Iran would be less than a year away from obtaining a nuclear weapon if its emerging deal with world powers is signed, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu warned Tuesday, as talks between Iran and the US-led group of countries went down to the wire in Switzerland.
The prime minister, speaking at a toast after the swearing-in of members of the 20th Knesset, said the new parliament’s “primary mission” is “to ensure the security of Israel.”
Netanyahu won a landslide victory in the March 17 elections, taking 30 of the Knesset’s 120 seats and beating out the rival Zionist Union by six seats. He was tapped last week by President Reuven Rivlin to assemble a coalition, a process that will likely yield a right-wing government.
Netanyahu said that while “I greatly appreciate the brave covenant” between Israel and the US, the two countries disagree over how to thwart Iran. “When it comes to an existential threat, Israel must stand up for itself,” he said.
“The land all around us is trembling,” he said, alluding to the growing unrest in the Middle East. “The greatest threat to our future and our security is and will remain Iran’s attempt to arm itself with nuclear weapons.”
The time Iran will need to break out to a nuclear weapon, if it signs a deal with world powers in Lausanne, “will be reduced to less than a year, and possibly a lot less than that,” the prime minister warned. Such a deal, whose emerging terms have been the subject of many reports, would “pave the way” to a nuclear weapon.
The Obama administration says any deal will stretch the time Iran needs to make a nuclear weapon from the present two to three months to at least a year. But critics object that it would keep Tehran’s nuclear technology intact.
Under the agreement currently being negotiated between world powers and Iran, the Islamic republic would retain its underground facilities, its heavy water facility and thousands of centrifuges — elements that, “just a few months ago we were told, rightly so, were unnecessary for a peaceful program,” Netanyahu said, apparently referring to past comments by US President Barack Obama.
At the Saban Forum in December 2013, Obama specified that, “Now, in terms of specifics, we know that they don’t need to have an underground, fortified facility like Fordo in order to have a peaceful nuclear program. They certainly don’t need a heavy-water reactor at Arak in order to have a peaceful nuclear program. They don’t need some of the advanced centrifuges that they currently possess in order to have a limited, peaceful nuclear program.”
The deal taking shape also fails to cover missile development, research on more sophisticated centrifuges, and Iran’s “campaign of conquest and terror” carried out “in full view… from the Golan to Yemen, from Iraq to Gaza and in so many other places,” Netanyahu protested.
In a possible expression of interest in a broad unity government with the Zionist Union, Netanyahu said that “my door is open to representatives of all factions. This is an invitation.” He did not elaborate.
Zionist Union leader Isaac Herzog has repeatedly dismissed the possibility of joining forces with Netanyahu and forming a unity government, saying his party would lead the opposition. Netanyahu has also publicly rejected the notion of bringing the Zionist Union into his government.
Netanyahu pledged to build a government that will represent all Israelis, and stressed the obligation to heal the rifts between different sectors of society.
“Our first mission is to mend the rifts” in society, he said.
“I am committed to dealing with the issue of the cost of housing,” he said, adding with a hint of jest, “I say this even though the election is behind us.”
Wrapping up six days of marathon nuclear talks with mixed results, Iran and six world powers prepared Tuesday to issue a general statement agreeing to continue negotiations in a new phase aimed at reaching a comprehensive accord by the end of June, officials told The Associated Press.
The joint statement is to be accompanied by additional documents that outline more detailed understandings, allowing the sides to claim enough progress has been made thus far to merit a new round and effectively extending a March 31 deadline, the officials said.
Uranium enrichment has been the chief concern in over more than a decade of international attempts to cap Iran’s nuclear programs. But Western officials say the main obstacles to a deal are no longer enrichment-related but instead the type and length of restrictions on Tehran’s research and development of advanced centrifuges and the pace of sanctions-lifting.
Over the past weeks, Iran has moved from demanding that it be allowed to keep nearly 10,000 centrifuges enriching uranium, to agreeing to 6,000. The officials said Tehran now may be ready to accept even fewer.
AP contributed to this report.