- The Washington Times
Friday, April 9, 2021

Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin will make the Biden administration’s first high-level visit to Israel over the coming days to meet with Israeli leaders at a delicate moment in the White House’s push to revive American diplomacy with Israel‘s archenemy Iran.

The visit comes amid mounting international concern over a recent surge in Israeli military strikes on Iran-backed Hezbollah targets in Syria — as well as a spike in other so-called “shadow war” attacks by Iranian and Israeli forces in waters around the Middle East — that could either help or dangerously derail the Biden administration’s Iran policy.

The administration’s special envoy for Iran, Rob Malley, spent the past week in Vienna in talks with his counterparts from nations who were involved in the now foundering 2015 Iranian nuclear deal trying to find a path for Washington and Tehran to both come back into compliance with the deal.

While the U.S. withdrew from the deal under former President Trump in 2018, Iran has since pulled out by ratcheting up its nuclear enrichment and ballistic missile activities banned by U.N. Security Council resolutions.

With The Associated Press reporting little progress in the Vienna talks so far, concerns have swirled that clandestine clashes between Iran and Israel — Washington’s closest ally in the Middle East — could derail the process.

In addition to reports that Israeli airstrikes have pounded Iran-backed Hezbollah targets in Syria, including hitting an arms depot maintained by the Lebanon-based group near the Syrian capital of Damascus this week, the past few months have seen an uptick in tit-for-tat sabotage operations in which Iran and Israel have been targeting each other’s ships in Mideast waters.

Various news reports, including from The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times have cited Israeli sabotage operations against Iranian ships attempting to move oil and weapons into Syria, where Hezbollah has helped uphold the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad, an Iranian ally. The Israelis have long accused Hezbollah of using Syria as a base for attacks on neighboring Israel.

The reports have also cited Iranian retaliation, with Israeli sources accusing Tehran of targeting at least one Israeli-owned container ship with a missile attack.

There is speculation the Israel-Iran shadow war will be a focus of Mr. Austin‘s visit to Israel, although it is unlikely to be discussed publicly.

“In Israel, Secretary Austin will meet with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Benjamin Gantz, to continue close consultations on shared priorities, and reaffirm the enduring U.S. commitment to the U.S.-Israel strategic partnership and Israel’s Qualitative Military Edge,” the Pentagon said in a statement on Thursday.

Mr. Austin, who will embark on his trip Saturday, will also be traveling to Germany, NATO headquarters in Belgium, and to the United Kingdom. During the Germany stop, he is slated to visit U.S. European Command and U.S. Africa Command headquarters, both of which are situated in Germany, to meet with U.S. troops and senior commanders, the Pentagon said.

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