Israel will campaign unrelentingly against a deal with Iran that allows it to retain uranium enrichment rights and does not end its development of a plutonium track toward nuclear arms, a senior Israeli official said on Saturday night.
The official’s comments came as world powers and Iran failed to finalize an agreement – one that Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu characterized as a “very, very bad deal” for Israel and the world – giving Israel time to fervently make its case against the deal before the next round of talks on November 20.
“Some important people inside the P5+1 share our perspective and are anxious about the direction this is going,” the official said.
The P5+1 negotiation with Iran includes the US, Russia, China, France, Britain and Germany.
Talks between Iran and six world powers on curbing Tehran’s nuclear ambitions ended without an agreement early Sunday morning as a split emerged between France and the other powers, diplomats said.
Israeli officials have been saying for months that France has been towing the toughest line against Iran’s nuclear program inside the P5+1, more so than the Americans.
French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said it was not clear the delegations would succeed in nailing down an acceptable interim deal that would begin to defuse fears of a stealthy Iranian advance towards nuclear arms capability.
“As I speak to you, I cannot say there is any certainty that we can conclude,” Fabius told France Inter radio, saying Paris could not accept a “sucker’s deal.”
Fabius said the security concerns of Israel and some Arab neighbors of Iran still “have to be taken into account.”
Intelligence Minister Yuval Steinitz may have had the French remarks in mind when he said on Saturday that he “draws encouragement from the fact that there are other partners to Israel’s concerns about the agreement shaping up.”
While French opposition to the proposed deal showed an interesting alignment of views with Israel on this matter, the last three days revealed deep fissures between Israel and the US on the best way to deal with Iran, with Netanyahu telling US Secretary of State John Kerry during a tense meeting on Friday not to rush off and sign a deal, but rather to reconsider.
The latest round of talks began on Thursday and details of what was being discussed led to Netanyahu issuing a number of unprecedentedly sharp statements against the proposed deal.
“I reminded him of his own words, that it is better not to reach a deal then to reach a bad deal,” Netanyahu said after his Friday meeting with Kerry. “The proposal being discussed now is a bad deal, a very bad deal. Iran is not asked to dismantle even one centrifuge, but the international community is easing sanctions on Iran for the first time in many years.”
According to Netanyahu Iran was getting everything it wanted at this stage and not giving anything in return, and this at a time when Tehran was under intense pressure.
Just before meeting Kerry on Friday, Netanyahu said that he understood that the Iranians were “walking around very satisfied in Geneva, as well they should be, because they got everything, and paid nothing.
“They wanted relief from sanctions after years of a grueling sanctions regime. They got that. They are paying nothing because they are not reducing in any way their nuclear enrichment capability,” he said.
Following these statements, US President Barack Obama called Netanyahu on Friday afternoon to discuss the talks, following what the White House had called Netanyahu’s “premature” criticism.
“The president provided the prime minister with an update on negotiations in Geneva and underscored his strong commitment to preventing Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon, which is the aim of the ongoing negotiations between the P5+1 and Iran,” the White House said in a statement.
Nevertheless, on Saturday – after the conversation with Obama – a senior Israeli official said that “the more the details accumulate” regarding the Geneva talks, “the greater the puzzlement at the haste to sign an agreement that is so bad for the world.”
The official said that the proposed deal would leave a military nuclear capability in Iran’s hands that would enable it to “break out” and build a nuclear bomb within a matter of weeks.
The official said that Israel completely rejects the Geneva proposal that does not shut down all Iranian uranium enrichment, a move demanded even by previous UN Security Council resolutions, and would not be obligated by it.
The official said Israel supported a diplomatic solution that would bring an end to Iran’s nuclear weapons program, meaning it must dismantle its centrifuges, transfer out of the country its enriched uranium, and stop all work on its heavy water reactor at Arak.
“There is no reason to give the right to enrich uranium to a country that blatantly violates Security Council resolutions, participates in the slaughter of civilians in Syria, and carries out a campaign of terrorism around the world,” the official said.
Israel’s sharp criticism of the deal could make it more difficult for Obama to sell any eventual deal to US lawmakers, who have been far from compliant regarding White House proposals on Syria and numerous domestic issues.
US lawmakers have threatened to slap new sanctions on Iran even as the talks are taking place, despite White House appeals to hold off while negotiations continue.
Eric Cantor, majority leader in the Republican-controlled House, said a Geneva deal would fall short if it did not entirely halt Iran’s nuclear program.
While an agreement was not finalized on Saturday, Kerry said on Sunday that world powers had come closer during negotiations with Iran in Geneva to a deal on reining in its nuclear program and that "with good work" the goal could be reached.
"We came to Geneva to narrow the differences and I can tell you without any exaggeration we not only narrowed the differences and clarified those that remain, but we made significant progress in working through the approaches to this question of how one reins in a program and guarantees its peaceful nature," Kerry said.
The secretary of state also cautioned against "jumping to conclusions or believing premature reports or prejudging outcomes."
In a sign that the cordiality that reigned in the first round of talks last month and earlier this week was dissipating, Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister Seyyed Abbas Araqchi told Mehr news agency that his counterparts from the six powers “need constant coordination and consultation in order to determine [their] stances.”
The main sticking points appeared to include calls for a shutdown of a reactor that could eventually help to produce weapons-grade nuclear fuel, the fate of Iran’s stockpile of higher-enriched uranium, and the nature and sequencing of relief from economic sanctions sought by Tehran.
The powers remain concerned that Iran is continuing to amass enriched uranium not for nuclear power stations, as Tehran says, but as fuel for nuclear warheads.
They are searching for a preliminary agreement that would restrain Iran’s nuclear program and make it more transparent for UN anti-proliferation inspectors. In exchange, Tehran would obtain phased, initially limited, relief from the sanctions throttling the economy of the giant OPEC state.
Iran spelled out one major bone of contention. A member of its negotiating team, Majid Takt-Ravanchi, told Mehr news agency on Friday that Western powers should consider easing oil and banking sanctions during the first phase of any deal.
The powers have offered Iran access to Iranian funds frozen abroad for many years but ruled out any broad dilution of the overall sanctions regime in the early stages of an agreement.
Israeli officials said that any sanctions relief without Iran dismantling its nuclear weapons capabilities was like a “small hole in a tire.”
Even a small hole makes the tire go flat, one official said. He added that there were countries in Europe, eastern Europe and Asia who were very keen on doing business with Iran, and who were just waiting for a signal that the sanctions regime is weakening to make their move back into the Iranian market.
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Michael Wilner contributed to this report from Washington.