GENEVA – The severe crisis in relations between Israel and the United States over the Iranian nuclear deal is far from over. Senior officials in Jerusalem say that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and top ministers feel the U.S. did not present Israel with a precise picture of what concessions will be granted to the Iranians and what sanctions will be eased.
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Israel and the United States have been holding consultations in recent weeks, ahead of the current round of talks in Geneva. Netanyahu and his ministers were updated on the outline for an agreement with Iran during strategic dialogue talks in Washington two weeks ago and in discussions during U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry's visit to Israel earlier this week.
A senior Israeli official said Israel was under the impression that although Iran would receive economic incentives as part of a deal, these would be tolerable adjustments that would not threaten the viability of the entire sanctions regime against Iran. The senior official said that Israel was informed that the powers would free up between $3 billion and $4 billion in Iranian assets frozen in foreign bank accounts. The funds would be placed in a special account from which Iran could withdraw gradually. According to senior Israeli officials, Israel was told no other sanctions would be eased.
On Wednesday evening, however, a senior American official told reporters in a briefing in Geneva Iran would be offered a more substantial set of reductions in sanctions in return for a partial halt to uranium enrichment. Thursday morning and afternoon, Israel received new information from senior French and British officials that P5+1 world powers were prepared to put on the table an end to the ban on trading gold, petrochemical products and replacements parts for machinery and civilian airplanes.
Strategic and Intelligence Affairs Ministers Yuval Steinitz spoke about the changing nature of the deal with Iran at a cultural event in Bat Yam on Saturday morning.
The outline presented to Israel until several days ago, including during the strategic dialogue in Washington, looked substantially different from what is being discussed at this time, he said.
Steinitz's comment was backed by a senior Israeli official involved in the Iranian issue. On Wednesday, something more acceptable was presented that we also didn't love but could live with, the official said. Suddenly it changed to something much worse that included a much more significant lifting of sanctions. The feeling was that the Americans are much more eager to reach an agreement than the Iranians.
Israel's anger over the sudden change was seen through Netanyahu's sharp criticism on Thursday and Friday mornings before his meeting with Kerry at Ben-Gurion International Airport. Both American and Israeli officials said that the meeting between Kerry and Netanyahu went poorly. Netanyahu was said to be visibly angry as he approached the meeting and was further enraged when Kerry asked to cancel the planned joint press statement after the meeting to prevent a public confrontation in front of the cameras. But Netanyahu decided to go ahead with a statement on his own, in which he slammed a possible agreement between Iran and the six world powers. Iran got "the deal of the century and the international community got a bad deal," Netanyahu told reporters. "Israel utterly rejects it and many in the region share my opinion, whether or not they express that publicly. Israel is not obliged by this agreement and Israel will do everything it needs to do to defend itself and the security of its people."
Following the public statement, Netanyahu told Kerry during their private meeting, This is a horrible deal. He added, I ask that you not sign it and reconsider things anew. Senior American officials said that Kerry tried to convince Netanyahu that no deal had yet been reached and the negotiations were still underway, but Netanyahu was not convinced.
A few hours following the meeting with Kerry, U.S. President Barack Obama called Netanyahu on Friday in an attempt to assuage his outspoken misgivings about the developments. Obama said he was committed to preventing Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon and that that was precisely the goal of diplomatic option in the Geneva talks. The two leaders agreed to keep in contact over the coming days.
A senior American official rejected Israel's criticism of a possible deal, calling any critique of the deal premature. "There is no deal," said the official. The Israelis do not have anything to compare against what was presented to them on Wednesday.
Israel and Western diplomats said on Saturday that among the P5+1 powers at Geneva, France is the closest to Israel in its position on a deal and is taking a hard line. In recent days there have been talks between senior Israeli and French officials. The French are particularly concerned the demands regarding the heavy water at the Arak reactor and Iran's stores of 20 percent enriched uranium are not stringent enough.
On Saturday morning, French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said during an interview with a French radio station that the concerns of Israel and other countries in region over Iran must be taken seriously into consideration.
On Saturday, Fabius met several times during the morning with European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton and also participated in a trilateral meeting with Ashton and Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif. However, after the meeting he said that there was still disagreements between the sides.
Israel also is not satisfied with demands being made of Iran as part of the deal, seeing them as insufficient and leaving the Iranians still capable of proceeding with their nuclear development program. According to Israeli officials, Iran will be asked to suspend its uranium enrichment activities above 20 percent and convert its existing stockpile of 20 percent enriched uranium into nuclear reactor fuel. Iran must also agree not to activate advanced centrifuges that could enrich uranium at five times the current pace of its enrichment program and reduce the number of centrifuges it is using to enrich uranium to the level of 3.5%, but without any demand to completely halt enrichment activities to 3.5%. Finally, Iran may continue to build the Arak reactor but must guarantee that it will not bring the heavy water reactor online.
The Iranians gain [from this deal] both economically and in terms of their nuclear program, said a senior Israeli officials. Economically speaking, now all the large multinational companies will see that sanctions are being lifted and will surge toward Tehran to sign deals that will bring the Iranian economy out of its slump. In terms of the nuclear program, the Iranians are receiving an approval to continue enriching uranium and to continue building the Arak reactor. The pace of their progress might be slowed, but their progress won't be halted. Consequently, from our perspective it's an awful deal.