Israel responded with “extreme skepticism” Tuesday to International Atomic Energy Agency head Yukiya Amano’s announcement of a dramatic breakthrough in his talks with Iran. Senior officials warned of an Iranian ploy to soften up the international community a day before critical talks on Tehran’s nuclear ambitions begin in Baghdad.
Amano sounded upbeat after returning to Vienna Tuesday from rare talks in Tehran, saying he expected to sign a deal with Iran soon to unblock an investigation into suspected work on atomic bombs. His wish for access to Iran’s Parchin military complex where nuclear weapons-relevant tests may have occurred would be addressed as part of the accord, Amano said.
Defense Minister Ehud Barak, however, was unimpressed.
“The Iranians appear to be trying to reach a technical deal that will create an appearance as if there is progress in the talks to remove some of the pressure ahead of the talks in Baghdad and to postpone an escalation in sanctions,” he said during a meeting at the Defense Ministry. Iran was fooling the West in its apparent readiness to reach a deal on its nuclear program, Barak added.
Iran is scheduled to meet Wednesday in Baghdad with representatives of the P5+1 – the US, Russia, China, France, Britain and Germany.
One senior official said Jerusalem’s skepticism over Amano’s announcement stemmed from “rich historical experience, where we have seen a consistent pattern of Iran routinely deceiving the IAEA.”
The best examples of this, the official said, were the nuclear facilities at Natanz and Qom, which were hidden from IAEA view.
“To presume the Iranians have changed their pattern of behavior is a precarious assumption,” the official said. He also pointed out that North Korea had similar agreements with the IAEA, and then detonated two nuclear devices.
Barak said that Israel’s demands remain a complete stop to enrichment activities, including enrichment to 20 percent and 3.5%. Israel, he said, also demands that all the enriched material, except for a symbolic amount, be removed from Iran, which would also have to agree to an increase in supervision of its nuclear program by the IAEA.
Strategic Affairs Minister Moshe Ya’alon said the Iranians were trying to extract concessions on the sanctions from the West and were maneuvering to buy time. He said Israel would not be satisfied until the Iranians stop all uranium enrichment, transfer what they have already enriched outside the country and close the underground facility at Qom.
With that, he said, Israel could live with a situation where the world powers – without reducing the sanctions – would get Iran to stop enriching to 20%, and close the facility at Qom. The goal for the next round of talks, he said, would then be to get them to stop enriching up to 3.5%.
Meanwhile, Amano acknowledged that “some differences” remained before the deal he hashed out on his first visit to Tehran could be sealed, although chief Iranian negotiator Saeed Jalili had assured him these differences would not thwart an agreement.
“The decision was made to conclude and sign the agreement... At this stage, I can say it will be signed quite soon,” Amano told reporters at the Vienna airport.
Dennis Ross, who served as a White House senior adviser on Iran last year, said that the deal Amano had apparently reached was “a step in the right direction,” but also expressed skepticism over whether it would materialize.
“That would be certainly a very positive development, but we should actually see it done before we believe that it’s actually going to take place,” said Ross, who is now with the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, pointing to previous agreements made by Iran and never implemented.
Still, Ross did note a change in the Iranian approach to these talks and previous efforts at negotiations.
“What we’re seeing for the first time are indications that the Iranians at least are wanting to signal that they’re prepared to deal on their program,” he said. “Now we’ll have to see [whether] what they’re really prepared to do meets what we think is required.”
Ross cautioned against framing Wednesday’s meeting as a “make or break” proposition, but added that the US would make clear to the Iranians that they don’t have “all the time in the world.” He said, however, that the meeting should reveal whether the “clock can be stopped,” and whether it would be possible to find a way for the Iranians to have nuclear power with “firewalls” that would ensure Tehran could not use the program to build nuclear weapons.
Ross said signs of a willingness to stop the clock would include shipping out the uranium that’s been enriched to 20%, along with some of the lower-enriched uranium.
He said an Iranian agreement – to receive fuel from a nuclear fuel bank, accept limits on the number of centrifuges and agree to ceilings on the amount of enriched uranium – would be indications that there is a possibility of an agreement allowing for civil nuclear energy with no nuclear break-out capacity.
Ross said the US and Israel were “staying in very close contact” throughout the talks, and said Barak’s visit to Washington last week was “no accident.” Barak met with his counterpart Leon Panetta, Vice President Joe Biden and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton during his stay.
Meanwhile, in an apparent move to beef up its bargaining position, Iran announced on Tuesday that it had delivered its first two batches of domestically made nuclear fuel to a Tehran research reactor.
If confirmed, Iran’s ability to run the reactor with its own fuel could remove any basis for a mooted deal under which Iran would ship most of its enriched uranium abroad in a swap for such fuel, reducing its stocks of potential atomic bomb material.
Tehran tentatively agreed to the swap in 2009 talks with the powers but the deal collapsed over details of implementation. Iran’s foreign minister said last month it was willing to consider an updated version of the idea.
Yaakov Katz and Reuters contributed to this report.