Israel ‘very concerned’ as US, Iran return to nuclear talks – Bennett

“The Americans are saying one thing to us and then the opposite within a few hours” about interim agreement Israel strongly opposes, source says.

  Prime Minister Naftali Bennett at the cabinet meeting, November 28, 2021.  (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
Prime Minister Naftali Bennett at the cabinet meeting, November 28, 2021.
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett warned against an interim agreement with Iran that the US is considering, a day before nuclear negotiations with Iran resume in Vienna.

“Israel is very concerned about the willingness to lift sanctions and allow the flow of billions to Iran in exchange for insufficient restrictions on the nuclear program,” Bennett said at the start of Sunday’s cabinet meeting. “This is a message that we are conveying in every way, both to the Americans and to the other countries that are negotiating with Iran.”

Bennett added that Foreign Minister Yair Lapid will deliver the same message to UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson in London and French President Emmanuel Macron in Paris this week.

Bennett’s comments reflect increasing alarm in Jerusalem over the American position going into the indirect talks with Iran in Vienna on Monday.

“The Americans are saying one thing to us and then the opposite within a few hours,” a senior Israeli diplomatic source lamented. The source cited an article published in Politico over the weekend quoting a senior Biden administration official who said the US was “open to alternatives,” such as an interim deal that may be pushed by one of the other parties to the JCPOA.

 PEOPLE PASS a mural of Iran's late leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini in Tehran (credit: NAZANIN TABATABAEE/WANA VIA REUTERS) PEOPLE PASS a mural of Iran's late leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini in Tehran (credit: NAZANIN TABATABAEE/WANA VIA REUTERS)

The purpose of the talks, resuming after a nearly six-month break, was meant to be a return to the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action nuclear deal, which Israel opposes because it insufficiently limited Iran’s uranium enrichment, did not address its other malign actions in the region. Israel also believes that the JCPOA as directly constructed paves the way for Iran to eventually obtain a nuclear bomb.

Senior Iranian officials, meanwhile, have said they are only willing to negotiate the lifting of sanctions and not about its nuclear program.

With all of its weaknesses, Israel still views the JCPOA as a lesser evil than an interim agreement. Such a deal, sometimes called “less for less,” would likely mean the US lifting some sanctions in exchange for Iran freezing –  but not rolling back – its nuclear program, which has advanced far beyond the JCPOA’s restrictions.

“The Americans’ explanation [for seeking an interim deal] is that they don’t want to wake up in X amount of time and find Iran on the verge of nuclear breakout, so they just want to stop enrichment,” the Israeli source explained. “We agree, but we think it can be stopped differently... Our experience from 2015 shows us that any lifting of sanctions and injection of funds will end with [Iran] growing stronger in the region and advancing its nuclear program.”

Israel nevertheless hopes to push its allies toward a more aggressive diplomatic stance with Iran, such as bringing its obstruction of the International Atomic Energy Agency’s inspectors to the UN Security Council for condemnation, and to increase pressure rather than lift sanctions and “give in to blackmail,” as the source characterized it.

Even a return to the JCPOA as written in 2015 is “a disaster” as well, the source said, because of its impending sunset clauses, and the lifting of international sanctions on the Islamic Republic.

Tensions between Jerusalem and Washington have grown in recent weeks as the negotiations neared, but have not reached a “full-on clash.” There are still some in the Biden administration who are more sympathetic to Israel’s position, the senior diplomatic source said. Israel recognizes that the US has “no good options, only terrible ones.”

The current government sees great importance in making its views known and speaking in one voice as much as possible, with President Isaac Herzog paying a diplomatic role in his visit to the UK last week that other senior government figures said was important.

Lapid is expected to request from Macron and Johnson that they insist the US maintain its sanctions on Iran, and to say that Tehran will not keep its promises.

Mohammad Eslami, head of Iran’s Atomic Energy Organization, said over the weekend that the Vienna talks will not be about “nuclear issues,” but rather about the United States’ return to the 2015 nuclear deal, Iranian media reported, echoing remarks by other Iranian officials in recent weeks.

Separately, Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian said his country is reentering negotiations seeking the verifiable lifting of US economic sanctions.

“If the opposing sides are prepared to return to their full obligations and the lifting of sanctions, a good and even immediate agreement can be reached,” Amirabdollahian said in a telephone conversation with the European Union’s foreign policy chief, Joseph Borrell.

“Iran wants a good and verifiable agreement,” Iranian media quoted Amirabdollahian as saying.

Also Sunday, the Iranian Armed Forces' spokesman Sardar Shekarchi said his country seeks Israel's destruction.

"We will not retreat even an inch from the disappearance of the occupying regime in Jerusalem in the world, reminded that the destruction of the occupying regime in Jerusalem is the greatest goal and the greatest goal we pursue," Shekarchi said, according to ISNA.

Shekrachi said that countries like the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain that have made peace with Israel are part of "International Zionism," which is a conspiracy that "goes beyond the fake Zionist regime" and "seeks the slavery of the servants of God."

The Iranian armed forces spokesman also came out against those who "think it is possible to deal with a great devil like America...[which] wants to be a materialist and enslave everyone." 

Reuters contributed to this report.