The Biden administration and its international partners must “wake up” and rethink negotiations with a dangerous regime in Iran, new Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett said Sunday as he opened his first Cabinet meeting with a harsh rebuke of the U.S.-led push to strike a new nuclear deal with the Islamic republic.
Mr. Bennett made the blunt comments hours after Iranian judiciary chief and hard-liner Ebrahim Raisi was elected as Iran‘s next president.
President Biden and his foreign policy team are widely believed to be racing to secure a nuclear pact with Iran before Mr. Raisi takes office in about six weeks. They fear that new Iranian leadership could scuttle any diplomacy with the U.S. and that relations between the countries could deteriorate further.
Mr. Bennett, though, said the Iranian election should serve as a warning sign, not as a reason for the parties to move faster.
“Raisi’s election as president of Iran is a signal to world powers that they need to wake up,” Mr. Bennett said. “This may be the last signal a moment before returning to the Iran deal. They must understand who they’re doing business with and what kind of regime they are choosing to strengthen.
“A regime of executioners cannot have weapons of mass destruction,” he said.
Mr. Bennett‘s takedown of U.S. diplomatic outreach to Iran echoes the stance of former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who led Israel for 12 years until his ouster this month. The new prime minister formed a broad coalition of ultranationalists, liberals and other parties to push out Mr. Netanyahu.
Mr. Bennett‘s remarks Sunday made clear that Israel’s leadership will maintain steadfast opposition to any agreement involving the U.S., other world powers and Iran, unless the agreement completely dismantles Tehran’s nuclear program and ends its support of terrorism.
Iran is the prime state sponsor of terrorist groups Hezbollah and Hamas, both of which are sworn enemies of Israel. Hamas last month launched an unprecedented campaign of rocket attacks against Israeli civilian targets, leading to an 11-day war with hundreds of deaths.
With stiff Israeli opposition, the Biden administration wants to return to the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), an Obama-era deal signed by the U.S., Iran, Russia, China, Britain, Germany and France. It freed up billions of dollars in frozen Iranian assets in exchange for unprecedented restrictions on Iran‘s nuclear program.
President Trump pulled the U.S. out of the JCPOA in 2018 because, among other things, the deal did not address Iran‘s support of terrorism and contained “sunset” provisions that lifted key limits on Tehran’s nuclear programs by 2030.
In the years since the U.S. exited the pact, Iran‘s behavior has grown more brazen. In addition to financing Hamas and Hezbollah, the Islamic republic backs Houthi rebels battling an internationally recognized government in Yemen, routinely harasses American naval vessels in the Persian Gulf, supports militias in Iraq and Syria that target U.S. military personnel, and is suspected of providing sanctuary to top al Qaeda leaders.
Despite all of that, the Biden administration is forging ahead. White House National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan skirted questions Sunday about whether the administration feels pressure to move quickly and strike a new deal with Iran.
“What we’re intending to do is to reimpose the constraints that put Iran‘s nuclear program in a box,” he told “Fox News Sunday.”
Once the JCPOA is fully resurrected, Mr. Sullivan said, “the idea is to negotiate a follow-on agreement that will make for a longer and stronger agreement.”
Mr. Raisi has been tight-lipped about Iranian-U.S. negotiations since his election victory.
“I hope I can respond well to the people’s confidence, vote and kindness during my term,” he said Saturday.
Mr. Raisi was elected with about 62% of the vote, although turnout across Iran was historically low after calls for a national election boycott. Mr. Raisi already has a strained relationship with Washington. He is under American economic sanctions because of his involvement in the deaths of thousands of Iranian political prisoners in 1988.
Mr. Bennett on Sunday referred to Mr. Raisi as the “hangman of Tehran” and voiced moral objections to the idea of doing business with him.
Mr. Raisi is “infamous among Iranians and across the world for leading the death committees that executed thousands of innocent Iranian citizens throughout the years,” Mr. Bennett said.
It’s unclear whether the U.S. might be willing to lift those sanctions on Mr. Raisi to secure a nuclear deal. Mr. Sullivan would not address that question Sunday.
“The whole question of which sanctions will be lifted is currently being negotiated in Vienna, and I’m not going to conduct those negotiations in public,” Mr. Sullivan told ABC News’ “This Week.”
Mr. Sullivan also sought to downplay Mr. Raisi‘s role in any deal. He said Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran‘s supreme leader, is the one who “will call the shots.”
Other Iranian officials said sticking points remain but it will soon be time to either make a deal or abandon the talks.
“I think time has come for the other parties to make their decision because the stage for negotiations and a possible agreement is fully clear,” Seyed Abbas Araghchi, Iranian deputy foreign minister and top nuclear deal negotiator, said Sunday. “They have to make their own decisions, and it is now clear in what areas what is possible and what is not possible. It is time for all parties, especially the other parties, to make their final decision.
“For a few days … we will stop the talks and return to the capitals not only for further consultations but also for decision-making,” he said.
Top Russian representative Mikhail Ulyanov said each of the governments must make “political decisions” before a final deal is reached.