Israel Remains Suspicious As Iran Nuclear Talks Stall

Experts say Israel is right to be wary

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Debbie Hill / Xinhua Press / Corbis

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks to the press following his meeting with Secretary of State John Kerry at Ben-Gurion airport near Tel Aviv, Nov. 8, 2013.

It’s an extremely technical business, negotiating a nuclear agreement. But in the case of the talks in Geneva last week over the Iranian program, a helpful level of understanding can be had simply by seeing who goes where. The easiest way to tell that Tehran and world powers were close to at least an interim accord over the weekend was seeing who showed up unexpectedly in Geneva:  U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry broke off a trip to northern Africa to swoop in, joining European diplomats of the rank appropriate for signing such a document, should one be agreed upon.

And when it became clear there was nothing to sign there was more rapid and unscheduled travel: Kerry’s chief negotiator, Undersecretary of State Wendy Sherman, went immediately from Geneva to Jerusalem, to brief not only government officials and but Israeli experts and columnists gathered at the King David Hotel in Jerusalem. Israel has no seat at the negotiations, but it played a huge role in bringing them about by threatening airstrikes – and it’s playing a pivotal role in how the talks are perceived elsewhere, including the U.S. Congress.

The message from the Obama administration after the talks was that Washington was not out-toughed by France in the negotiations, as initial reports from Geneva had it. “France and other countries came with new ideas, but on Saturday we were united on the wording of the agreement,” a senior American official was quoted as telling the Israeli press. “We placed a tough deal on the table and the Iranians were the ones who didn’t take it. I hope the Iranians don’t miss it. But in any event we are in no hurry.”

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In Israel, skepticism toward an interim deal with Iran reaches beyond Prime Minister Benjamin NetanyahuPolls show Israeli Jews overwhelmingly fear Iran’s leaders will do what they did in 2005, the last time they signed a pact with the West halting their nuclear program – use the time-out to advance their knowledge of the nuclear processes, then resume a project that critics fear will produce a nuclear weapon. But Netanyahu has been so strident on the point for so long that many commentators say he’s seen as the boy who cried wolf. “A prime minister who deserves credit for internationalizing the Iranian issue and turning it into a top priority on the global agenda, is now paying the price for the Israelization of the Iranian issue,” Alon Pinchas, a former Israeli consul to New York, writes in Monday’s Yedioth Ahronoth, Israel’s largest-selling newspaper. Pinchas chides Netanyahu for “constant threats that have lost credibility” and condemning a proposed interim agreement as “the deal of the century” for Iran before its terms had been negotiated.

But even if Netanyahu has worn out his welcome, some of the West’s leading experts on nuclear proliferation are making much the same case, and Israel’s most effective media advocacy organization has been lining them up for conference calls with journalists for weeks. The Israel Project is a non-profit funded by private sources but committed to putting forward Israel’s position in the region. And on Oct. 28, it found a friend in Olli Heinonen, a former deputy director of the UN’s International Atomic Energy Agency, now at Harvard.

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Heinonen, who speaks with a Finnish accent and a bureaucrat’s caution, was blunt on the danger posed by the stockpiles of uranium Iran has enriched beyond the 3 percent “low enrichment” required to fuel a nuclear reactor to the 20 percent “medium” level ostensibly necessary for research. “Medium” has a half-way sound but because so much of the heavy lifting in the nuclear cycle precedes the spinning of centrifuges, 20percent actually is most of the way to the “heavily enriched” 90 percent level required to fuel a nuclear weapon. “If you already have 20 percent enriched uranium, actually you have done 90 percent of your work,” Heinonen said. He adds that the same formulations apply to uranium technically dubbed low-enriched, “which is why I understand the concerns of Prime Minister Netanyahu.” Iran has almost 7 metric tons of that material, and “you have done something like 60 percent of the effort you have to do to produce weapons grade uranium.”

Why all this matters was explained in another Israel Project conference call to international reporters on Nov. 7.  David Albright, an American former IAEA inspector, runs the Institute for Science and International Security, the Washington think tank that does the most-quoted independent research on Iran’s nuclear program. Recently, it estimated how long Iran would need to do what much of the world most fears – cast aside its consistent claims that its nuclear program is meant for peaceful means, and make a dash for a bomb. The amount of time it needs, Albright noted, depends on how much enriched uranium it has on hand, and how many centrifuges it has available to spin the uranium to higher, more dangerous levels. With current stores and no “cap” imposed by an interim agreement on the number of centrifuges it could use, Tehran might create a bomb in as little as a  month, the ISIS study concluded.  That month becomes the window for the outside world – including IAEA inspectors, if Iran hasn’t kicked them out by then – to detect what’s going on, and mount a response, such as the “military option” that President Obama continues to say is “on the table.”

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Albright said Iran’s leadership team on the nuclear issue, President Hassan Rouhani and Foreign Minister Javad Zarif, “is very good on making promises – enticements – but has not been so good about delivering,” Albright told the reporters on the Nov. 7 call. “And it happened in ‘05 the same way: Lots of promises, but in the end Iran wants a centrifuge program that is essentially uncapped.  They’ll trade that for some transparency, but it’s never viewed as enough … and so you never get a settlement.”

Still, Tehran did manage to produce a bit of encouraging news on Monday. The two sides parted ways in Geneva with another key sticking point unresolved –  the future of the heavy water reactor under construction at Arak, which presents Iran with a possible second route to a bomb. But Tehran did reach an agreement with the IAEA to give UN inspectors “managed access” to the plant, as well as to a uranium mine.