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Israeli PM will press Biden to prioritize Iran in White House visit

Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett will introduce a new Iran policy when he meets with President Biden on Thursday.

Why it matters: With nuclear talks stalled and the White House consumed by the crisis in Afghanistan, Israeli officials worry that Iran will continue to develop its nuclear program without any pressure from the U.S. or its European allies.

The state of play: Efforts to return to the nuclear deal are now in limbo with a new hardline government in Tehran and no talks for several weeks.

  • Israeli officials worry that the U.S. and its European allies aren't working on a "Plan B" should diplomacy fail.
  • Bennett's government feels that a return to the 2015 deal is already useless because the Iranian advances in enrichment and nuclear research and development will mean a revived deal won't provide the same non-proliferation benefits, an Israeli official told reporters on Thursday.
  • Bennett intends to register those concerns while also signaling a break from his predecessor Benjamin Netanyahu's policies.

What they're saying: “We got a very difficult inheritance from the previous government about Iran. After all of the rhetoric (by Netanyahu), Iran is closer than ever to a nuclear weapon. There was a disconnect between the previous government’s rhetoric and the results," the Israeli official said.

  • The new Israeli government has just completed an Iran policy review and developed "a holistic strategy" to deal with Iran’s uranium enrichment, nuclear weaponization efforts and regional aggression, the official said.
  • It's unclear exactly how the policy differs from Netanyahu's, though Bennett has been far more cautious about picking a public fight with the U.S. administration.

Driving the news: Bennett will arrive in Washington on Tuesday evening for his first visit as prime minister.

  • He faces growing criticism at home for his handling of COVID-19. President Biden, meanwhile, is focused on the Afghanistan crisis.
  • Bennett wanted to make the trip now, despite those challenges, because of the sense of urgency around Iran's nuclear acceleration in recent months, the Israeli official said.

When efforts to arrange the meeting began, it appeared that a U.S. return to the 2015 nuclear deal was imminent. That seems increasingly unlikely under Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi, according to the official.

  • Bennett believes there is now an opportunity for the U.S., Israel and other regional players to work together to counter Iran, the official noted.
  • What's next: “The Prime Minister is not automatically continuing with the past policies regarding Iran. The enrichment rate is at a worrying and concerning pace. Iranian aggression is everywhere. This will be the heart of the discussion with the president," the official said.

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