Tuesday, Jun 18, 2024

Israel-US Relationship Frayed

The US and its allies narrowly avoided signing onto a fatally flawed deal to relax the sanctions on Iran for six months, which would have given it diplomatic cover and enough time to complete its transformation into a nuclear power. One Israeli official said that despite Secretary of State John Kerry's protestations to the contrary, “the Americans are anxious to sign a bad deal because they fear the only alternative left – without a deal – is a military strike on Iran,” probably by Israel, acting in self defense, because Obama is unwilling to keep his promise to prevent Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons.

Just hours after the Geneva meeting ended in failure, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu appeared on an American news interview program to condemn the deeply flawed proposal that the US was ready to accept.


He noted that all the deal would have required of Iran was the “minor concession of taking 20 percent enriched uranium and bringing it down to a lower enrichment. But that they could recover [that] within a few weeks given the capabilities that they keep for enrichment,” because “not one” uranium-enrichment centrifuge would be dismantled under the deal that would effectively turn Iran into “a threshold nuclear power.”


Despite Netanyahu’s vehement objections, Kerry broke off a Middle East trip to fly to Geneva Friday with the intention of signing the agreement, along with the foreign ministers of other US allies, which would have broken the momentum of the sanctions on Iran.




The deal was blocked by French foreign minister Laurent Fabius who recognized the “freeze” as a “fool’s game” that was too advantageous to Iran. France recognized that it would not halt the crucial elements of Iran’s determined drive to acquire nuclear weapons, including enriching uranium and building a heavy-water nuclear reactor at Arak to produce plutonium, the raw materials for nuclear weapons. The French wasted a decade in fruitless negotiations with the Iranians over their nuclear program. In demanding more substantive Iranian concessions, the French blocked a unanimous agreement among the six nations that were negotiating with Iran, including the US, Britain, Germany, Russia and China, known as the P5+1.


The six-month “freeze” period was intended to give the two sides time to negotiate a final agreement to permanently eliminate Iran’s ability to develop a nuclear weapon in return for the complete lifting of the sanctions. But even during the “freeze,” Iran, would be permitted to continue using a new generation of uranium enrichment centrifuges which would enable it to create nuclear weapons out of its existing stockpile of enriched uranium within a matter of weeks, any time it wanted to.


Reports that France shared Israel’s assessment of Iran’s lack of sincerity in the Geneva talks drew condemnation in the Iranian media and gratitude from Israel, where French President François Hollande is scheduled to visit in a few days.




Opponents of the talks, including Israel and Saudi Arabia, argue that the six month delay is unnecessary. Iran has been using negotiations for the past decade to stall for time to continue developing its nuclear program. They follow the same pattern of seeming to agree to Western demands to extend the talks only to come up with one pretext or another at the end to avoid agreement and continue with their nuclear program as the negotiations continue in fits and starts.


Netanyahu said, “there are many, many Arab leaders in the region who are saying this is a very bad deal for the region and the world. You know, when you have the Arabs and Israelis speaking in one voice, it doesn’t happen very often; I think it’s worth paying attention to us.” Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf states consider Iran to be their chief rival in the region. Privately, Saudi King Abdullah has often urged the US to “cut off the head of the snake” by attacking Iran’s nuclear programs. These Arab states are almost as dismayed by Obama’s refusal to honor his commitment to stop Iran’s nuclear program as Israel is. Reportedly, the Saudis are now making contingency arrangements with Pakistan to acquire nuclear weapons to keep pace with Iran.


The “freeze” would reward Iran for slowing down some aspects of their nuclear program with access to up to 50 billion dollars in cash that is now frozen in its foreign bank accounts, and allow it to return to the international market in petrochemicals, gold, diamonds and more. As Netanyahu explained the deal, “Iran gives practically nothing and gets a lot. . . The broad feeling [is] that Iran might hit the jackpot here, and it’s not good for us, it’s not good for America, it’s not good for the Middle East, it’s not good for Europe either.”


All that Iran would be giving are promises to halt certain nuclear activities, which could not be readily verified. The freeze would also give Iran another chance to exploit the differences between the US and its European allies, as it did when there was another nuclear freeze in effect on it between 2003 and 2005.


The Israeli prime minister also pointed out that the proposed deal would serve Iran’s purpose by putting “a hole in the tire of the sanctions and the air begins to come out,” relieving the pressure on them to abandon their nuclear program.




Appearing on the same news program with Netanyahu, former Defense Secretary and CIA director Leon Panetta agreed that “we’ve got to be very skeptical. Iran is a country that has promoted terrorism. They’ve had a hidden enrichment facility that we had to find out about. So we’ve got to be skeptical and make sure that, even with some kind of interim agreement, that we know what the next steps are going to be in order to ensure that they really do stand by their word. You better operate from a position of strength if you want to deal with the Iranians.”




