Beginning this week, U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin will travel to Israel, Germany, the U.K., and visit the NATO headquarters in Belgium the Pentagon said in a statement.

“Secretary Austin will meet with his counterparts and other senior officials to discuss the importance of international defense relationships, and reinforce the United States’ commitment to deterrence and defense, burden sharing, and enduring trans-Atlantic security,” the Pentagon said.

In Israel, Secretary Austin will meet Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Defense Minister Benny Gantz, and Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi. Austin will be the highest-ranked official of the Biden administration to visit Israel to discuss “shared priorities” and reaffirm Washington’s commitment to Israel maintaining military superiority over its neighbors, according to a Pentagon statement.

The Importance of Austin’s Visit to Israel
Iranian Minister of Foreign Affairs Mohammad Javad Zarif and U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry shaking hands at the end of the original JCPOA negotiations, July 14, 2015, Vienna.

In the closing months of the Trump administration, the U.S. assured the Israelis that they will continue to have a qualitative military edge in the Middle East. But Tel Aviv worries that under President Biden Washington will no longer abide by those assurances. 

Nevertheless, the real reason for Austin’s visit to Israel and the importance of it has to do with the Iran nuclear deal. On Wednesday, State Department spokesperson Ned Price said at a press conference that the U.S. is prepared to “take the steps necessary to return to compliance” to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), also known as the Iran nuclear deal, which was signed by the Obama administration in 2015.

Although Price wasn’t specific he mentioned that those steps will include “lifting sanctions that are inconsistent with” the stipulations of the JCPOA.

Under the JCPOA, the U.S. had released billions of dollars to Iran in return for a limit on its nuclear enrichment. Nonetheless, the Iranians used much of that cash to finance terrorism throughout the Middle East and elsewhere.  

Now, the signatories of JCPOA — Iran, China, Russia, France, Germany, the United Kingdom, and the United States — have gathered in Vienna to discuss a return to the nuclear agreement. They are working out how to revoke the economic sanctions Trump reimposed on Iran after the U.S. had withdrawn from the JCPOA in 2018, and how to bring Iran back into compliance with the agreement’s limits on nuclear enrichment and stockpiled enriched uranium.

The talks in Vienna shouldn’t have come as a surprise to Tel Aviv: Even before the U.S. election, Joe Biden made it clear that he wanted to return to the JCPOA, which was touted by the Obama administration as a key achievement. And since taking office in late January, President Biden made several overtures to Tehran by unilaterally taking steps, such as in Yemen, to entice the Iranians back to the conference table. 

The Israelis were against the original deal in 2015 and are equally opposed to the renewed agreement.

As Israel revealed, Iran has been lying from the very beginning about having no intention of constructing and possessing nuclear weapons. And despite the Israelis’ revelations, the world turned a blind eye. 

Netanyahu warned Wednesday that Israel will not be bound by a revitalized nuclear deal, declaring that Israel is obligated only to defending itself against those who seek to destroy it.

“A deal with Iran that threatens us with annihilation will not obligate us,” Netanyahu said.

A U.S. Balancing Act Between Alienating Israel and Returning to the Nuclear Deal

US Marines, IDF conduct live-fire range
U.S. Marines and Israeli Defense Soldiers participate in a live-fire range during Exercise Juniper Falcon in Israel, March 27, 2017. (Photo by Sgt. Erik Estrada/DVIDS)

Secretary Austin’s visit to Israel will no doubt be an exercise in assuring the Israelis that the U.S. is committed to their defense while also trying to curb Israeli airstrikes in Syria and Lebanon.

The Israeli Air Force has conducted hundreds of airstrikes against Iranian-led proxy militias, weapons manufacturing facilities, and storage warehouses in Syria and Lebanon. Meanwhile, Iran is pumping thousands of missiles to its proxy militias in the region. These missiles are aimed against the U.S. presence but particularly against Israel. The Iranians are also trying to build bases close to the Israeli border. 

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The violence has spread to the seas. Recently, an Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) command and control ship was hit by a limpet mine in the Persian Gulf — one of several Iranian ships that have been attacked en route to Syria and Yemen. Likewise, an Israeli-owned ship was attacked by the Iranians. 

The U.S. took steps to acknowledge that Israel was behind the attacks on Iranian shipping, tried to bring awareness to the Israeli attacks, and curb them in an effort to appease Tehran.

Washington is also committed to resuming security assistance and economic programs to the Palestinians but didn’t say how much money would be allocated for that purpose. Washington had limited its economic assistance to the Palestinians as they were paying a stipend to the families of those who died while conducting terrorist attacks against Israel. 

Therefore, the talks in Vienna aren’t looked upon favorably in Tel Aviv, but the terrorists in the Middle East will certainly welcome the news. The easing of sanctions will open the floodgates for millions, perhaps billions, of dollars that will fund terrorist operations targetting Israeli and U.S. interests in the region. 

And while Secretary Austin’s visit to Israel should, in part, be meant to reassure Tel Aviv, it is probably also sending a message that if the Israelis attempt any military action against Iran’s nuclear facilities, they’ll be doing so alone. 

Nevertheless, that is something the Israelis are quite familiar with.