Tuesday, May 21, 2024

Israel Nervous Over US/Iran Talks

Israeli officials are nervous over the White House reaction to the two days of nuclear talks with Iran in Geneva last week, which senior US officials described in glowing terms as the most meaningful and serious negotiations ever conducted with the Iranian leadership. The talks were Iran's first negotiations with the P5+1 group of Western nations since its new President, Hassan Rouhani, took office in August. However, Iran made no specific commitment to stop enriching uranium or ship its stockpiles of 20% enriched uranium to another country for safekeeping. The next round of the talks is scheduled to take place in Geneva on November 7 and 8.

 Netanyahu told his cabinet that he is concerned that the talks in Geneva might “give legitimacy to a rogue regime that is participating in the massacre in Syria, is directing a global terror campaign, and calls for the destruction of Israel.


“We must not forget that the Iranian regime has systematically deceived the international community in the past. In this situation as long as we do not see actions instead of words, the international pressure must continue to be applied and even increased. The greater the pressure, the greater the chance that there will be a genuine dismantling of the Iranian military nuclear program,” he said.


US Undersecretary of State Wendy Sherman, who led the US delegation in Geneva, briefed Israel’s National Security Adviser Yaakov Amidror on the substance of the talks.


An Israeli official said that Iran offered to consider halting all enrichment of uranium to 20 percent, limit lower-level 5 percent enrichment and reduce the number of enrichment centrifuges it is operating. Iran also was said to express a willingness to open its most controversial nuclear facilities to unannounced international inspections, and to discuss concessions which it had previously rejected.


Yediot Acharonot is anticipating an “explosion” between Netanyahu and President Obama over the positive US reaction to Iran’s more cooperative attitude in the first round of the Geneva talks. The newspaper reported that “officials in the prime minister’s inner circle harbor a deep concern … that the American president is going to be prepared to ease sanctions on Iran even before the talks have been completed.”


Members of the British delegation to the Geneva talks also came to Israel to brief its Strategic and Intelligence Affairs Minister, Yuval Steinitz and other Israeli officials. Steinitz then headed a delegation of Israeli officials who came to the US to meet with Deputy Secretary of State William Burns to coordinate policy on Iran.




US officials have said that the White House is considering whether to offer Iran a financial incentive in return for initial moves to limit its nuclear program, while leaving the current sanctions on Iran’s oil exports and its access to the international banking system in place. The US might offer to release $50 billion to $75 billion in Iran’s frozen overseas assets from its oil sales, in return for complying with unspecified US demands. The proposal is an alternative way to encourage Iran to halt their nuclear program before it attains a nuclear weapons capability, which could prompt the US or Israeli to launch a military strike.


Offering Iran access to some of its own cash as a reward for agreeing to halt its nuclear program would be easier for the US than tinkering with the complicated, international financial and oil sanctions. Once relaxed, those sanctions, would be difficult to put back in place if Iran failed to live up to the bargain.


The strategy of using access to its cash as a reward for Iran is the brainchild of Mark Dubowitz, executive director of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies. He said the strategy offers the administration an easy way to raise or ease pressure on Iran. “If Iran were to cheat in fulfilling any of its obligations, the quarantine would be re-imposed,” Dubowitz said.


He believes that offering Iran access to its cash is better than the tactics employed earlier this year by the Obama administration, which, allowed Iran to sell petroleum abroad in exchange for gold. “It ended up permitting Iran to earn billions of dollars in gold in exchange for no nuclear concessions,” Dubowtiz said.




In an interview broadcast on American television Sunday, Netanyahu said the US and its allies must accept nothing less than “the full dismantling of Iran’s military nuclear program,” in its current negotiations. He insisted that, “the pressure has to be maintained, even increased on Iran, until it actually stops the nuclear program, that is, dismantles it. The question is not of hope. The question is of actual result. The result has to be the full dismantling of Iran’s military nuclear program.”


