US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin will visit Israel next week for the first trip to the Middle East by a member of President Joe Biden’s cabinet, according to a report Tuesday.
While in Israel, Austin is expected to meet with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Benny Gantz, according to the Axios news site.
Austin, a retired general, headed the United States Central Command, which operates in the Middle East, during part of Gantz’s tenure as IDF chief of staff. The two spoke shortly after Austin took office in January.
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Israeli officials cited in the report said the Austin meetings will focus on Iran and other regional issues, as well as ensuring that the Biden administration will respect understandings reached during the last weeks of the Trump administration for the United States to guarantee the so-called military advantage. qualitative data from Israel. in the region.
It was unclear if Austin will visit other countries in the region.
The report noted that the visit will come amid growing tensions between Israel and Iran, with the two countries recently accusing each other of attacking several merchant ships and damaging them with explosives. In each case, the vessels were only slightly damaged and there were no injuries in the incidents.
Another such attack was reported on Tuesday, and Iran’s semi-official Tasnim news agency said an Iranian-flagged ship in the Red Sea was hit by a limpet mine. Israel has not commented on the reported attack, which Saudi broadcaster Al Arabiya claimed Israeli commandos carried out.
Austin’s trip will also come as Biden seeks to rejoin the 2015 deal limiting Iran’s nuclear program in exchange for sanctions relief, from which former President Donald Trump withdrew from the United States.
On Tuesday, the remaining parties to the agreement began talks in Vienna about the United States’ return to the pact, and the Biden administration indirectly joined for the first time.
Biden has insisted that he will not lift the sanctions until Iran is back in full compliance with the agreement, which it has increasingly violated since the US withdrawal in 2018.
Israel strongly opposes a return to the agreement in its original form and has communicated this to Washington. The parties recently reestablished a bilateral group to cooperate in the effort to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons, and agreed to establish a joint team to share intelligence on Iran’s nuclear program.