Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu spoke out against a return to the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran, shortly after the Islamic Republic and world powers began talks in Vienna on Tuesday to do just that.
“The danger that Iran will return – and this time with an international imprimatur – to a path that will allow it to develop a nuclear arsenal is on our doorstep on this very day,” Netanyahu said in a meeting of the Likud faction in the Knesset.
Referring to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), the Iran deal’s official name, Netanyahu said: “We cannot go back to the dangerous nuclear plan, because a nuclear Iran is an existential threat and a very big threat to the security of the whole world.”
Netanyahu noted it is the day before the start of Holocaust Remembrance Day, saying: “We must act against the fanatical regime in Iran that is simply threatening to erase us from the earth… We will always know to defend ourselves by ourselves from those who seek to kill us.”
At about the same time, the indirect negotiations between Iran and the US ended for the day.
Iran’s chief nuclear negotiator, Abbas Araqchi, told state television that Iran and major powers will continue to discuss ways to revive the 2015 nuclear deal that former US president Donald Trump abandoned in 2018.
“The talks in Vienna were constructive... our next meeting will be on Friday,” Araqchi said, adding that Tehran would not suspend its enrichment of uranium to 20% fissile purity in return for the release of $1 billion of its funds blocked in other countries, due to US sanctions reimposed on Iran since 2018.
European intermediaries began shuttling between Iranian and US officials in Vienna as they sought to bring both countries back into full compliance with the 2015 nuclear deal.
Diplomats said the talks could continue for several days to resolve some of the less contentious issues before resuming in several rounds over the coming weeks.
The objective is some form of an accord ahead of June’s Iranian presidential election, an EU official said, although Iranian and US officials have said there is no rush.
Iran has steadily overstepped the accord’s limits on its nuclear program.
While Tehran has repeatedly rebuffed “direct and indirect negotiations” with its old foe, Washington said on Monday it expected the discussions to be difficult. Neither side expected any early breakthrough.
Even without face-to-face talks, however, the presence of both Iran and the United States in the same location marks a step forward.
“We are confident that we are on the right track, and if America’s will, seriousness and honesty is proven, it could be a good sign for a better future for this agreement,” Iranian government spokesman Ali Rabiei told reporters.
The remaining parties to the deal – Russia, China, the UK, France and Germany – briefly met at a Viennese hotel for preparatory talks in the Austrian capital, where the pact was originally reached in 2015.
Russia’s envoy to the International Atomic Energy Agency, Mikhail Ulyanov, said after the meeting that the parties had tasked two expert-level groups on sanctions-lifting and nuclear issues to identify concrete measures to move forward.
The experts were set to begin technical work later on Tuesday with the aim of marrying lists of sanctions that the United States could lift with nuclear obligations Iran should meet.
Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who has the final say on all state matters, has opposed any gradual easing of sanctions.
The US delegation, headed by special envoy Rob Malley and sanctions expert Richard Nephew, were based in a nearby hotel.
“This is going to involve discussions about identifying the steps that the US has to take and identifying the steps that Iran is going to have to take,” Malley told NPR radio on Tuesday morning.
US President Joe Biden’s administration wants to revive the accord but says this requires negotiations. Tehran has dismissed any direct engagement for now in talks with Washington.
Under the 2015 accord, US and other economic sanctions on Tehran were removed in return for curbs on Iran’s nuclear program, making it harder to develop a nuclear weapon, which would expire in 2030.
Tehran has long denied it is enriching uranium for any other purpose than civilian nuclear energy, but Israel and the European parties to the JCPOA have pointed out that its level of enrichment, as well as the development of uranium metals, do not have civilian uses.
Earlier this week, a senior Israeli official said he found the US position in the talks to be “very troubling.”
The official made the remark in response to an interview with US Special Envoy for Iran Rob Malley on PBS last week, in which he spoke about a return to the JCPOA without mentioning negotiating additional elements that would strengthen the deal, as US President Joe Biden had previously said he would seek.
“If this is American policy, we are concerned,” the official said. “In the past, the Biden administration talked about a ‘longer and stronger deal’... and that’s not [in the Malley interview]. It’s all about going to the 2015 deal.”
Furthermore, the official said, “nowhere in the entire interview does Malley say the goal is to prevent Iran from getting nuclear weapons.”
Former ambassador to the US Michael Oren, who was in Washington at the start of Iran deal negotiations, said the Biden administration is “going against all rationale and all logic in returning to the JCPOA.
“None of us here can figure out why. Why is this so important to them?” he said. “It’s a danger to us in a profound and strategic way.”
Oren described the situation as such that “the only thing standing between the Americans and the JCPOA are the Iranians themselves… That is distressing for us.”
The former ambassador posited that, to the Biden administration, “the details are not important. It’s no longer about the JCPOA, it’s about [former US president Donald] Trump and the Democrats… [Israel] supported Trump on it, so there’s not a lot of sympathy.”
Oren also pointed to remarks by Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif in which he said that if the US returns to compliance with the JCPOA, they will be willing to discuss further arrangements, such as limiting American arm sales in the region.
“That is what the talks will be about,” Oren warned.
Oren expressed concern that a worry Israelis had during the Obama administration could arise again, that the US will “exchange an Iranian nuclear program for ours and create a nuclear-free zone in the Middle East. The Israeli position was it could only happen if all weapons of mass destruction are removed from the Middle East.”