Netanyahu warned against any “partial deal” with Iran. “I don’t advise doing that,” he said. He said that by engaging in the Geneva talks, Iran is only trying to evade the sanctions and buy time. “They’re trying to give a partial deal that they know could end up dissolving the sanctions regime and would keep them with the nuclear weapons capabilities. Any partial deal could end up in dissolving the sanctions.”


He said there are many countries around the world who are “just waiting for a signal to get rid of their sanctions regime” against Iran.


Netanyahu also objected to the suggestion that Iran could be offered as an incentive access to some of its cash that is frozen in foreign countries before coming into complete compliance with Western demands on its nuclear program..


He said that Iran’s money was frozen for three good reasons. “One, Iran’s terrorist actions; two, its aggressive actions particularly in the (Persian) Gulf; and three, its continued refusal to stop the production of weapons of mass destruction. You know, if you get all three done and they stop doing it, well then, I suppose you could unfreeze them,” Netanyahu said.




Netanyahu made an analogy with Syria’s arsenal of chemical weapons, which international weapons inspectors are now beginning to dismantle.


“Suppose Syria said, ‘Well, you know, we’re going to dismantle 20 percent of [its chemical weapons]….’” and then expected other nations to ease sanctions. “Nobody would buy that,” Netanyahu said. “That’s exactly what Iran is trying to do. They’re trying to give a partial deal that they know could end up dissolving the sanctions regime and would keep them with the nuclear weapons capabilities.”


Netanyahu was asked about Israel’s preferred outcome in the Syrian civil war between Assad’s forces and the Islamic terrorist groups fighting them near the Israeli border.


Asked if he prefers to have Assad remain in power, the prime minister replied, “No. I certainly don’t. I mean I don’t think Assad is in power. I think Iran is in power, because basically, Syria has become an Iranian protectorate. Iran’s henchmen, Hezbollah, are doing the fighting for Assad, for his army.”


Netanyahu expressed the hope that the Syrian civil war could end “a third way” with neither the Assad regime nor the terrorist rebels in control. “We want to end it in the best way, so that we don’t have either an Iranian protectorate or a jihadist regime, a la Afghanistan, in Syria,” he said.




Officially, the US has not yet admitted that it is considering any kind of gesture to ease the pressure on Iran.


A White House spokesman said, “Iran will have to agree to meaningful, transparent and verifiable actions before we can seriously consider taking steps to ease sanctions.” A State Department spokesman also refused to comment on specific types of sanctions relief, calling such questions “premature and speculative.”


In an interview on the same news program on which Netanyahu appeared, Treasury Secretary Jack Lew, who is an observant Jew, said it was “premature to be talking about the easing” of sanctions against Iran. “I think the sanctions were working and that’s why the discussions (in Geneva) have started. But we need to see what they’re going to actually do. We need to see rolling back their nuclear program. . . We need to see real, tangible evidence of it, and that we will not make moves in the sanctions until we see those kinds of moves.”




Yoel Guzansky, an Iran expert at the Institute for National Security Studies at Tel Aviv University and a former national security aide to the prime minister, said that the US and Israel will always see the situation with Iran differently because of the differences in their military capabilities and the level of threat they face.


He said that “the Americans are interested in a scaled approach [to Iran]. Israel is very concerned about this and it has good reason to be. It’s afraid it will become a slippery slope.” He believes that Israeli officials understand they will not get everything they seek, but are pressing a maximalist view in hopes of getting as many concessions out of Iran as possible.


Guzansky believes that “Israel really only has one option.” to rely on the US. He said that if there is a deal between the US and Iran, “the chance it will act alone after the Americans make a deal is miniscule.”


Ephraim Asculai, a former official of the Israel Atomic Energy Commission and currently a research fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies, said the most important thing is to prevent Iran from stalling and allowing to while to move forward with its weapons program.




