Amid negotiation tensions, Obama tells Netanyahu he's committed to nuclear weapons free Iran

PM: Deal being forged in Geneva clear victory for Iran; White House says PM's critique of agreement "premature".

By REUTERS
November 9, 2013 01:51
US President Obama addressing reports at White House, September 27, 2013.

Obama at White House 370. (photo credit: REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque)

 
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US President Barack Obama called Israeli Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu on Friday afternoon to discuss developing talks in Geneva over Iran's nuclear program, just as US Secretary of State John Kerry arrived in Switzerland to clinch an interim deal that Israel's government openly opposes.

The call marked the end of a hard day in the relationship between the two leaders. Just before personally meeting with Kerry in Tel Aviv, Netanyahu spoke in front of cameras with unprecedented anger, ripping at the deal being forged in Geneva as a clear victory for the Islamic Republic, orchestrated by the United States.

"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.

Earlier on Friday, the Obama administration responded to Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu's harsh rejection of a deal being worked out between world powers and Iran referring to the Israeli leaders comments as "premature."

Traveling to New Orleans with the president, White House deputy press secretary Josh Earnest told reporters that "there is no deal" with Iran yet in Geneva.

"Any critique of the deal is premature," Earnest added.

The White House statement came as Kerry was in Geneva meeting with Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif and EU foreign affairs chief Catherine Ashton in attempts to close "the important gaps" that remain between the sides before a deal can be signed.

The meeting, that lasted roughly five hours ended late on Friday night without a deal. 

Zarif,  Kerry and Ashton held "good" nuclear talks and have broken for the night, an EU spokesman said before midnight on Friday.

Kerry later told journalists when he arrived back at his hotel in Geneva: "We're working hard."

The meeting between Zarif, Kerry and Ashton began around 6:30 p.m.

"It was productive but still we have lots of work to do," Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister Abbas Araqchi told reporters after the meeting.

A senior US State Department official said late on Friday that "Over the course of the evening, we continued to make progress as we worked to narrow the gaps."

"There is more work to do," the official said about efforts to reach a negotiated deal over Iran's nuclear ambitions. "The meetings will resume tomorrow (Saturday) morning."

Upon landing in Geneva, Kerry, who broke off a visit with Netanyahu in Israel to fly to Geneva amid reports of an impending agreement Friday, said "I want to emphasize there is not an agreement at this point."

Prior to leaving Israel, Kerry was told by Netanyahu that the deal in the works with Iran was unacceptable.

"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 the meeting. "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 is getting everything it wants at this stage, and not giving anything in return, and this at a time when Iran is under intense pressure.

"I call on Secretary Kerry not to be in a hurry to sign, to wait and reconsider," Netanyahu said. Repeating comments he said Thursday night, Netanyahu called this the "deal of the century" for Iran, but a bad and dangerous deal for the world.

Before meeting Kerry, Netanyahu said that he understands that the Iranians are "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.

Netanyahu, in his harshest comments to date on the matter, said Israel "utterly rejects" the deal, "and what I am saying is shared by many, many in the region whether or not they express it publicly. Israel is not obliged by this agreement and Israel will do everything it needs to defend itself, to defend the security of its people."

According to the proposed short-term deal, Iran would freeze its nuclear activities for the next six months, allowing for more time to reach a permanent agreement.

The Guardian reported that the "first-step agreement" is understood to include four key points:

* Iran would stop weapons-grade 20 percent uranium enrichment and turn its existing stockpile into oxide, a harmless material.

* Iran would be allowed to continue 3.5% enrichment needed for power stations, but limit the number of centrifuges being used. The deal would, however, not include any demand to remove or disable any other centrifuges.

* While still being allowed to work on its plutonium reactor at Arak, Iran would agree not to activate it for the duration of the six months. The plutonium reactor could provide for another route to nuclear weapons capability.

* Iran would not use its IR-2 centrifuges that are more advanced and capable of enriching uranium three-to-five times faster than the older model.

In exchange for these steps, the US would agree to ease some "reversible" economic sanctions, the Guardian reported, possibly by releasing some Iranian funds frozen in overseas accounts. In addition, the US could possibly relax restrictions on Iran's petrochemical, motor and precious metals industries.

PUSH FOR FURTHER SANCTIONS


US lawmakers have threatened to slap new sanctions on Iran even as the talks in Geneva have appeared to progress, despite White House appeals to hold off while it tests the diplomatic waters.

The Senate banking committee may introduce a bill with new sanctions on Iran's oil sales after similar legislation was passed by the House of Representatives in July. And some Republicans are considering introducing a package of tighter Iran sanctions as an amendment to a defense authorization bill that is expected to be debated next month.

"We need to see the details, but if there really is a deal this bad, lawmakers are going to have to explore their options," a senior aide to a senator said on Friday. Pro-Israel sentiment runs high on both sides of the aisle on Capitol Hill.

Eric Cantor, majority leader in the Republican-controlled House, said the emerging deal in Geneva would fall short if it failed to completely halt Iran's nuclear program.

"We should not race to accept a bad deal, but should keep up the pressure until the Iranians are willing to make significant concessions," he said.

Criticism also has begun bubbling up from some leading pro-Israel groups in Washington. White House officials met some of the more hawkish American Jewish leaders last week but failed to win broad support for a pause in further sanctions against Iran.

"Any deal that breathes life back into Iran's economy in return for token and superficial moves that put Tehran no further from nuclear breakout ... appears to be a horrific strategic error," said Josh Block, chief executive officer of The Israel Project, a non-partisan, pro-Israel organization.

J Street, a more liberal lobbying group, took a different tack, urging supporters on its website to "tell your senators: don't undermine Iran negotiations with new sanctions."

There was no immediate comment on the Geneva talks from the largest and most influential pro-Israel lobby, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, or AIPAC.

Jpost.com staff contributed to this report.

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