Two significant differences between Israel and the US over Iran emerged on Sunday, as the P5+1 and Iran failed to reach an agreement in Geneva: whether a step-by-step process should be pursued, and if tougher sanctions would drive Iran from the negotiating table or compel Iran to give more.
The P5+1, made up of the US, Russia, China, Britain, France and Germany, is interested in a gradual process whereby Tehran would freeze its nuclear program in place for six months, to buy more time for the world powers to reach a comprehensive agreement, and in the meantime Iran would get some reversible sanctions relief, one senior US official said on Sunday evening.
Israel’s position – as Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu has articulated forcefully over the past three days, and continued to do on Sunday – is that there should be no sanctions relief until a comprehensive agreement is reached and the Iranians begin not only to freeze their nuclear development program, but to roll it back.
The second difference has to do with sanctions.
According to the senior US official – who said that the Iranians were the ones who walked away from a proposal put on the table on Saturday night in Geneva – ratcheting up the sanctions at this time would chase the Iranians away from the negotiating table. It would also be seen around the world as unreasonable, and could be an excuse for many countries to begin to abandon the sanctions regime.
Israel’s position is the reverse: that sustaining and even strengthening sanctions would not chase the Iranians from negotiations, but rather make them be more flexible. And – in the Israeli view – it is weakening the sanctions, not strengthening them, that would provide countries in the world who want to begin trading again with Iran with an excuse to do so.
Netanyahu alluded to significant differences in approach when he said in a CBS Meet the Press interview on Sunday that he and US President Barack Obama shared the goal of “making sure that Iran doesn’t have nuclear weapons. I think where we might have a difference of opinion is how to prevent it.”
Netanyahu’s interview with the US network is part of a campaign that will surely intensify in the gap before the next round of negotiations on November 20, in an effort to keep the P5+1 from reaching an agreement that stops short of taking immediate steps to dismantle the Iranian program.
“There are many, many Arab leaders in the region who are saying, this is a very bad deal for the region and for the world. And you know, when you have the Arabs and Israelis speaking in one voice, it doesn’t happen very often, I think it’s worth paying attention to us,” he said.
While the prime minister expressed a degree of satisfaction at Sunday’s cabinet meeting that a deal between the world powers and Iran was not signed over the weekend, he said he was not deluding himself and there was a “strong desire to reach an agreement.
“I hope this will not be an agreement at any price,” he said.
Netanyahu, speaking at the beginning of Sunday’s cabinet meeting held in Sde Boker to mark 40 years since David Ben-Gurion’s death, said Israel would do everything in its power to prevent a “bad agreement.”
Netanyahu said he spoke over the weekend with the leaders of each of the P5+1 countries, with the exception of China, meaning that he spoke with Obama, Russian President Vladimir Putin, French President François Hollande, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and British Prime Minister David Cameron.
“I told them that according to information that was reaching Israel the agreement was bad and dangerous,” he said.
“Dangerous not only to us, but also to them. Dangerous to world peace because it relieves the sanctions pressure that it took years to build, and also because Iran would retain its ability to enrich uranium and also to move forward on the plutonium track.”
Netanyahu said the proposed agreement did not call on the Iranians to dismantle “one centrifuge.”
“I asked the leaders, what is the rush,” he said. “I suggested that they wait, that they consider things very carefully. We are talking about a historic process, a historic decision. I requested that they wait.”
Netanyahu said on Meet the Press that he has, and will continue, to lobby heavily against a deal.
The senior US official, when asked whether Netanyahu’s harsh rhetoric had any impact in Geneva, said “when the prime minister of Israel speaks, of course it has an impact.”
Netanyahu continued his lobbying effort on Sunday night when he addressed the Jewish Federations General Assembly in Jerusalem and told those gathered to make their voices heard on this matter.
“It’s a bad and dangerous deal that deals with a thing that affects our survival,” he said. “And when it comes to the question of Jewish survival and the survival of the Jewish state I will not be silenced ever. Not on my watch."
“When the Jewish people were silenced on matters relating to our survival, you know what happened,” he continued.
“This is different. We are the Jewish state. We are charged with defending ourselves. And we are charged with speaking up. And it is time to speak up. All of us need to stand up and be counted.”
“I can think of nothing that is as important and as crucial. We shall continue to work with the rest of the world and it’s good now that we have a few days, because this is not only in the interest of Israel,” he said. “This is in the interest of the entire world.”
His comments come as the US Senate is expected to soon vote on a bill, already passed in the House of Representatives, to step up the sanctions. The administration is asking for the measure to be delayed or – as the senior US official said on Sunday evening – an opportunity to “give negotiations a chance, to test them, see if we can make progress.”
The official disputed reports that the French stopped the agreement from coming to fruition, saying “the reason we did not get an agreement was not because of the French. The French, as well as other colleagues, brought very useful, substantive, clarifying amendments to the working documents.”
The official said that when the talks ended on Saturday night the P5+1 was unified. “I believe that at the end of the day Iran was not ready, and decided to go back to Tehran and talk to the government before deciding.”
Disputing remarks made by Israeli officials over the past few days that the US was in more of a hurry for a deal than Iran, the official said, “We had a tough deal on the table, they could not take it. I hope they think this is a lost opportunity.
That is a judgment for them to make, we are not in a rush.”
Meanwhile, Washington’s top negotiator with Iran, Wendy Sherman, arrived in Israel on Sunday for a day of talks to brief Israel on the P5+1 negotiations with Iran.
Sherman, the undersecretary of state for political affairs and No. 3 person in the State Department, met with National Security Adviser Yossi Cohen and top officials from the Foreign and Defense Ministries.
Sherman always briefs Israeli officials after talks, either by coming here directly or, if that does not work out because of logistical reasons or by video conference.
Sherman does not generally brief Netanyahu directly, and did not this time either.