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U.S. and Israeli national security advisers hold call on Iran

Israeli national security adviser Meir Ben Shabbat discussed Iran with National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan on a secure video call on Thursday, according to two Israeli officials.

Why it matters: Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu appointed Ben Shabbat to lead Israel’s talks on Iran with regional partners and world powers — most importantly, with the Biden administration, the Israeli officials say.

The big picture: The Biden administration is drafting its strategy on the Iran nuclear deal and broader strategy toward Tehran. Israel is concerned Biden will return to the 2015 nuclear deal and lift sanctions.

  • The Biden administration has said it intends to do so if Iran returns to compliance with the deal, but will consult with Israel before it makes any decisions.

Thursday’s call was the second between Sullivan and Ben Shabbat, but was much longer than the previous call and included several other officials on both sides, the Israeli officials say.

  • National Security Council spokeswoman Emily Horne confirmed the call took place but didn’t provide further details.

Behind the scenes: There has been an internal struggle within the Israeli government between Ben Shabbat and Mossad director Yossi Cohen over who would lead the talks with Biden on Iran.

  • Cohen lobbied for the “Iran czar” position, claiming only he could convince the U.S. administration not to return to the Iran nuclear deal, sources familiar with the situation told me.
  • Several Israeli reporters close to Cohen published stories saying he would be appointed, or had already been. One report suggested Cohen met Biden transition officials during a visit to Washington in January. Biden’s team flatly denied that.
  • White House officials were puzzled by the constant leaks about Cohen’s alleged contacts with the Biden administration but didn’t comment.

After the first phone call between Sullivan and Ben Shabbat last month, Sullivan issued a statement saying he’d invited Ben Shabbat to start a strategic dialogue. That gave Ben Shabbat an advantage over Cohen.

  • Several days ago, Netanyahu decided to hand the Iran czar role to Ben Shabbat, though that could change after Israel’s March 23 elections.
  • Israeli officials think Netanyahu’s decision was partially due to Cohen’s tense relations with other senior national security officials, like IDF Chief of Staff Aviv Kochavi. Others think Cohen’s media campaign hurt his case.

What’s next: Ben Shabbat is expected to hold several interagency meetings in the coming week to draft the Israeli strategy on the Iran nuclear deal issue.

  • The next step will be a high-level meeting on Iran including Netanyahu, Minister of Defense Benny Gantz, Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi and other senior national security, intelligence and foreign policy officials.

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