US defence chief in Israel amid Iran nuclear talks

Austin’s two-day visit comes just days after talks restarted on reviving the 2015 Iran nuclear deal.

US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin is the first high-level official from the Biden administration to visit Israel [File: Reuters]

US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin has arrived in Israel on the first visit by a senior representative of President Joe Biden’s administration, whose stance on Iran has worried Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government.

Israel views the United States as a “full partner” and will work closely with its ally to ensure any new diplomatic accord with Iran does not compromise regional security, Defence Minister Benny Gantz told his US counterpart on Sunday.

Austin told his host that Washington views their alliance as central to regional security as well as “enduring and ironclad”.

Austin’s two-day visit comes just days after talks restarted on reviving the 2015 Iran nuclear deal. Washington said it offered “very serious” ideas on reviving the hobbled agreement that is staunchly opposed by Israel.

Austin was to meet Netanyahu during the visit, which officials said would include discussions of US arms supplies to Israel.

Netanyahu has been a fierce critic of the Iran nuclear deal, dating back to when it was being negotiated during Barack Obama’s administration.

The Israeli prime minister applauded when former US President Donald Trump withdrew from the deal and reimposed sanctions on Tehran, which responded by stepping back from several of its commitments under the deal.

‘Accident’

In the latest breach of its undertakings in the troubled agreement, Tehran announced on Saturday that it started up advanced uranium enrichment centrifuges.

President Hassan Rouhani inaugurated a cascade of 164 IR-6 centrifuges for producing enriched uranium, as well as two test cascades – of 30 IR-5 and 30 IR-6S devices respectively – at Iran’s Natanz uranium enrichment plant, in a ceremony broadcast by state television.

An “accident” took place at Natanz on Sunday but caused no casualties or damage, the Fars News Agency reported.

Iran’s Press TV said an electricity problem had caused an incident at the Natanz underground site, without casualties or pollution.

An engineer performs a mechanical test on nuclear equipment on Saturday [File: Iran President’s Office]

Iran key issue

Al Jazeera’s Harry Fawcett, reporting from West Jerusalem, said Iran tops the agenda to be discussed during Austin’s visit.

“The sides have very different sets of policy priorities on the Iran issue,” Fawcett said.

He added while the Biden administration and Iran are keen on going back to the nuclear deal with certain conditions, Israel continues to say there should be no return.

Netanyahu said on Wednesday that Israel would not be bound to an accord that would enable Iran to develop nuclear weapons.

“An agreement with Iran that would pave the way to nuclear weapons – weapons that threaten our extinction – would not compel us in any way,” said the prime minister.

Iran insists its nuclear programme is for peaceful purposes only.

Biden has said he is prepared to return to the agreement, arguing the deal had – until Washington’s withdrawal – been successful in dramatically scaling back Iran’s nuclear activities.

But the United States has demanded Iranian movement back towards compliance while Tehran has insisted on an immediate end to all American sanctions, with each side demanding the other make the first move.

Israel and Iran have in recent weeks reported sabotage to their ships at sea. Syria has accused Israel of air attacks on its territory where Iranian-backed forces are stationed.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies

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