President Joe Biden on Wednesday opened his first visit to the Mideast 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."
U.S. ally Israel 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.
"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 Democratic president at the airport ceremony in Tel Aviv.
Biden said he would not remove Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps from the U.S. list of terrorist organizations, even if that kept 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 agreement meant to keep 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, though United Nations experts and Western intelligence agencies say Iran had an organized military nuclear program through 2003.
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 Iran nuclear 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 reenter 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.
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 defense systems.