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Afghan Bombings Delay Biden's Iran-Centered Talks With Israeli PM

The first meeting between President Joe Biden and visiting Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett was postponed until Friday, overshadowed by suicide bombings near Kabul airport during a chaotic US evacuation mission from Afghanistan.

Two deadly explosions occurred on Thursday just hours before Biden and Bennett were due to meet for talks in Washington aimed at resetting the tone of US-Israeli relations and searching for common ground on Iran despite differences on how to deal with its nuclear program and its support for anti-Israeli militants in the region.

The two leaders will try to turn the page on years of tensions between Bennett’s predecessor, Benjamin Netanyahu, who was close to former President Donald Trump, and the last Democratic administration led by Barack Obama with Biden as his vice president.

But new differences have emerged since Biden rejected Trump’s ‘maximum pressure’ campaign against Iran and decided to enter negotiations to revive the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). Whether Netanyahu or Bennett, Israel thinks giving concession to Iran while not seriously limiting its nuclear and other activities is a strategic mistake.

The meeting, the first since the two men took office, was originally delayed until later in the day while Biden held consultations about the explosions in Kabul. But as the US death toll mounted, US and Israeli officials said the meeting had been called off for the day. The timing of the meeting on Friday was not yet disclosed.

In what has been arranged as a low-key encounter, Bennett wants to move on from Netanyahu’s combative public style and instead manage disagreements constructively behind closed doors between Washington and its closest Middle East ally.

The visit gives Biden an opportunity to demonstrate business as usual with a key partner while contending with the complex situation in Afghanistan. Biden's biggest foreign policy crisis since taking office has not only hurt his approval ratings at home but raised questions about his credibility among both friends and foes.

The question is how much the botched US withdrawal from Afghanistan will impact Biden’s ability to make concessions to the Islamic Republic to restore the JCPOA. Many in Congress are skeptical of lifting US sanctions and giving Iran a financial reprieve, while it continues its destabilizing activities in the Middle East.

Biden will tell Bennett that he shares Israel's concern that Iran has expanded its nuclear program but remains committed for now to diplomacy with Tehran, a senior administration official said. US-Iran negotiations have stalled as Washington awaits the next move by Iran’s new hardline president.

Briefing reporters ahead of the meeting, the official said: “Since the last administration left the Iran nuclear deal, Iran’s nuclear program has just dramatically broken out of the box.”

The official said that if the diplomatic path with Iran fails, “there are other avenues to pursue,” but did not elaborate.

The Islamic Republic has been ramping up its uranium enrichment since Biden assumed the presidency, stockpiling 60-percent purified fissile material. This brings Iran much closer to making a nuclear bomb.

Bennett has been less openly combative but just as adamant as Netanyahu was in pledging to do whatever is necessary to prevent Iran, which Israel views as an existential threat, from building a nuclear weapon. Iran consistently denies it is seeking a bomb.

Reporting by Reuters

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