat from negotiations with Iran, and make the economic sanctions on Iran stricter – and also threaten a far-reaching military operation in an attempt to convince the regime in Tehran to stop its nuclear program.
Israel hopes that Sullivan’s visit will signal a pivot in American policy on the issue and believes the failure of the Vienna talks is an opportunity to influence the international community to change its approach.
When Robert Malley, the U.S. special envoy for Iran, visited Israel in November, just before the Iran talks restarted, Bennett chose not to meet with him.
“Bennett isn’t boycotting Malley,” an official close to him said at the time. “He thinks that returning to negotiations is not the right step, and Malley is leading this approach in the American administration.”
In the end, Malley met with Gantz and Lapid. A senior diplomat backed Bennett’s decision at the time, saying he thought it would not have any real influence on U.S. relations.
Dennis Ross, who served as the Middle East peace envoy in the Clinton administration, says Israel is so fond of Sullivan mostly because of his willingness to listen to the Israeli side with an open mind.
“He’s a very good listener,” said Ross. “There’s a sense that he always gave Israeli officials a real chance to express their views, and the way he would interact with them demonstrated he understood what they were saying. It didn’t mean he always necessarily agreed, but he understood it. Israelis in the security area want to get a sense that they got a genuine hearing. Not a polite one, not a perfunctory one but a genuine one. He always conveyed that he genuinely wanted to hear what they had to say.”
“Rob Malley is seen through a lens of a lot of his previous experience. He worked in the International Crisis Group, where he had responsibilities to deal with a lot of actors, including Hamas,” added Ross.
“So, there was a sense, even quite apart from the JCPOA [nuclear agreement with Iran], they perceive him to have a bent toward always trying to resolve things diplomatically, even when Israelis think there isn’t a diplomatic answer to it."
“The Israelis need a better appreciation that Rob is not a free agent. He obviously has a voice and an important input, but he’s carrying out the policies of the administration.
There should be a bit more caution in terms of how he is being read. It’s not easy because this is a perception that’s been built up over time. The most important thing ultimately, on the Israeli side, is going to be seeing what the administration does. Even if there’s greater receptivity and a certain comfort level with Jake, it’ll depend on what the administration does,” Ross said.
Even though public statements indicate the talks are supposed to reconvene this weekend, or at the very latest at the beginning of January, Israeli officials now expect the parties will not return to the original 2015 deal, in part because it will no longer be valid anyway: Iran is expected to pass the technological threshold the agreement was meant to prevent at the end of January or in early February; while the list of demands Iran has presented will require much more time to discuss.
An American government official has said decisions will have to be made on the agreement with Iran by the end of the first quarter of 2022.
Israeli officials are now afraid of an American initiative that Sullivan has already brought up in his talks to promote a partial and interim agreement with Iran: “less for less,” in which some sanctions would be lifted in return for partial agreements by Iran to stop enriching uranium, renewing oversight or committing to stopping some nuclear research and development activities for a limited period of time.
Iran has expressed its opposition to this in the past.
The second possibility is that the talks blow up, leading to a controlled crisis with Iran that could very well last for a long time. This could ultimately bring Iran back to the negotiating table, and cause it to show more flexibility.
Ahead of Sullivan's departure, a senior Biden administration official highlighted Sullivan's “pretty extraordinary partnership” with his Israeli counterpart, Eyal Hulata, noting their regular engagement and discussions about incredibly difficult policy questions. “The two are in regular, really weekly contact. Having been a part of these discussions, the dialogue has been honest, constructive, open. These are not officials exchanging talking points, it's truly a genuine dialogue between partners,” the official said.
The official described Israel and the U.S. as “totally aligned determination to ensure Iran can never acquire nuclear weapons,” adding that the visit will “be a good opportunity to sit down face-to-face and talk about the state of the talks, the timeframe in which we're working. We don't have much time.”