Vice President Joe Biden assured Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Monday that the United States is committed to enforcing its "sanctions architecture" against Iran even as world powers provide it with some relief in pursuit of a final nuclear deal.
In four hours of wide-ranging talks during Biden's visit to Israel for the funeral of former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, the vice president briefed Netanyahu on an interim agreement to curb Iran's nuclear program and sought his views on efforts to reach a broader accord, a senior U.S. official said.
Netanyahu has been at odds with the Obama administration over its diplomatic engagement with Iran, and Washington has tried to ease Israeli concerns that Tehran is getting too much in return for too few concessions.
"It is safe to say that the issue of ensuring the continued enforcement of the sanctions architecture is an important priority for us, is an important priority for Israel and was a subject of conversation," the official told reporters aboard Biden's plane on the flight back to Washington.
Biden's visit to Israel came just a day after the announcement that a six-month deal between Iran and six world powers, including the United States, to pave the way toward ending a long standoff over Tehran's nuclear ambitions will come into force on Jan. 20.
The deal, hailed by President Barack Obama, calls for a verifiable freeze on Iran's most sensitive atomic work in return for limited sanctions relief. A new round of talks will seek a permanent settlement. Some U.S. officials have cited oil and banking as the core architecture of the sanctions program that has crippled Iran's economy.
Relief under the initial deal would include suspension of some restrictions on trade in gold, precious metals and petrochemicals, and in the auto industry. It also allows third-country purchases of Iranian oil to remain at current levels.
Echoing Obama, Biden also made clear to Netanyahu that Washington opposes a U.S. congressional push for new sanctions during talks on a long-term deal with Iran, the official said.
The working dinner between Biden and Netanyahu, which lasted twice as long as scheduled, also focused on renewed peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians that have struggled to make headway under the auspices of U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry.
While Biden did not try to negotiate the "nitty-gritty" separating the two sides, the two leaders had a "strategic conversation" about how to achieve the goal of Israel and an eventual Palestinian state living side by side in peace and security, the official said.
However, Biden reiterated the U.S. position that Israeli settlement expansion on occupied land is "not constructive" for peace efforts, the official said. Biden's visit was his first to Israel since 2010, when the surprise Israeli announcement of a major settlement project caused an embarrassing rift between the United States and its closest Middle East ally.
Still, Iran tops the Israeli agenda. Believed to be the Middle East's only nuclear weapons power, Israel fears that its arch-foe is seeking an atomic bomb, though Tehran denies this. Washington has resisted Netanyahu's demands to broaden the scope of nuclear talks with Iran to other issues, but the U.S. official said Biden's meeting in Jerusalem was not limited to the Iranian nuclear file.
"They spoke about Iran's ... destabilizing activities and support for terror, as well as the important implications of the election of President (Hassan) Rouhani and the activities of other actors in the Iranian system, and how the United States and Israel need to cooperate together to confront the variety of threats posed by Iran," the official said.
Biden used his eulogy for Sharon, seen as a war hero at home but reviled by many in the Arab world, to reaffirm Washington's commitment to Israel's security.
(Reporting by Matt Spetalnick; Editing by Lisa Shumaker)