US President Joe Biden opened his first visit to the Middle East since taking office on Wednesday by offering eager Israeli leaders strong assurances of his resolve to stop Iran’s growing nuclear program, saying he would be willing to use the force “as a last resort”.
The president’s comments came in an interview with Israel’s Channel 12 recorded before he left Washington and broadcast on Wednesday, hours after the country’s political leaders welcomed him with a red carpet ceremony at Tel Aviv airport. Aviv.
“The only thing worse than the Iran that exists now is a nuclear-armed Iran,” Biden said. Asked about the use of military force against Iran, Biden said: “If that was the last resort, yes.”
US ally Israel considers Iran its greatest enemy, citing its nuclear program, its calls for Israel’s destruction and its support for hostile militant groups throughout the region.
The United States and Israel are expected to release a joint statement on Thursday cementing their close military ties and strengthening earlier calls for military action to stop Iran’s nuclear program. A senior Israeli official said before Biden’s arrival that both countries would commit to “using all elements of their national power against the Iranian nuclear threat.” The official spoke on condition of anonymity pending the formal release of the statement.
Israeli leaders made it clear, marking Biden’s arrival, that Iran’s nuclear program was top of their agenda.
“We will discuss the need to renew a strong global coalition to stop the Iranian nuclear program,” said Israeli Prime Minister Yair Lapid, greeting the Democratic president at the ceremony at Tel Aviv airport.
Biden said he would not remove Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps from the US list of terrorist organizations, even if that prevents Iran from rejoining the Iran nuclear deal.
Sanctions on the IRGC, which has carried out regional attacks, have been a sticking point in negotiations to bring Iran back into compliance with the deal to prevent it from having a nuclear weapon. Iran announced last week that it has enriched uranium to 60% purity, a technical step away from weapons-grade quality.
Iran insists its program is for peaceful purposes, although experts from the United Nations and Western intelligence agencies say Iran had an organized military nuclear program until 2003.
Biden’s visit to Israel follows the collapse of a coalition government led by Naftali Bennett. The president was greeted by Lapid, the caretaker prime minister who hopes to stay in power when Israelis hold their fifth election in three years this fall.
Lapid reminded Biden of when they met some eight years earlier. Biden was vice president and Lapid was finance minister.
“You told me, ‘If I had hair like yours, I’d be president,’ to which I said, ‘And if I were your height, I’d be prime minister,'” Lapid said.
Biden made reviving the Iran nuclear deal, negotiated by Barack Obama in 2015 and abandoned by Donald Trump in 2018, a key priority when he took office.
But indirect talks to get the United States back into the deal have stalled as Iran has made rapid progress in developing its nuclear program. That left the Biden administration increasingly pessimistic about resurrecting the deal, which placed significant restrictions on Iran’s nuclear program in exchange for sanctions relief.
At the airport, Israeli President Isaac Herzog thanked Biden for defending Israel during his more than 50 years in public office. He then reminded the US president of “security challenges emanating directly from Iran and its proxies, threatening Israel and its neighbors and endangering our region.”
The Israelis seemed determined to underscore the looming threat from Iran. Shortly after his arrival, Biden was briefed on the “Iron Dome” and the country’s new “Iron Beam” missile defense systems.
The president later visited the Yad Vashem memorial to the victims of the Holocaust in Jerusalem.
Biden, wearing a skullcap, was invited to rekindle the eternal flame in the memorial’s Hall of Remembrance. Two Marines laid a wreath in the stone crypt containing the ashes of Holocaust victims, and Biden listened as a cantor recited the prayer of remembrance.
He then greeted two Holocaust survivors, kissing the women on their cheeks. Her eyes filled with tears as she chatted with them.
“My mother would say ‘God loves you, dear,'” Biden told the women.
One of the survivors, Rena Quint, 86, later said she told Biden how her mother and siblings were killed in a death camp. Quint, who was born in Poland, said she met her father at a male slave labor factory, where she pretended to be a boy. Her father was also killed. She was later adopted by a childless Jewish couple after arriving in the United States in 1946.
“Did you see the president hug me?” she asked. “He asked my permission to kiss me and he kept holding my hand and we were told not to touch him.”
Biden will meet on Thursday with Israeli officials, including Lapid, Herzog and opposition leader and former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. She will meet with Palestinian officials on Friday.
Biden said he will emphasize in talks with Israeli and Palestinian leaders his continued support for a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but acknowledged the outcome would likely not be feasible “in the short term.”
He argued that a two-state solution is the best way to ensure a “future of equal measure of freedom, prosperity and democracy for Israelis and Palestinians alike.” His national security adviser, Jake Sullivan, said Biden would not offer any proposals during the trip aimed at restarting the talks.
The White House has also been frustrated by repeated Iranian-sponsored attacks on US troops based in Iraq, though the administration says the frequency of such attacks has dropped sharply in the past two years. Tehran is also backing the Houthi rebels in a bloody war with the Saudis in Yemen. A UN-brokered ceasefire has been in place for more than four months, a fragile peace in a war that began in 2015.
Sullivan said this week that the administration believes Russia is turning to Iran for hundreds of unmanned aerial vehicles, including weapons-capable drones, to use in its ongoing war in Ukraine. Sullivan said Wednesday that Iranians showing a willingness to help Russia is something that should be of great concern to the Israelis, Saudis and other Gulf allies Biden is meeting with this week.
“We think this is in the interest, to put it mildly, of the countries we will be visiting on this trip,” Sullivan said.
Associated Press writers Chris Megerian, Zeke Miller and Darlene Superville in Washington contributed to this report.