Despite Netanyahu’s Rhetoric, Israel-U.S. Gaps on Iran Closing

Israeli officials say Jerusalem would tacitly accept American concessions to Iran if those did not include significant changes to sanctions and ensured a halt to uranium enrichment.

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Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has talked tougher in recent days about Iran’s nuclear program, but both Jerusalem and Washington admit that despite the hard line, the gaps between the United States and Israel on the issue are closing.

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The second round of talks between Iran and six world powers - Russia, the United States, China, Britain, France and Germany - began Wednesday at the United Nations in Geneva.

During the last round of talks three weeks ago, Iran unveiled a general proposal that would limit its nuclear program. Iranian negotiators then said Tehran would be willing to implement the steps as a trust-building measure as the talks toward a permanent solution continued.

Last week, teams of nuclear experts from Iran and the world powers met at the International Atomic Energy Agency in Vienna to discuss Iran's proposal. Tehran is expected to issue a more final proposal in the second round of talks, and the powers are expected to present a reciprocal offer in exchange for Iranian steps to limit its nuclear program.

In any case, the White House does not see Netanyahu’s fierce rhetoric as problematic. Senior officials in the Obama administration say the prime minister’s actions are good for the diplomatic efforts. This was the logic when Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel said in recent days that Iran had opted for the negotiating table in part due to Israel's threats of military action.

Hagel presented the prevailing view in the White House that Netanyahu is not trying to cool the thaw in U.S.-Iranian relations. According to White House officials, Netanyahu knows that the West will have to make concessions to ensure peace with Iran both in the short and long term.

Still, the U.S. administration is trying to calm Israel down. It was Washington that initiated the recent interview with Wendy Sherman, head of the U.S. negotiating team, on Israel’s Channel 10. Sherman adopted some of Israel’s demands when she hinted that the United States would insist that Iran halt its nuclear program during the negotiations.

Israeli officials said Jerusalem would agree to tacitly accept American concessions to Iran if the concessions did not include significant changes to the sanctions and ensured a halt in Iran’s uranium enrichment program during the talks.

As recent talks with White House and State Department officials were going on, one senior Israeli official said the Americans were not considering lifting the sanctions against Iran. Instead, they would unfreeze some $3 billion in Iranian funds held in Western banks, to be used as humanitarian aid. In return, the Iranians would be asked to halt uranium enrichment.

The senior Israel official added that Israel had not expressed any opposition to this plan. “It could be that in return there would be a lifting of minor sanctions, or a transfer of money, and we don’t have a problem with this,” he said.

Both Israeli and U.S. officials said the strategic disagreement between the two countries had been solved and that they agree that the goal is both to prevent Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons and from obtaining the ability to produce such arms. According to the two sides, the only disagreement centered on negotiating tactics.

While Israel demands that any agreement between Iran and the West include a total halt of uranium enrichment on Iranian soil, the Americans believe there is no reason to remove the ability to enrich at lower levels. In addition, Israel believes that only strengthening sanctions and intensifying international pressure will force Iran to succumb.

The Americans, however, do not believe in additional sanctions and say increasing pressure would have an undesirable effect, breaking the power bases of President Hassan Rohani and Foreign Minster Javad Zarif while strengthening fanatical elements.

In the meantime, Israel is satisfied by agreements reached with the United States in recent weeks. A senior official in Jerusalem said Israel's aggressive stance since the first round of talks had prevented a complete collapse of the sanctions.

“We changed the conversation in which everyone was talking about easing the existing sanctions to a conversation in which everyone is discussing the need for preventing additional sanctions,” the Israeli official said. “Even if we didn’t get everything we wanted, that is enough.”

Iran's foreign ministry spokeswoman Marzieh Afkham speaks to the media during the weekly press conference in Tehran, on November 5, 2013.Credit: AFP