In Israel, Biden affirms U.S. determination to halt Iranian nuclear program

U.S. President Joe Biden on Wednesday opened his first visit to the Middle East since taking office by offering anxious Israeli leaders strong reassurances of his determination to stop Iran's growing nuclear program, saying he'd be willing to use force as a "last resort."

U.S., Israel expected to announce joint declaration Thursday cementing close military ties

Joe Biden visits Middle East to discuss Iran nuclear deal, Saudi Arabia's oil

5 months ago
Duration 2:35
With war raging in Ukraine and prices skyrocketing in North America, U.S. President Joe Biden is in the Middle East to get Washington's allies on the same page. Among the items on his agenda: reviving the Iran nuclear deal and increasing the flow of oil from Saudi Arabia.

U.S. President Joe Biden on Wednesday opened his first visit to the Middle East since taking office by offering anxious Israeli leaders strong reassurances of his determination to stop Iran's growing nuclear program, saying he'd be willing to use force as a "last resort."

The president's comments came in an interview with Israel's Channel 12, taped before he left Washington and broadcast Wednesday, hours after the country's political leaders welcomed him with a red-carpet arrival ceremony at the Tel Aviv airport.

"The only thing worse than the Iran that exists now is an Iran with nuclear weapons," Biden said. Asked about using military force against Iran, Biden said, "If that was the last resort, yes."

Israel, a U.S. ally, considers Iran to be its greatest enemy, citing its nuclear program, its calls for Israel's destruction and its support for hostile militant groups across the region.

The U.S. and Israel are expected Thursday to unveil a joint declaration cementing their close military ties and strengthening past calls to take military action to halt Iran's nuclear program.

A senior Israeli official said before Biden arrived 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 clear as they marked Biden's arrival that Iran's nuclear program was the top item on their agenda.

Images of the Israeli and U.S. flags are projected against the wall of the old city of Jerusalem on Wednesday. (Ahmad Gharabli/AFP/Getty Images)

"We will discuss the need to renew a strong global coalition that will stop the Iranian nuclear program," said Israeli Prime Minister Yair Lapid, as he greeted the U.S. president at the airport ceremony in Tel Aviv.

Biden said he would not remove Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) from the U.S. list of terrorist organizations, even if that kept Iran from rejoining the Iran nuclear deal.

Sanctions have been sticking point

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 agreement meant to keep it from having a nuclear weapon. Iran announced last week that it has enriched uranium to 60 per cent purity, a technical step away from weapons-grade quality.

Iran insists its program is for peaceful purposes, though United Nations experts and Western intelligence agencies say Iran had an organized military nuclear program through 2003.

Biden's visit to Israel follows the collapse of a coalition-led government headed by Naftali Bennett. The president was greeted by Lapid, the caretaker prime minister who is hoping to hang on to power when Israelis hold their fifth election in three years this fall.

Biden made reviving the Iran nuclear deal, brokered by Barack Obama in 2015 and abandoned by Donald Trump in 2018, a key priority as he entered office. Biden said Trump made a "gigantic mistake" by withdrawing the U.S. from the deal.

"There are those who thought with the last administration we sort of walked away from the Middle East, that we were going to create a vacuum that China and or Russia would fill, and we can't let that happen," he said.

But indirect talks for the U.S. to re-enter the deal have stalled as Iran has made rapid gains in developing its nuclear program. That's 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 championing Israel during his more than 50 years in public office. He then reminded the U.S. president of the "security challenges emanating directly from Iran and its proxies, threatening Israel and its neighbours and endangering our region."

U.S. President Joe Biden, centre, Israeli Defence Minister Benny Gantz, left, and Israeli Prime Minister Yair Lapid tour Israel's defence system at Ben Gurion Airport, near Tel Aviv on Wednesday. (Gil Cohen-Magen/Reuters)

Israelis seemed determined to underscore the imminent threat from Iran. Soon after he arrived, Biden was briefed on the country's "Iron Dome" and new "Iron Beam" missile defence systems.

The president later visited the Yad Vashem memorial to Holocaust victims in Jerusalem.

Biden, wearing a skullcap, was invited to rekindle the eternal flame in the memorial's Hall of Remembrance. Two Marines placed a wreath on the stone crypt containing the ashes of Holocaust victims and Biden listened as a cantor recited the remembrance prayer.

He then greeted two Holocaust survivors, kissing the women on their cheeks. His eyes welled with tears as he chatted with them.

The U.S. president is set to meet Thursday with Israeli officials, including Lapid, Herzog and opposition leader and former Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu. He'll meet Friday with Palestinian leaders.

Biden said he will emphasize in talks with Israel and Palestinian leaders his continued support for a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but acknowledged that outcome likely wouldn't be feasible "in the near term."