Any relaxation of penalties that have been imposed on Iran by the US would have to overcome opposition from a skeptical Congress, which is determined that Iran must stop its uranium enrichment activity as a condition for any sanctions relief. When the talks in Geneva did not result in specific concessions from Iran, pressure grew in Congress for an escalation in sanctions.


Congress is currently considering additional sanctions that include incentives for Iranian cooperation as well as more penalties for Iran’s continued defiance. It has sparked a debate between Congress and the administration over adding new sanctions ahead of the next round of Iranian nuclear talks.


The Senate Banking Committee is expected to take up a legislation based upon a House bill that passed by a 400-20 vote in July. It seeks to blacklist Iran’s mining and construction sectors and calls for all Iranian oil sales to end by 2015.


The Senate bill seeks to block international investment in more Iranian economic sectors, close off Iran’s foreign economic accounts and reduce Obama’s ability to waive the sanctions on US allies and key trading partners who have been allowed to continue doing business with Iran.


An amendment to the legislation introduced by Republican Senator Mark Kirk of Illinois would freeze any remaining assets overseas that Iran can still access by threatening to cut off from the US market any foreign banks that continue doing business with Iran. It would also give Obama the flexibility to offer Iran to access some of that $50 billion to $75 billion it can’t use today. However, it would allow Iran to access the money only if it agrees to end all uranium enrichment and reprocessing, activities.


In addition, a bipartisan statement by six Democratic and four Republican senators insists that Iran must end all uranium enrichment activity.


However, the Rouhani government still insists that it has a right to continue pursuing its nuclear program for peaceful energy production. Iran is unlikely to accept the demands in the current congressional proposals.




The legislation may constrict the administration’s negotiating ability rather than giving it more leeway. Obama has said that he recognized Iran’s right to peaceful nuclear energy when he spoke to Rouhani by phone in September. But Obama has not yet agreed to Iran’s demand that it be permitted to continue uranium enrichment. That remains a key point to be resolved in the ongoing international negotiations.


The Obama administration has expressed concern that other countries may consider the additional sanctions now being proposed in Congress against Iran to be excessive, undercutting their effectiveness. It also fears that they could undermine Rouhani’s government flexibility to agree to compromise before he has had a chance to prove the he is really serious about reaching an agreement on Iran’s nuclear program.




Meanwhile Rohani boasted to his cabinet that his “active diplomacy… has both made (world) governments praise the democracy in Iran and halted the process of (imposing) sanctions (against Iran).” At the same time, he condemned “Zionist sabotage” efforts against the new round of negotiations in Geneva.


Rohani said that, “throughout the history of the Islamic Revolution, whenever the Islamic establishment gets close to success in the international political scene, the Israelis commit acts of sabotage … inside and outside (of Iran).”


Rouhani, who is considered to be relatively moderate in the Iranian political spectrum, has been criticized in recent days by Iranian hardliners who opposed his election earlier this year. They claim that if the US is happy with the results of the first round of talks in Geneva, Rouhani’s representatives must have gone too far in offering Iranian concessions to their demands.


The editor of a newspaper closely associated with Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khameinei, wrote in an analysis of the Geneva talks, “the unprecedented excitement of [the US and its allies]…shows that we have not gained any concessions in return for all the concessions that we have given away or promised to give away.”




Meanwhile, Iran is trying to increase its purchases of advanced arms from Russia. As a good will gesture, it recently gave an Iranian copy of a small US reconnaissance drone called the ScanEagle to the visiting head of the Russian air force, General Viktor Bondarev. Iran claims to have modeled the drone after an American original that it obtained in December. It claims that it succeeded in copying the drone through reverse engineering, and is now mass producing it for its own use.


Iran also wants Russia to deliver a shipment of the S-300 anti-aircraft system which was ordered in 2007. Russia refused to deliver it after the UN Security Council imposed sanctions on Iran in 2010.


The Associated Press contributed to this report.



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