A battered Israel resumes campaign against Iran
JERUSALEM – Having lost its battle to stop the international deal reached this week on Iran’s nuclear program, Israeli officials are already picking up the pieces and planning a fight to shape a final agreement that negotiators hope to reach in six months.
Israeli officials say the final deal must go beyond freezing Iran’s program and roll back the achievements they say has made the Islamic Republic a threshold weapons state. From Israel’s perspective, the world powers must show they have not been duped by Iran’s campaign of amiability and still have the stomach to press on with crippling sanctions if needed.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who believes Iran is determined to produce a nuclear bomb, harshly condemned Sunday’s agreement between Iran and six world powers as a “historic mistake” and said Israel was not bound by the deal.
In exchange for some relief from economic sanctions, Iran agreed to curb most of its nuclear activities while negotiations on a final agreement proceed during the next six months. But most of its nuclear infrastructure, including its ability to enrich uranium, a key step in making bombs, remains intact.
On Monday, Netanyahu said he would not give up.
Speaking to members of his Likud Party, the Israeli leader said he would dispatch his national security adviser, Yossi Cohen, to Washington in the coming days to coordinate the next move with the Americans.
“This permanent agreement has to lead to one result: dismantling the Iranian nuclear military capability,” he said, claiming that just this week Iran repeated its vow to destroy Israel. “And I repeat here my commitment to prevent them from getting the ability to do this.”
The initial deal with Iran has raised tensions between Israel and the U.S., and news that the Americans had secretly negotiated much of the agreement threatened to deepen those differences.
Israeli officials declined to comment.
Late Sunday, the White House said President Barack Obama had phoned Netanyahu to discuss the deal with Iran, with the two leaders reaffirming “their shared goal of preventing Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon.”
Obama said he understood Netanyahu’s skepticism and promised to “consult closely” with Israel as the talks move forward on a comprehensive solution that would “resolve the international community’s concerns regarding Iran’s nuclear program,” according to the White House.
The differences between the allies stem in part from different perceptions on the extent of the Iranian threat.
To Israel, a nuclear-armed Iran threatens its very survival. Israel points to hostile Iranian rhetoric referring to Israel’s destruction, Iran’s support for militant Arab groups along Israel’s borders, and Iran’s development of long-range missiles capable of reaching the Jewish state.
For Washington, Iran is a distant, albeit pressing, issue, one of a plethora of difficult challenges it is facing at home and abroad. While Obama has repeatedly said he will not allow Iran to develop a nuclear bomb, Israel says Iran should not be allowed to even get close to that point.
“The final status should be that Iran cannot remain a threshold nuclear country, that Iran cannot remain one or two steps from the bomb,” Israel’s Cabinet minister for intelligence affairs, Yuval Steinitz, told a gathering of European diplomats.
With stockpiles of enriched uranium, and thousands of advanced centrifuges capable of enriching even more uranium up to weapons grade, Israeli officials say the Iranians are just months away from having the ingredients and expertise to make a bomb. Tehran insists its atomic program is for peaceful purposes.
In the weeks leading to Sunday’s agreement, Israel had demanded that any first-stage deal roll back Iran’s nuclear program.
After failing at that task, Israeli officials are vowing to resume their campaign.
While Netanyahu has reiterated his veiled threats to attack Iran if necessary, military action seems to be out of the question while talks proceed.
Officials say Israel will use a combination of discreet diplomacy and blunt public comments to press their case. Among Israel’s demands are a halt to all uranium enrichment and the destruction of a plutonium-producing reactor that is under construction.
Steinitz said he believed compromise was still possible. He suggested that if Iran is intent merely on producing electricity, as it often says, it could buy nuclear fuel rods from abroad instead of enriching its own.
“Although we are extremely disappointed from this interim agreement, we believe a different agreement, more comprehensive, should be achieved, an agreement which at least forces Iran to begin to roll back its military nuclear program, and not just to freeze its facilities, but to begin to dismantle at least part of its nuclear facilities,” said Steinitz, adding that Israel would share intelligence with its allies as the talks proceed.
Concerns over Iran have helped forge an unlikely alliance between Israel and Western-allied Gulf countries led by Saudi Arabia, who are also unnerved by Iran’s growing regional influence. But since Sunday’s deal was announced, that alliance is showing signs of unraveling.
On Monday, Saudi Arabia cautiously welcomed the deal, and in a subtle gesture at Israel, expressed hope that it could lead to a Middle East free of weapons of mass destruction. Israel is widely believed to possess its own nuclear arsenal, though it does not acknowledge having one.
Qatar, Bahrain, Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates also have welcomed the nuclear deal.
Israeli newspapers were filled with commentaries dissecting Netanyahu’s failure to prevent the deal and said he would have no time to sit idly.
“Netanyahu has his work cut out for him. Let him get up from the floor; this is no time for empty threats and self-pity,” wrote Nachum Barnea, a columnist for Yediot Ahronot.