Zarif says Israel can't use Iran as excuse for atrocities as Netanyahu warns of bad deal

Kerry, Zarif meet again in Munich as Netanyahu vows to continue work to thwart a bad nuclear agreement.

Netanyahu and Zarif (photo credit: REUTERS)
Netanyahu and Zarif
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Even as US Secretary of State John Kerry met with his Iranian counterpart Mohammad Javad Zarif in Munich Sunday morning for two hours, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Tehran and the world powers were galloping forward toward an agreement that would enable Iran to arm itself with nuclear weapons, endangering Israel’s existence.
Netanyahu, at the start of the weekly cabinet meeting in Jerusalem, said Israel is working with a new urgency to stop “this bad and dangerous agreement,” after an announcement over the weekend about attempts to complete a deal by the end of March. Netanyahu said he would continue to lead international efforts against Iran’s nuclear armament and work “in every way possible” to thwart a “bad and dangerous agreement that will cast a heavy cloud over the future of the State of Israel.”
Netanyahu made no reference in his comments to his controversial planned speech to Congress on March 3, and did not address the mounting criticism – both domestic and in the US – to the address coming in the midst of a US domestic debate on Iran sanctions, and only two weeks before the Israeli election.
While Netanyahu continued to slam the deal, Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei appeared to be preparing Iranian public opinion and his country’s hard liners for a possible agreement, saying he could accept a compromise in nuclear talks. This was seen as his strongest defense yet of President Hassan Rouhani’s decision to negotiate with the West.
“I would go along with any agreement that could be made,” he told Iranian Air Force personnel, according to official news agencies.
“Of course, if it is not a bad deal. No agreement is better than an agreement that runs contrary to our nation’s interests.”
That line – that no deal is better than a bad deal – has been uttered by Iran’s supreme leader, US President Barack Obama and Israel’s leadership, including by the prime minister and by Bayit Yehudi leader Naftali Bennett.
As negotiators approach a self-imposed March 30 deadline for a political framework agreement, hoping to enshrine the contours of a final deal, the question facing diplomats is whether those standards for a “good deal” are reconcilable with one another.
Negotiators have set June 30 as their final deadline for a comprehensive agreement. Speaking to NBC’s Meet the Press on Sunday morning from Munich, Kerry said the parties are done with extensions, echoing similar comments from Zarif made earlier in the day.
“If we’re not able to make the fundamental decisions that have to be made over the course of the next weeks, literally, I think it would be impossible to extend,” Kerry told the network’s Chuck Todd. “I don’t think we would want to extend at that point. Either you make the decisions to prove your program is a peaceful one, or if you’re unable to do that, it may tell a story that none of us want to hear.”
Zarif agreed, though with several caveats. Iran’s position before the last extension, in November 2014, remains unchanged, he says, asserting the futility of further delays; and unlike positions expressed by his Western counterparts, he says “it is not the end of the world” for Iran if a deal does not come to pass.
After a series of bilateral meetings over the weekend, including a 90-minute talk between Zarif and Kerry, Western officials suggested a different line was issued in private.
Rouhani’s presidency would be jeopardized by hard liners, Zarif allegedly said, if negotiations fail. Zarif’s office denied reports that such a discussion occurred.
In a speech that still underlined his suspicions about Western nations he characterized as “bullies,” Khamenei backed Rouhani’s negotiations and said any workable deal would mean both sides easing their demands.
“As the president said, negotiations mean reaching a common point,” he said. “Therefore, the other party... should not expect its illogical expectations to be materialized.
This means that one side would not end up getting all it wants.”
The supreme leader suggested disapproval of the timeline outlined by the US, UK, France, Russia, China and Germany, when the last extension was announced: A political framework must be announced “simultaneously” with a full agreement over technical details, local Iranian media reported.
“I am for reaching a good settlement and the Iranian nation too will certainly not oppose any deal to uphold its dignity and integrity,” Khamenei said.
Among the major sticking points in the negotiations are the pace at which sanctions would be removed, the size of Iran’s nuclear fuel-producing capacity – a key consideration in preventing any output of bomb material – and the length of any agreement.
“Our [nuclear] negotiators are trying to take the weapon of sanctions away from the enemy,” Khamenei said. “If they can, so much the better. If they fail, everyone should know there are many ways at our disposal to dull this weapon.”
Any deal “must be concluded in one stage and consist of clear and detailed specifications, and not subject to [various] interpretations,” he continued. “Given our past experience in dealing with the [West], a final draft must not leave any room for the other side to repeatedly extract concessions.”
As Netanyahu was speaking about Iran to his cabinet, Zarif – appearing at the Munich Security Conference – was asked to respond to Israeli fears that Iran poses an existential threat.
“We do not have a weapons program. We will never have a weapons program. We never had a weapons program,” he said. “They cannot create a smokescreen to hide their atrocities against the Palestinian people, their continued violation of Palestinian human rights, their continued acts of aggression against Palestinian, Lebanese, Jordanian and Syrian people under the guise of a hypothetical Iranian threat that is more hype than anything else.”
“Iran is not threatening anybody,” Zarif said in a statement that went unchallenged by his interviewer, Washington Post columnist David Ignatius. “We are not threatening to use force. We are not saying that all options are on the table.”
Zarif, who said the objectives of the talks were to assure the world of the “peaceful” nature of Iran’s nuclear program and bring about an end to the sanctions regime against his country, said it was “important for everybody to realize that the only way to deal with Iran is through respect and negotiations and meeting on a non-zero-sum game.”
He claimed the sanctions regime was a “failure,” and that when it started Iran had less than 200 centrifuges. Today, he said, “we have 20,000 centrifuges.”
Israel and the US, however, maintain that it was the crippling sanctions that compelled Iran to come to the negotiations in the first place. While Netanyahu believes the sanctions should be ratcheted up even higher, Obama believes this would be counterproductive.
Reuters contributed to this report.