Obama rejects PM's claim that talks gave Iran a ‘freebie’

Government officials say it was important for Israel to make its position known.

Obama in Colombia_370 (photo credit: Reuters)
Obama in Colombia_370
(photo credit: Reuters)
Government officials Monday defended Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s skepticism of the world powers’ negotiations with Iran, even though his remark that Saturday’s talks gave the Iranians a five-week “freebie” obviously irked US President Barack Obama.
“The notion that somehow we’ve given something away or a ‘freebie’ would indicate Iran has gotten something,” Obama said at a news conference in Colombia Sunday afternoon (early Monday morning Israel time), just hours after Netanyahu’s reaction to the Istanbul talks. “In fact, they’ve got some of the toughest sanctions that they’re going to be facing coming up in just a few months if they don’t take advantage of these talks.”
Netanyahu said that his initial impression of the talks was that Iran got “five weeks to continue enrichment without any limitation, any inhibition.”
Despite Obama’s irked response, officials in Jerusalem said it was important for Netanyahu to put Israel’s position out there. This position, one official said, is that Israel does not want to see the Iranians draw the world into a game where each meeting brings a five or six week respite until the next, during which Iran will continue enriching uranium and developing its nuclear program.
Netanyahu, the official said, made this position clear last month in Ottawa when he said that Iran must be kept from again using negotiations to gain time and advance its nuclear program.
“Right now, Iran is feeling the pressure of economic sanctions, and it could try to evade that pressure by entering talks,” Netanyahu said at the time. His comments Sunday were merely an expansion on that theme, the official said.
Obama, in his comments in Colombia, said there would be more sanctions imposed on Iran if there was no breakthrough in nuclear talks with the group known as the P5+1 – the US, Russia, China, France, Britain and Germany.
“We’re going to keep on seeing if we make progress,” Obama said.
“Now, the clock is ticking and I’ve been very clear to Iran and to our negotiating partners that we’re not going to have these talks just drag out in a stalling process,” he said.
Meanwhile, Iran’s Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi said Iran is ready to resolve all nuclear issues in the next round of talks in Baghdad on May 23 if the West starts lifting sanctions.
In an interview with the Iranian student news agency ISNA, Salehi also hinted that Iran could make concessions on its higher-grade uranium enrichment, which could be used for nuclear weapons.
Salehi asserted Iran’s right to process uranium for peaceful purposes but that there might be room for a compromise on higher-level enrichment.
“Enrichment is Iran’s right but we can negotiate on how we obtain uranium with different enrichment levels,” he said.
“Making 20 percent [enriched nuclear] fuel is our right as long as it provides for our reactor needs and there is no question about that,” he said, but added: “If they guarantee that they will provide us with the different levels of enriched fuel that we need, then that would be another issue.”
The comments indicate that Iran may be prepared to consider an updated proposal of a 2009 fuel swap deal that collapsed when the two sides failed to agree on the details of implementation.
The 2009 deal would have seen Tehran export an agreed amount of its lower enriched uranium in return for fuel made from higher grade uranium, which is required for the Tehran research reactor.
Both sides said they were content with progress made in Saturday’s talks in Istanbul, which did not go into detail but, unlike earlier rounds of negotiations, stayed on the subject of Iran’s nuclear program.
“If the West wants to take confidence- building measures it should start in the field of sanctions because this action can speed up the process of negotiations reaching results,” Salehi was quoted as saying.
“If there is goodwill, one can pass through this process very easily and we are ready to resolve all issues very quickly and simply and even in the Baghdad meeting,” he added.
It is unclear whether the Iranian foreign minister was suggesting the lifting of sanctions prior to Iran taking steps to reassure the West over its nuclear activities, but Washington has said that would not be acceptable.
Dialogue is not sufficient for any sanctions relief, one has to get to concrete actions that are significant, said a senior Obama administration official after the talks on Saturday.
“One only begins to look at those issues when there are sufficient concrete steps taken that warrant any changes in our approach to sanctions,” the official said.
Denmark, holder of the European Union’s rotating presidency, also said sanctions should not be eased until Tehran takes steps to comply with the demands of the major world powers.
“I think it would be very dangerous to create a situation where we say to Iranians we might lift part of the sanctions,” Danish Foreign Minister Villy Sovndal told reporters. “They are world champions in making very long negotiations lead nowhere.”