After the last round of discussions broke up Motzoei Shabbos without reaching an agreement, European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton, who hosted the negotiations, and Iranian foreign minister Javad Zarif drafted a carefully worded statement saying that progress was made and that another negotiating session would be convened on November 20. Meanwhile, French foreign minister Fabius left the room to tell anxiously waiting reporters, who had been led to expect the announcement of a breakthrough, that there was no deal.


The question is whether the French will stick to their guns at the next Geneva meeting, when they will come under enormous pressure from the US and other allies to go along with the freeze.




According to a briefing by American officials to Israeli reporters, the point over which the talks finally broke down was a demand by Iran that the Western powers formally recognize that Iran has a “right” to enrich uranium under international law. When the P5+1 negotiators refused to agree to that point and include it in the language of the interim agreement, the Iranian negotiators broke off the talks and said that they had to return to Iran for further consultations before going any further.


The US now appears to be willing to allow Iran to continue its low level enrichment of uranium during the six-month freeze, in violation of UN Security Council resolutions, as long as eventually it agrees to a comprehensive deal under which all of its other nuclear activities are strictly monitored to prevent any weapons-building activity. Israel, on the other hand, insists that any final deal must put an end to that capability because as long as Iran’s can enrich uranium, Iran will be able to build a bomb.




On Sunday, Netanyahu expressed relief that the deal had been blocked. He announced that Israel was launching a new diplomatic effort to encourage Western leaders to keep up the sanctions to pressure Iran into abandoning their nuclear program.


The “freeze” would come at a time when Israeli experts believe that Iran is only a few months from finally reaching its goal of developing a “breakout” capacity to put together a nuclear weapon from the components it already has on hand, and by rapidly completing the enrichment of the uranium in its large stockpile to weapons grade with its huge array of 18,500 enrichment centrifuges.


While the basic architecture of Western sanctions would remain in place, the momentum over the past two years of steadily tightening the pressure on Iran to halt its nuclear program would be broken.


It was not clear to what extent Iran would be permitted to continue the enrichment of its uranium during the freeze period. Apparently, the freeze would only impact the most dangerous portion of Iran’s uranium stockpile. It is already enriched to a 20 percent concentration of U-235, the fissionable isotope of uranium, which can sustain a nuclear chain reaction, far more than needed to fuel a peaceful reactor, and just one step from weapons grade.




Before Kerry left for Geneva, Netanyahu, who had been given a heads up about US intentions to relax some of the sanctions, issued a blistering statement condemning the move. “I met Secretary Kerry right before he leaves to Geneva,” he said. “I reminded him that he said that no deal is better than a bad deal. That the deal that is being discussed in Geneva right now is a bad deal. It’s a very bad deal. Iran is not required to take apart even one centrifuge. But the international community is relieving sanctions on Iran for the first time after many years. Iran gets everything that it wanted at this stage and it pays nothing. And this is when Iran is under severe pressure.


“I urge Secretary Kerry not to rush to sign, to wait, to reconsider, to get a good deal. But this is a bad deal–a very, very bad deal. It’s the deal of a century for Iran; it’s a very dangerous and bad deal for peace and the international community.”


The Israeli campaign to persuade American leaders to stand firm against Iran is also being pressed by minister of trade Naftali Bennett. He sent a letter to leading Jewish organizations, including Aipac and the Presidents Conference, warning that, “When Iran launches a nuclear missile at Rome or Tel Aviv, it will have happened only because a bad deal was made during these defining moments. The free world stands before a fork in the road with a clear choice: Either stand strong and insist Iran dismantles its nuclear-weapons program, or surrender, cave in and allow Iran to retain its 18,500 centrifuges.”




Appearing at the same time as Netanyahu on another US Sunday morning news program, Kerry vigorously defended the freeze proposal and pushed back at Netanyahu.


The Secretary of State boasted that, far from being naive about Iran’s capabilities and intentions, the American negotiators are “some of the most serious and capable, expert people in our government, who have spent a lifetime dealing with both Iran” and nuclear proliferation issues.


“Nobody has talked about getting rid of the current architecture of sanctions. The pressure will remain. We are not blind, and I don’t think we’re stupid,” Kerry said. “I think we have a pretty strong sense of how to measure whether or not we are acting in the interests of our country and of the globe, and particularly of our allies like Israel and Gulf states and others in the region.”


Kerry said that if an agreement can be reached at the next meeting scheduled for November 20 on the draft proposal left on the table at Geneva, the subsequent talks would move toward making “absolutely certain . . . that Iran never has a nuclear weapon.”




He and other administration spokesmen argue that the freeze on Iranian sanctions would only be a first step designed to lead to a more comprehensive agreement with Iran to safely limit its nuclear program permanently. He said that if a fuller agreement did not materialize, the sanctions could easily be put back in place.


