US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin studiously avoided any mention of Iran and its nuclear ambitions in his public statements on a two-day visit to Israel, even when his interlocutors highlighted the issue.
Austin’s visit took place less than 100 days into the Biden administration, and was the first for a Biden cabinet member. It came as the US was engaged in indirect talks with Iran to return to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, the full name of the 2015 nuclear agreement between Tehran and world powers, and following recent attacks on an Iranian intelligence base at sea and its Natanz underground nuclear facility, attributed to Israel.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said following a meeting with Austin on Tuesday that, “in the Middle East, there is no threat more serious or dangerous or pressing than that [of] the fanatical regime in Iran.
“Iran continues to support terrorists around the world…and has never given up its quest for nuclear weapons and missiles. Iran consistently and outrageously calls for Israel’s annihilation,” he said, and referring to Holocaust Remembrance Day last week, added: “When we say it could never happen again, we mean we will never let it happen again.”
Netanyahu said that he “will never allow Iran to obtain the nuclear capability to attain the genocidal goal of destroying Israel,” adding that the US and Israel agree that Iran must not possess nuclear weapons.
Austin’s remarks were about the robust US-Israel defense relationship, more generally.
“I reaffirm the administration’s strong commitment to Israel and the Israeli people,” he said. “I thought it was important that we meet face-to-face to express our earnest desire for close consultations with Israel as we address shared challenges in the region.”
Biden administration officials, including Secretary of State Antony Blinken, have said they will consult with Israel and other allies in the Middle East about nuclear talks with Iran.
Austin pledged to strengthen Israel’s security and ensure its qualitative military edge, and expressed support for efforts to normalize relations between Israel and Arab- and Muslim-majority countries.
“As we advance shared defense priorities and maintain close cooperation between the US and Israel, I am confident that together we can chart a path toward enduring peace in the reason,” he stated.
The US secretary of defense also spoke of being moved by his visit to Yad Vashem on Tuesday, and said that the memory of the victims and survivors of the Holocaust must “always be a solemn reminder of our duty to be ever-vigilant against mass atrocities.”
Austin did not mention Iran in his remarks after a meeting with Defense Minister Benny Gantz on Sunday.
Gantz said that “the Tehran of today poses a strategic threat to international security, to the entire Middle East and to the State of Israel, and we will work closely with our American allies to ensure that any new agreement with Iran will secure the vital interests of the world, of the US, prevent a dangerous arms race in our region and protect the State of Israel.”
Austin did, however, mention Iran in a tweet hours after his meeting with Gantz.
"Thank you [Minister of Defense] Gantz for today’s important discussions on the regional threat environment and ways to deepen U.S.-Israel defense cooperation. I’m committed to continuing our close consultations on threats posed by Iran and to strengthening Israel’s security," he wrote.
Ahead of Austin’s visit, senior Israeli officials said Iran would be a top item on the agenda for his meetings.