WASHINGTON – In a warm-up for their latest round of talks in Vienna next week with other world powers and Iran over its nuclear program, top American officials will travel to Israel on Wednesday to brief their chief regional ally on the progress of the negotiations.
US National Security Adviser Susan Rice will travel from Washington to Jerusalem, and Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs Wendy Sherman, President Barack Obama’s chief negotiator in the talks with Iran, will depart directly for Vienna after the briefings, where the fourth round of nuclear talks resume next week.
Israeli officials are beginning to publicize their skepticism that the deal under construction in Vienna – aimed at ending the nuclear crisis – will satisfy their security concerns.
The government of Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu considers Iran’s nuclear capacity an existential threat and fears the White House is prepared to accept Iran as a nuclear-threshold state.
The Obama administration says that nothing is agreed to until everything is settled: primarily, the large-scale dismantlement of infrastructure in Iran’s nuclear program with no feasible civilian nuclear purpose.
“We’ve talked about all the issues in the first three rounds,” State Department deputy spokeswoman Marie Harf told reporters on Tuesday.
“We can already see some areas of agreement, or at least where there’s a path forward, and have been very clear about where there will be tougher negotiations ahead. But we do feel like we can start drafting and do feel like we can get this done by July 20.”
July 20 is a deadline self-imposed by the parties at the table – the US, United Kingdom, France, China, Russia and Germany – granting themselves a six months to negotiate, with the option of adding an additional six months should all parties agree.
And yet most diplomats are saying that will not be necessary. Drafting of the comprehensive agreement is set to begin next week, and world powers and Iran are expressing optimism.
Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said that Iran and Western powers already agree on 50 to 60 percent of the contents of an agreement.
“Israel is very concerned about the current discussions with Iran, because all signs point to the P5+1 accepting a deal that will leave Iran’s nuclear weapons capability intact,” Ambassador to the US Ron Dermer told the Anti-Defamation League last week. “The only deal that should be acceptable is the one that dismantles Iran’s nuclear weapons production capability.”
Defining “capability” will be the point of contention between Rice and Sherman and their Israeli counterparts.
The US believes, for instance, that an intercontinental ballistic missile program is less of a concern if Iran is incapable of building a nuclear warhead to mount on its tip. The Israelis, more so than the Americans, are concerned that a sustained research and development program in Tehran will allow Iran to advance rapidly beyond a small, peaceful nuclear program.
On Tuesday, technical experts from all sides convened in New York on the sidelines of a United Nations conference on nuclear nonproliferation to discuss the minutiae of the possible deal.
The experts, mostly from the US, Iran and the UN’s International Atomic Energy Agency, are scholars of nuclear science and of the financial sanctions architecture put in place to punish Iran for its decades-old nuclear work, and to goad its leaders to the negotiating table.
“Much of this is very technical,” Harf said. “How we ensure Iran cannot obtain a nuclear weapon, that their program is for purely peaceful purposes, that involves a high degree of technicality that will have to be informed very specifically by the work of our experts, the EU experts, the P5+1, and of course, Iran.”
The government in Tehran vows it will never cede its right to peaceful nuclear power – and what it considers a right to enrich uranium to that end.
Publicly, Iranian officials have promised not to dismantle any aspect of the program.
Rice’s visit, originally planned in March after a bilateral meeting between Netanyahu and Obama in Washington, will include her participation in the US-Israel Consultative Group. The White House says she will lead a delegation including “senior representatives from the departments of State, Defense, Treasury, and the intelligence community.”
Rice’s two-day visit is the first in her role as national security adviser. The Obama administration made clear that Middle East peace process talks are not on the agenda for her trip.
Rice is due to meet separately with Netanyahu and President Shimon Peres, the White House said.
Reuters contributed to this report.