Israel reacted with vehement skepticism at the signing of an interim agreement that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had vociferously described as the “deal of the century” for Iran because it eased sanctions while allowing Tehran to continue enriching uranium.
“This is the first time the world’s leading powers have agreed to uranium enrichment while ignoring Security Council resolutions which they led and years worth of sanctions which contain the key to a peaceful diplomatic solution,” Netanyahu said at the start of the weekly Sunday-morning cabinet meeting. “These sanctions are now being removed in return for cosmetic concessions which can be undone by the Iranians within weeks.” He followed the criticism with the kind of threat of military action that first brought the Iranian nuclear portfolio to global prominence three years ago. “Israel is not bound to this agreement while Iran is committed to the destruction of Israel,” Netanyahu said. “Israel has the right to protect itself in the face of any threat. I wish to reiterate that as the Prime Minister of Israel — Israel will not allow Iran to develop nuclear military capabilities.”
The same ominous sounds echoed through the government. “This is the Islamic Republic’s biggest diplomatic victory since Khomeini’s revolution, and the result here will be an arms race,” Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman told Army Radio on Sunday morning, as details of the agreement first became known. Recently returned to his job after being acquitted of corruption charges, Lieberman was among the Israeli officials lambasting the agreement for failing to cut back on the number of centrifuges currently operating, which stands above 18,000. The machines produce fissile material that can be used to create energy, or be upgraded to the intensity required to fuel a nuclear weapon. “The Iranians have material to manufacture a number of bombs, not [just] one,” Lieberman noted.
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The head of the most right-wing faction in Netanyahu’s governing coalition, Jewish Home leader Naftali Bennett, was more graphic: “If a nuclear suitcase blows up in New York or Madrid five years from now, it will be because of the deal that was signed this morning.”
Experts, meanwhile, emphasized the problematic details of the agreement. Ephraim Asculai, a fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies at Tel Aviv University, told reporters in a conference call that the main shortcoming of the pact is that it fails to significantly reduce the time Iran would need to produce a nuclear weapon, should the Iranian government decide to “break out” of the Non-Proliferation Treaty and sprint toward making a bomb. “The good part of the deal is that enrichment stops at the present level — and that is also some of the bad news, because enrichment does go on and Iran will go on producing the 3.5% that it has been producing up to now at the same rate, and that is not a negligible rate,” Asculai said. He warned against reading much significance into Iran’s promise to dilute its stocks of uranium enriched to 20%. Asculai said that the uranium enriched to 3.5% can be pumped up to weapons-grade 90% enrichment nearly as quickly as the material enriched to 20%. “When you negate the possibility of enriching from 20% you prolong the time for a breakout by a very small amount, because a breakout can be achieved from the 3.5% to the 90%,” he says. “Perhaps it would take perhaps a few days longer.”
A former director of the Mossad, Israel’s intelligence service, offered a more welcoming view of events in Geneva. “It was naive to think the Iranians would have begun to dismantle their centrifuges immediately,” former Mossad director Efraim Halevy told Army Radio. “We also have to remember that from now on, there will be daily inspections of the Iranian nuclear facilities. If the Iranians conceal facilities, and if such a thing is discovered, the entire agreement will fall apart; the Iranians will emerge as having attempted to fool the Western powers, and the ramifications will be far-reaching.”
But in political circles, the primary reaction to the pact in Israel was alarm, both for the technical realities of the pact, and the political realities that Israel — which did so much to make the Iranian nuclear program a matter of global concern — no longer feels it is driving. “I’m worried twice over,” said Finance Minister Yair Lapid, whose Yesh Atid party emerged as a centrist power in the January elections. “Once from the agreement and its implications and I am also worried because we’ve lost the world’s ear. We have six months, at the end of which we need to be in a situation in which the Americans listen to us the way they used to listen to us in the past.”