Israel officials responded cautiously Sunday to reports that the US and Iran were setting up direct bilateral talks over the latter’s nuclear program, with Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman saying he hoped White House denials of such talks were accurate.
Liberman told Army Radio that he prefers to believe the White House denial of the assertion that the US had succeeded in opening direct talks with the Iranians. While the US has long said it is open to talking with the Iranians, Washington rejected the claim that negotiations were under way to arrange a meeting.
“I want to believe the White House denial, and I want to believe that they learn from experience,” Liberman said. “All the Iranians want to achieve through direct negotiations is the removal of sanctions.”
However, Strategic Affairs Minister Moshe Ya’alon told Israel Radio that Jerusalem has known for some time of behind-the-scenes contact between the US and Iran, and that it has no objections. Ya’alon said that direct talks would receive Israel’s blessings if they bring an end to Iran’s nuclear program.
On Saturday The New York Times reported that the US and Iran had agreed to hold direct talks, prompting the denial from the White House.
NBC News later reported that back-channel talks had taken place but had not led to a meeting yet.
Quoted in the Times, Israel’s Ambassador to the US Michael Oren said the administration had not informed Israel about the agreement, and that the Israeli government feared the Iranians would use new talks to “advance their nuclear weapons program.”
“We do not think Iran should be rewarded with direct talks,” Oren was quoted as saying, adding that Israel preferred tougher sanctions over direct negotiations.
Western nations and particularly Israel, which Iranian leaders have repeatedly threatened to “wipe off the map,” fear the Islamic republic is determined to develop nuclear weapons and fundamentally reshape the balance of power in the Middle East. Iran has long maintained that its program is for peaceful energy and research purposes.
Despite Iran’s public defiance in the face of mounting international sanctions, the country’s economy is suffering and the Iranian rial has dropped by more than a third of its value against the dollar since August.