Iran nuclear talks must be halted, Bennett tells Blinken

Mossad chief: Iran will never have a nuclear weapon * US Secretary of State: "We'll know in a day or two if Iran is serious"

 Iran's chief nuclear negotiator Ali Bagheri Kani and members of the Iranian delegation wait for the start of a meeting of the JCPOA Joint Commission in Vienna, Austria November 29, 2021. (photo credit: EU DELEGATION IN VIENNA/HANDOUT VIA REUTERS)
Iran's chief nuclear negotiator Ali Bagheri Kani and members of the Iranian delegation wait for the start of a meeting of the JCPOA Joint Commission in Vienna, Austria November 29, 2021.
(photo credit: EU DELEGATION IN VIENNA/HANDOUT VIA REUTERS)

World powers must halt negotiations in Vienna to renew the 2015 Iran nuclear deal and impose strict measures against Tehran, Prime Minister Naftali Bennett told US Secretary of State Antony Blinken on Thursday.

“The prime minister addressed the ongoing and provocative violations of Iran in the nuclear field that are happening at the same time as the negotiations,” an Israeli source emphasized.

“The answer is not to give in to extortion but rather to make the Iranians pay an immediate price for their blackmail,” the source added.

Bennett spoke to Blinken from Jerusalem on the fourth day of European Union-led indirect talks between Iran and the United States that have exposed large gaps between the two sides without offering much hope for resolution.

Mossad chief David Barnea pledged Thursday night that “Iran will not have nuclear weapons – not in the coming years, not ever. This is my personal commitment: This is the Mossad’s commitment.

“Our eyes are open, we are alert, and together with our colleagues in the defense establishment, we will do whatever it takes to keep that threat away from the State of Israel and to thwart it in every way,” Barnea said.

RALLYING AGAINST the Iran nuclear deal on Capitol Hill in Washington, 2015. (credit: JONATHAN ERNST / REUTERS)RALLYING AGAINST the Iran nuclear deal on Capitol Hill in Washington, 2015. (credit: JONATHAN ERNST / REUTERS)

The 2015 deal, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) restricted the purity to which Iran can enrich uranium to 3.67%, far below the roughly 90% that is weapons-grade, or the 20% Iran reached before the deal. Iran is now enriching to various levels, the highest being around 60%.

In November, the Institute for Science and International Security reported that Iran has enough enriched uranium hexafluoride enriched to nearly 20%, and 60% enriched uranium to produce enough weapons-grade uranium for a nuclear weapon in as little as three weeks. In just two months more, Iran could produce enough weapon-grade uranium to produce a second weapon.

THE INTERNATIONAL Atomic Energy Agency said on Wednesday that Iran has started producing enriched uranium with advanced centrifuges at its Fordow plant.

Barnea said that when it comes to Iran, “It is clear that there is no need for 60% enriched uranium for civilian purposes. There is no need for three sites with thousands of active centrifuges unless the intention is to develop nuclear weapons.”

Should an agreement be reached in Vienna that is a “bad” one, Barnea said, it would be “unbearable.”

Blinken, who is in Stockholm to attend a meeting of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, was quizzed by reporters as to whether he would adhere to Bennett’s request.

The US had not given up on talks, Blinken said, even though there was not much cause for optimism.

“We’re going to know very, very quickly, I think in the next day or two, whether Iran is serious or not,” Blinken said.

“Recent moves [by Tehran], recent rhetoric, don’t give us a lot of cause for optimism,” Blinken said. “But even though the hour is getting very late, it is not too late for Iran to reverse course and engage meaningfully in an effort to return to mutual compliance with the JCPOA. We need to test that proposition fully.”

Still, Blinken said, “We will not accept the status quo of Iran building its [nuclear] program on the one hand and dragging its feet in talks on the other. That’s not going to last.”

With respect to Bennett, the secretary of state said that “I had a very good and detailed conversation with Prime Minister Bennett today.”

He promised to stay “in very close contact with Israel, as well as with other concerned countries including in the Gulf, about the status of the talks and our assessment of where this is going or where it’s not going.”

An Israeli official said Bennett’s conversation with Blinken was long and difficult, and was about 90% focused on Iran.

The prime minister expressed opposition to lifting sanctions from Iran, particularly in the framework of an interim agreement that would allow a massive flow of funds to the regime in Tehran.

Israel opposes the JCPOA because it didn’t sufficiently limit Iran’s uranium enrichment and, in fact, legitimizes further enrichment after the agreement expires, which paves the way for an eventual nuclear bomb. In addition, the JCPOA did not address Iran’s other malign actions in the region.

BUT WORSE than the JCPOA, Israeli officials say, would be an interim deal that would barely restrict Iran’s nuclear program. Tehran has repeatedly said it will only negotiate the lifting of all post-JCPOA US sanctions and not the nuclear issue.

As such, Jerusalem has grown increasingly concerned that Washington is considering such an agreement, which some diplomats have called “less for less,” to have the US lift some sanctions in exchange for Iran freezing – not rolling back – its nuclear program, which has advanced far beyond the JCPOA’s restrictions.

The nuclear deal was initially signed between Iran and six world powers: the United States, Russia, China, France, Great Britain and Germany. The Trump administration exited the deal in 2018, but US President Joe Biden has sought to revive it.

Israel’s diplomats have been working around the clock to influence the US, the United Kingdom and France on the talks. Earlier this week, Foreign Minister Yair Lapid met in the UK with Prime Minister Boris Johnson, and in France with President Emmanuel Macron. Next week, Defense Minister Benny Gantz will discuss Iran with US officials. The security cabinet is set to meet on Sunday afternoon to discuss Iran.

In response to Bennett’s call to halt negotiations and Israel’s diplomatic blitz, the Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman said that “the negotiating teams for nuclear talks in Vienna will not receive instructions from Balfour.

“As the nuclear talks in Vienna progress, the Israeli regime is showing its true face again and calling for an immediate cessation of negotiations. This is not surprising,” the spokesman continued.

Anna Ahronheim, Tzvi Joffre and Reuters contributed to this report.