At a news conference in Geneva early Sunday, Kerry said that the adjournment of the talks without reaching an agreement was simply a pause, not a failure. He argued that the draft document was complicated, and that the negotiating pace had been intense. He said that the participating governments needed more time to study the proposal and build public support for it before returning to Geneva to resume their talks and hopefully reach an agreement then.


“There is no question in my mind that we are closer now to a deal” than last week, Kerry said. “This can be done,” he added. “I’m not going to tell you it will be. But I can absolutely tell you it can be.”




Observers in Geneva were impressed by the relaxed demeanor of Iranian Foreign Minister Zarif at a brief news conference in Geneva shortly after the talks ended. Zarif said, he found “political determination, willingness and good faith” among his diplomatic counterparts but also found solace in their obvious disunity on how the proposed freeze should be structured. “Obviously, the six countries may have differences of views,” Zarif said. “But we are working together, and hopefully we will be able to reach an agreement when we meet again” on November 20.


Israeli officials and Iran’s other opponents said that Zarif’s confidence was based upon his confidence that Iran was on the verge of winning a deal that would break the back of Western sanctions and clear the way for it to enter the nuclear armed club of nations.




Even French Foreign Minister Fabius, who was the only one standing in the way of an agreement at Geneva, said Monday that there were only a few points still standing in the way. “We are not far from an agreement with the Iranians, but we are not there yet,” he said in a radio interview.


He again mentioned the construction of the heavy-water reactor at Arak and the enrichment of 20% uranium, both of which French insist be shut down, as the main sticking points. “I am hopeful we will reach a good deal. We want an accord that ensures regional and international stability.” Fabius said. “If we don’t reach an accord it would be a considerable problem in a few months.”


British foreign secretary William Hague told the BBC that in the end, the Western negotiators at Geneva were able to present a unified proposal for the Iranians to consider. He said that when negotiations resume there is a “good chance” of that an interim agreement will be reached. “A deal is on the table, and it can be done. But it is a formidably difficult negotiation. I can’t say exactly when it will conclude.”


Meanwhile, on Monday, the UN’s International Atomic Energy Agency announced that it had reached a new inspection agreement with Iran which would allow international inspectors “managed access” to the site of the heavy-water reactor under construction in Arak, but not to the reactor itself, and to the Gachin mine in Bandar Abas, which is Iran’s source of uranium ore, during the next 3 months. However, the new agreement leaves some previous questions from IAEA inspectors about Iran’s nuclear program unanswered, and still denies inspectors access to a site at Parchin where it is believed that Iran has been developing missile warheads.




The developments in Geneva over the past week seem to have ushered in a new period of tense relations between Israel and the White House. In addition to disagreeing over the proper approach to the Iranian threat, Kerry, during his visit to Israel last week, made the harshest statements yet condemning Israel’s settlements on the West Bank and warning the Israeli government and people that if they do not soon give in to Palestinian demands in the current round of peace talks, they risk igniting a third Intifada and further international isolation. Kerry also seemed to draw an implicit link between US and Western cooperation with Israel in facing the Iran threat and the progress in the peace talks, which he has been promoting personally.


Netanyahu told the Israeli cabinet Sunday that while he was relieved that the decision in Geneva was to reject the proposed deal for now, he recognizes there is still “a strong desire” by the US and other Western powers to reach “a bad agreement” with Iran.




He promised that Israel would lead an all-out effort to prevent it. Over the weekend he had spoken by telephone about the problems with the Geneva deal with President Obama, British Prime Minister David Cameron, French President Francois Hollande, Russian President Vladimir Putin and German Chancellor Angela Merkel.


“I asked all the leaders, ‘What’s the rush?’ I proposed that they wait and consider the matter seriously” Netanyahu said.


On Sunday, speaking on Fox News, Minister Bennett said that, “the only deal we need to be seeking is a deal that would total dismantle the nuclear weapons production machine in Iran. The deal needs to be the original deal, which is to dismantle [Iran’s] entire machine, and right now it’s not even being discussed.”


Bennett said that now is the time for the West to remain strong in its demands because “Iran is on the floor like in a boxing match. They’re under tremendous economic pressure. If we just don’t let up, if we just keep up the pressure, they’ll have to dismantle their entire machine.”


He said that the worst outcome of the current crisis would not be an Israeli attack on Iran. Rather, the worst outcome would be a nuclear armed Iran, “because that bomb will ultimately find it way to the West. It might take a year, it might take three years, but ultimately it will happen and Western lives will be at risk.”


By contrast, the best outcome, Bennett said, would be “a good deal, which dismantles Iran’s capabilities not leaving them with the breakout option. Right now that’s not where we’re headed.”




