As Likud and its potential coalition partners began their official negotiations in Jerusalem on Thursday morning, Iran and the six world powers opened a critical and decisive round of nuclear talks in Lausanne, Switzerland.
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Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has 42 days to try to form a new government, but the negotiating teams from the United States, Iran and the P5+1 have only six days – until March 31 – to attempt to consolidate the understandings of the framework needed to continue the nuclear talks.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry arrived in Lausanne late Wednesday and met Thursday morning with his Iranian counterpart, Mohammad Javad Zarif. American Secretary of Energy Dr. Ernest Moniz and the head of Iran's Atomic Energy Organization, Ali Akhbar Salahi, also took part in the morning meeting.
Kerry and Zarif are expected to stay in Lausanne for the next few days, with the goal of reaching a breakthrough in the negotiations. If the sides to manage to come close to an agreement, the foreign ministers of France, Britain, Germany, Russia and China will join them in Lausanne.
Both the American and the Iranian sides are showing careful optimism, but have clarified that gaps remain and that it is still unclear whether they will be able to reach an agreement by the end of the month.
Salahi told Iranian reporters on Thursday morning that the sides have reached some understandings regarding technical matters, but that it is too soon to know how this round of talks will end.
Meanwhile, a senior State Department official who briefed the reporters on Kerry’s plane said that the U.S. believes there is a way to reach an agreement by March 31, given the major progress achieved in the previous round of talks last week in Lausanne. Nevertheless, the official said, the U.S. is not willing to push forth a bad deal just because there is a deadline.
The real deadline for the nuclear talks is the end of June. But due to the heavy pressure being put on the White House from Senators and members of Congress, mainly Republicans but also some Democrats, the interim deadline of the March 31 was set.
By that date, the Americans wish to reach “diplomatic understandings” with Iran on the principles for resolving the nuclear issue. If such understandings are attained, the negotiations will continue until the end of June to work out a comprehensive agreement in which all the issues will be covered in great technical detail.
One big question hovering over the round of talks that began Thursday in Lausanne, and which is of concern to many in Jerusalem too, is what exactly the parties hope these talks will yield by the end of the month. The White House wants a memorandum of understandings that is as detailed as possible. White House spokesman Josh Earnest told reporters at a Wednesday evening briefing that the U.S. wants to reach an agreement by the end of March that will contain “tangible, specific commitments” from the Iranians.
The U.S. administration is keen to reach some sort of diplomatic accord by the end of the month so as to be able to show the American public and Congress that enough progress is being made in the talks to justify a delay in advancing bills to impose new sanctions on Iran.
An American official involved in the talks said that the negotiators are aware that they would need to be transparent with the public regarding the agreement and would publicize as many details as possible. The outline of the agreement is not yet clear, but it will have to contain specific details, the official said.
The Iranians, however, want only to reach verbal agreements whose contents remain as vague as possible. At most, the Iranians will consent to the publication of a general “background paper” that will talk about the principles according to which the negotiations will continue, but it will not be signed by the parties. Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei is opposed to a two-stage agreement. He and others in the Iranian regime are afraid that signing an agreement of principles now would hinder their maneuvering room in the continuation of the negotiations through the end of June.
The Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem is closely following the talks in Lausanne, but given the present political situation, the attention of the prime minister and his aides will be primarily on the coalition negotiations that began today and will last for several weeks. Although contacts with Obama administration officials regarding the Iranian issue are ongoing, the crisis in relations with the White House is making it hard for Israel to have any influence on the talks, or even to find out just what is going on in them.
Prime Minister Netanyahu said on Wednesday at the ceremony at the President’s Residence at which he received the mandate to form the next government that he would work to strengthen ties with the U.S. But in the same breath, he also said he would keep trying to halt the nuclear deal with Iran, which he believes would endanger Israel.
Last week, ahead of the resumption of the nuclear talks in Lausanne, Netanyahu sent National Security Adviser Yossi Cohen and Minister Yuval Steinitz to Paris and London as the head of a large delegation in a last-minute effort to influence the talks. The delegation met with the lead French and British nuclear negotiators and laid out Israel’s concerns.
Jerusalem knows that its ability to impact the talks is limited, so a decision was made to focus on two points of key importance to Israel – first, the need for the agreement to contain a clause that would restrict the research and development that Iran does with advanced centrifuges that can enrich uranium at a faster rate.
The second condition that Israel hopes will be adopted by the French and British is that Iran fully comply with all the demands of the International Atomic Energy Agency, and reveal all information on potential military aspects of its nuclear program. The IAEA suspects that Iran has done testing on the production of nuclear warheads for missiles and on nuclear detonation mechanisms. The Iranians continue to deny these claims and have refused to allow IAEA inspectors access to a number of sites that are under suspicion.