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CIA chief meets Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett amid Iran tensions

Regional tensions have risen following attack on Israeli-managed tanker off coast of Oman that Israel, the US and UK have blamed on Tehran
CIA director Bill Burns is expected to meet Palestinian officials, including President Mahmoud Abbas (AFP/File photo)

CIA director Bill Burns held talks with Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett on Wednesday, with Iran topping the list of discussions, an Israeli statement said.

The Israeli prime minister's office said that Bennett and Burns "discussed the situation in the Middle East, with emphasis on Iran, and possibilities for expanding and deepening regional cooperation".

Burns also met with David Barnea, director of the Mossad intelligence agency, and Defence Minister Benny Gantz, the minister said in a tweet, adding that they discussed the Iranian nuclear deal and "the need to strengthen the Palestinian Authority and other moderates in the region".

Axios reported on Monday that Burns is expected to visit the West Bank, where he will meet with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Palestinian intelligence chief Majed Faraj.

Burns' visit comes amid rising tensions between Israel and Iran. On Friday, the US Central Command released a report claiming that Iran was behind the 30 July attack on the Israeli-managed Mercer Street oil tanker which resulted in the deaths of two crew members.

The US, Israel, and G-7 countries have all blamed Iran for the attack, however, Tehran denies any involvement.

Since taking office in January, President Joe Biden and his administration have sought to reduce tensions with the Islamic Republic and seek a return to the 2015 Iran nuclear deal.

The multilateral agreement, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, saw Iran scale back its nuclear programme in exchange for the lifting of heavy sanctions against its economy.

Biden's predecessor, Donald Trump, exited the nuclear accord between Iran and six powers in 2018 and imposed a "maximum pressure" campaign on Tehran, enacting devastating sanctions and carrying out an air strike that killed Qassem Soleimani, leader of Iran's powerful Quds force.

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A sixth round of talks was halted in June before the outcome of the Iranian presidential election. Ebrahim Raisi, a conservative hardliner backed by Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, won the race that saw a historic level of abstention amongst Iranian voters and the barring of reformist candidates.

The new Israeli government, which is against a US return to the accord, has promised that any objections it has to a deal would be discussed privately with the White House in a bid to repair strained ties with the Democratic Party and maintain a more bipartisan position with its closest ally.

In a Senate Foreign Relations subcommittee hearing on Tuesday, Dana Stroul, the Pentagon's top official for policy in the Middle East, accused Iran of financing and arming groups across the region.

"What we see across the region is Iranian arming, training, and funding of terrorist groups."

Stroul told senators that the US had seen a growth in Iranian military support for the Houthi rebels who control large swathes of the country.

"Iran is increasing the lethality and complexity of the equipment it transfers to them," she said.

In February, Biden announced an end to the country's support for Saudi-led offensive operations in Yemen and appointed Tim Lenderking as special envoy to help bring an end to the war.

Lenderking has been travelling the region almost monthly and working with his UN counterpart to push for a political solution to the conflict.