A political figure recently asked Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to moderate his harsh rhetoric against the United States administration. The current public confrontation is harmful to Israel, he said, and the only beneficiary is Iran, which feels it has managed to drive a wedge between Israel and the United States.
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Netanyahu didn’t reject the criticism out of hand. Rather, he said that he would not have chosen confrontational tactics had he not believed the matter was critical to Israel’s security. “If we don’t confront the U.S. over this, what will we confront it over?” he asked.
Senior American and Israeli officials both acknowledge that the disagreement between Netanyahu and U.S. President Barack Obama is virtually unbridgeable. Even their 90-minute phone call two weeks ago didn’t manage to bring them any closer.
The White House thinks Netanyahu’s “all or nothing” approach – that sanctions on Iran should be intensified until it dismantles every last centrifuge – would be ineffective and even dangerous. Senior American officials say this approach would spur Iran to reject the negotiations and race full-speed ahead for the bomb, with war as the inevitable result.
Netanyahu’s view is exactly the opposite. He feels that everything he predicted and warned against for the last several months is coming true before his very eyes. He believes he can read the Iranians and their negotiating tactics better than most of the people participating in the Geneva talks. He thinks it’s the way the great powers are acting now that will lead to war. His conversation with Obama, and subsequent conversations with U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, didn’t reassure him; quite the contrary.
Making matters even worse, he has been negatively surprised by the Americans’ conduct over the last two days. Iran’s supreme leader, Ali Khamenei, called Israel’s prime minister a “rabid dog” on Wednesday, and American officials made do with the limp statement that his remarks caused them “discomfort.” Netanyahu, who expected a strong American condemnation, couldn’t believe his ears. It was only early on Friday - two days later - that the Americans issued a stronger statement.
All this has led Netanyahu to believe that the Americans, together with some of the other six powers, want to sign an agreement at any price – just get it over with it and move on. In his view, the Iranians have discerned this eagerness and have therefore hardened their positions in the current round of talks.
Netanyahu’s nightmare is that the deal emerging in Geneva will give Iran an unprecedented capability to advance toward a nuclear weapon the moment Khamenei makes the decision to do so. In this nightmare scenario, Iran would agree to suspend its enrichment of uranium to a level of 20 percent, but in the meantime would continue developing other parts of its nuclear program.
Speaking with Russian President Vladimir Putin on Wednesday, Netanyahu warned that the emerging agreement doesn’t do anything about the military aspects of Iran’s nuclear program or about the suspect facilities that it has prevented International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors from visiting, such as the Parchin complex.
In Netanyahu’s scenario, as outlined by a senior minister, after the agreement is signed in Geneva, Iran will continue developing the warheads of its Shahab-3 missiles to make them capable of carrying a nuclear payload, and will be able to do so without let or hindrance. It will also continue working on the detonators needed to set off a nuclear bomb. Then, once the Iranians think they are close to finishing work on all the elements needed for a nuclear weapon, they’ll wait for the right moment – elections in the United States or an international crisis that distracts world attention – and make the final dash for the bomb.
When this happens, all 18,000 centrifuges at the Natanz and Fordo facilities – including 1,000 advanced models that are much faster than the previous generation – will begin spinning to enrich five tons of uranium from a level of 3.5 percent to the 90 percent level needed for nuclear weapons. Under this scenario, the Iranians could obtain enough uranium for three to four nuclear bombs in 26 days. By the time the world wakes up and tries to stop them, Netanyahu fears, the Iranians will already have crossed the nuclear threshold.
Netanyahu has reconciled himself to the interim agreement the six powers are planning to sign with Iran. He is now focusing on the permanent agreement, on which negotiations are supposed to take place over the next six months. But he fears that, as has happened in many other cases, the temporary agreement with Iran will become a permanent one.