(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
Israel is “deeply concerned” about the direction negotiations between the world powers and Iran is headed, Strategic Affairs Minister Yuval Steinitz said Wednesday on the eve of a new round of nuclear talks.
Steinitz’s message, delivered at a Jerusalem press conference with the foreign press, was coordinated closely with Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu.
Steinitz, who returned from Washington over the weekend from the biannual strategic dialogue with the US that focused largely on Iran, said the Iranians have shown “no real flexibility” on two main issues: their insistence on keeping most of their centrifuges in place, and their refusal to dismantle the heavy water reactor at Arak.
“The picture is gloomy,” he said.
Steinitz said the positions of Iranian President Hassan Rouhani and Foreign Minister Mohammed Javad Zarif, the Islamic Republic’s nuclear negotiator, are no different than the positions of former president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and former chief nuclear negotiator Saeed Jalili two years ago.
“The only thing that has changed is the tone,” he added. “The only difference is that what the world was unwilling to hear from Ahmadinejad and Jalili, it is willing to listen to from Rouhani and Zarif.”
Steinitz said since the Iranians have shown no real flexibility on the two main issues of centrifuges and Arak, “we are deeply concerned that a deal might be a bad deal, and therefore want to reemphasize President [Barack] Obama’s very important principle and statement that no deal is better than a bad deal. This principle should really be adopted and implemented, because it really is the case.”
Steinitz is scheduled to fly to the UN Saturday night for talks with representatives of the P5+1 – the US, Russia, China, Britain, France and Germany – about the talks.
Another reason for Israel’s concern, he said, was that some in the international community want to come to an agreement with the Iranians so they can focus on other world crises that seem more immediate: Islamic State, Syria and Ukraine.
“Some people might think ‘Lets clean the table, let’s close the file,’” he said. “At least that’s what the Iranians feel – that the world will now give up and be satisfied with minor concessions because of the other problems.”
Israel, Steinitz stressed, supported the global coalition against Islamic State and global jihadists, but “not at the expense of the struggle against the Iranian nuclear project.”
With the increased focus on the Islamic state, it is important for the international community to keep its priorities correct, he said, and “although it is important to defeat ISIS [Islamic State], if Iran gets nuclear weapons, it’s a different world for decades. This is the main threat to global security and should be the priority.”
Steinitz said it is so important to stop Islamic State, not necessarily because of its brutality – which is terrible but has been surpassed by Boko Haram in Africa and by Bashar Assad in Syria – but because it is trying to establish a second Islamic state in Iraq.
“One Iran is enough,” he said, adding that the world cannot take the risk of the establishment of a second one that will also sponsor terrorism and pursue chemical and nuclear weapons.
Steinitz, in an apparent reference to the fact that EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton, who has been running the negotiations with Iran will soon end her term, stressed that “the lack of agreement is not a failure.” Rather, he said, “if the P5+1 stands by its principles and commitments, it’s not a failure but a success.”
The Iranians may believe that since Ashton is ending her term as EU foreign policy chief, and since she has been a leading figure in the negotiations, “she may have extra motivation to conclude a deal – whether it is a good deal or a bad deal – and this is problematic. I hope this is not the case,” he said.
Steinitz said he hoped Ashton “can be honest enough with herself to say that maybe there isn’t a deal, that a deal would be nice, but let’s not deceive ourselves.”
Asked whether he came back from Washington more or less concerned, he answered “I went concerned and I came back concerned. I didn’t hear anything [indicating] the Iranians had made concessions that gave me hope.”