Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Friday urged France to remain firm in its pressure on Iran ahead of upcoming talks on the Islamic Republic’s nuclear program in Geneva.
His comments, made during an interview with France’s Le Figaro, came two days before French President Francois Hollande’s high-profile visit to Israel, his first trip to the country as head of state, and shortly before the next round of talks on Iran’s nuclear program scheduled for Wednesday in Geneva.
Netanyahu told Le Figaro that Israel stands behind France and called on Hollande “not to waver” on its objections to an interim nuclear deal with Iran. ”We hope that France will not yield in its stance toward Iran,” Netanyahu told the French daily.
In last week’s talks in Geneva between Iran and the US, Russia, China, France, Britain and Germany — the so-called P5+1 — Paris’s tough position on Iran was said to have prevented the global powers from signing an interim agreement with Tehran, one that would have included limited sanctions relief in return for a partial freeze of the country’s nuclear program. France apparently blocked what its foreign minister, Laurent Fabius, called “a sucker’s deal,” although US Secretary of State John Kerry said it was the Iranians who chose not to sign the accord last Saturday, and US officials say a deal on the terms presented at Geneva could be signed when the talks resume on Wednesday.
Fabius will be part of the large French delegation visiting Israel. Netanyahu and President Shimon Peres will greet the French dignitaries at Ben Gurion Airport at around 1 pm on Sunday, and a hero’s welcome is being prepared for the French president, Israeli officials say,
“For us, the United States remains an important ally, the most important ally. But our relationship with France is also very special,” Netanyahu added.
“On the Iran issue, our countries have defended common stances for years, regardless of the party in power, and we are maintaining this vital partnership with President Hollande,” he said. “We salute [Hollande's] consistent and determined position on the Iranian issue.”
Netanyahu restated the government’s opposition to Iran maintaining a heavy water reactor (at Arak) and its maintenances of centrifuges that could be used to enrich uranium even to low levels. The Geneva offer reportedly allows Iran to continue enriching uranium to 3.5%. The Iranian regime has contended that it seeks nuclear energy for domestic programs, not for the development of nuclear weapons.
The prime minister concluded: “My view is that we must not lower our guard against a regime that is helping [Syrian President Bashar] Assad kill tens of thousands of men, women and innocent children; spreading terrorism around the world; arming Hezbollah, Hamas and the Islamic Jihad with thousands of rockets aimed at Israeli towns; and finally, calling for the destruction of the State of Israel.”
Earlier Friday, a senior US official told reporters that it was “quite possible” the P5+1 powers and Iran could reach an agreement when diplomats reconvene in Geneva.
“I don’t know if we will reach an agreement. I think it is quite possible that we can, but there are still tough issues to negotiate,” the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, was quoted by Reuters as saying.
In the previous round of talks, the potential agreement was scuttled when the US, under pressure from France, inserted last-minute changes into a working draft, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said on Thursday.
Speaking in Cairo, Lavrov said the United States had amended the draft in response to French demands and circulated it for approval “literally at the last moment, when we were about to leave Geneva,” without consulting Iran. His comments were reported by Voice of Russia.
Earlier Friday, Netanyahu took to Twitter to keep up pressure on Western powers over negotiations with Iran on its contested nuclear program and to warn against rushing into a “bad deal.”
In his latest salvo against making concessions to Iran, Netanyahu’s Twitter account featured a cartoon-like ad that detailed what he said the pending agreement included.
“The proposal enables Iran to develop atomic bombs and build long-range missiles to reach the US and Europe,” it read. “Iran is getting everything and giving nothing.”
Netanyahu has been increasingly vocal in recent days about his opposition to a potential deal between six Western powers and Iran that would ease some sanctions while still leaving Iran with uranium-enrichment capabilities. Netanyahu has said he utterly rejects the brewing agreement and has been lobbying American allies in Congress to keep up sanctions.
Netanyahu is said to be open to an interim agreement with Iran, in principle, but only if it entails a complete cessation of uranium enrichment by the Iranians — in exchange for which the international community could offer not to add additional sanctions. Earlier this week, an unnamed official who insisted on anonymity told The Times of Israel that the prime minister would be willing to consider “a real freeze for a real freeze” on Iran’s nuclear program.
Kerry met with Netanyahu three times last week in Israel to discuss the negotiations and President Barack Obama followed up with a phone call to try and ease the Israeli leader’s concerns. Israel highlights relentless anti-Israeli rhetoric issued by Iran, and its support for Islamic extremist groups in southern Lebanon and Gaza, and has insisted that Tehran must be prevented from attaining a nuclear weapons capability. If necessary, Netanyahu told the UN General Assembly six weeks ago, Israel would “stand alone” to thwart the Iranian nuclear program.
Raphael Ahren and The Associated Press contributed to this report.