Meanwhile, a bill that has already passed the House and is awaiting action by the Senate would impose additional financial sanctions against Iran. American Jewish leaders promised the administration to hold off on pressuring the Senate to pass the bill for 60 days, to await the outcome of the Geneva negotiations. That would further limit the amount of time available for Kerry and his negotiators to show real progress in those negotiations before Congress moves to raise the pressure Iran itself through passage of the new sanctions bill.


Many of Israel’s friends in Congress don’t trust the administration’s resolve to keep the sanctions pressure. On Sunday, Bob Corker, the ranking Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, accused the administration of “dealing away our leverage” in Geneva. He said, “We’ve crafted an amendment to freeze the administration in and make it so they are unable to reduce the sanctions unless certain things occur. They have the ability now to waive sanctions. But we’re very concerned that in their desire to make any deal that they may in fact do something that is very bad for our country.”


Kerry testified this week before a Senate committee to explain what happened during the negotiations in Geneva.


The Iranian foreign minister Zarif has challenged Kerry’s public statement that the Western powers were unified and that the Iranians were responsible for the ultimate failure of the talk. Zarif claims that the French demands caused more than half of the original US freeze proposal to be scrapped and rewritten after the talks started.


Kerry has been publicly defending continued US participation in the talks with Iran in order to discover “whether or not Iran is prepared to do what is necessary to prove that its program cam only be a peaceful program.” He insists that the administration is not in a “race” to strike a deal with Iran, and will only agree to an arrangement which does not put the security of uses allies such as Israel at risk.


However, some observers believe that the increasing opposition to the freeze proposal by the leaders of Israel and Saudi Arabia and friends of Israel in Congress will require President Obama to come out in support of it.




On Sunday, the White House dispatched Wendy Sherman, undersecretary of state for political affairs, who headed the US negotiating team in Geneva, to Israel to try to reassure Israeli officials that President Obama still stands by his pledge that he will never allow Iran to obtain a nuclear weapon, and to stop publicly criticizing the US position in Geneva. During her visit she met with Israeli reporters, media personalities and security experts in an effort to influence public opinion in Israel in the same way that Netanyahu and Bennett are trying to influence American public opinion through the media.


In addition, Obama’s favorite American Jewish journalist, Jeffrey Goldberg, has been writing op-ed pieces questioning Netanyahu’s strategy for influencing the US position toward Iran, even though he, too, shares Netanyahu’s fears about the interim deal that the US is proposing at Geneva. He says that Netanyahu should be more upbeat and adopt the smiling tactics of Iran’s new president Hassan Rouhani if he wants to be more effective at winning over American public opinion.


The New York Times editorial page was even more critical of Netanyahu, accusing him of trying to generate “hysterical opposition” to continuing the talks with Iran in Geneva, and called his demands that Iran dismantle its nuclear program unrealistic.


While admitting that the US position in Geneva is risky, Goldberg says he is still willing to give Obama the benefit of the doubt in claiming that he is still serious about stopping Iran’s nuclear program. He also notes that during the freeze, the main US sanctions against Iran’s oil exports and its access to the international financial markets would still remain in place.




Domestic conservative critics of the US strategy say that the freeze would only give Iran diplomatic cover for its final push to achieve nuclear capability.


Former US ambassador to the UN John Bolton says: “Countries determined to keep nuclear weapons programs are not going to be chit-chatted out of them, even if Washington makes substantial concessions. We should label this policy for what it is, as Jim Baker did regarding Clinton’s North Korea policy in the 1990’s: It is appeasement.”


George W. Bush’s former deputy national security adviser Elliott Abrams said, “An interim deal that freezes only portions of Iran’s program does not prevent Iran’s nuclear surge; instead it allows Iran’s program to continue to grow. Rouhani himself has proudly claimed that this is what he achieved in the past. If the terms allow Iran to keep all its 18,500 centrifuges, and all its 3.5 percent-enriched uranium, and continue to enrich uranium, and keep the Arak plutonium facility intact, that’s a bad deal. Iran’s breakout ability remains the same; it is not really further from a bomb.”


Abrams also warned, “As I understand the proposed deal, there is, in addition, no mechanism for verification, so even the partial freeze may not be honored.”


Some say that the talks in Geneva are a cynical gambit by the White House to “engage” Iran in working out an agreement on paper which Obama knows will never be enforced. Then, after Iran achieves its nuclear breakout, he will argue that it is a fait accompli, and that the US will then have no choice but to try to pursue a policy of nuclear containment rather than prevention.


The problem for Israel’s leaders is that it would be very difficult for them to order a last ditch attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities while the US talks with it in Geneva continue. Goldberg speculates that Netanyahu “wishes today that he had launched an attack on Iran three or four years ago. But now he’s boxed in.”


The Washington Post contributed to this story.



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