Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called Sunday for Iran to be kept from having any capability to enrich uranium, reiterating an Israeli demand that could put him on a collision course with US efforts to engage Tehran diplomatically.
The statement, before a weekly cabinet meeting, came a day after the Prime Minister’s Office attempted to paint the US and Israel on the same page regarding Iran, after US President Barack Obama said the US estimate on a timeline for Iran to get a bomb was more conservative than Israel’s.
“Iran — which has violated all understandings and misled time and time again, which has declared its intention to destroy the State of Israel and, of course, has violated other decisions as well, and which leads terrorism on five continents — must not be allowed to have an enrichment capability,” Netanyahu declared. “This is the most important point.”
The US and other world powers engaged in talks with Tehran over its nuclear program have signaled that they would accept some enrichment for civilian purposes as long as it was under international supervision. Iran says its nuclear program is for peaceful purposes, a claim Israel and much of the West have rejected.
Shortly after Iranian President Hassan Rouhani’s trip to New York in September, during which he met with Western diplomats on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly, US Secretary of State John Kerry indicated that Iran could potentially preserve its enrichment capability for a peaceful program.
“If it is a peaceful program, and we can all see that, the whole world sees that, the relationship with Iran can change dramatically for the better and it can change fast,” Kerry told CBS’s “60 Minutes.”
In Sunday’s meeting, Netanyahu was clear in his position that sanctions must remain in full force until Iran is prevented from attaining nuclear weapons. “The sanctions on Iran are working,” he said. “They are very strong; they are a moment away from achieving their goal. The sanctions must not be eased before the goal of dismantling Iran’s enrichment capability, in effect, the ability to produce nuclear weapons, is achieved.”
The US has vowed to keep sanctions in place until it sees action from the Iranian side, while Tehran has called for sanctions relief as a starting measure.
On Saturday, daylight seemed to open between Washington and Jerusalem over the pace of Iran’s nuclear program, though sources in Jerusalem attempted to downplay the discord.
Obama, in a wide-ranging interview with the Associated Press on Saturday, disclosed that US intelligence agencies believe Iran continues to be a year or more away from having the capability to make a nuclear weapon. Israel contends that Tehran is on a faster course and could be just months away from breakout capacity.
An official in Netanyahu’s office said Saturday night that Obama and Netanyahu “see eye to eye on the need to prevent Iran from getting nuclear weapons.”
“The critical time that the prime minister refers to is not the time for completing production of a nuclear bomb but rather the time needed for Iran to complete enriching uranium, which is the most important component in preparing a nuclear weapon,” he said regarding the time frame issue.
“If Iran decides to complete enriching uranium it can do so within a few weeks of the start day,” he said on condition of anonymity, because he is not allowed to discuss the issue with the media.
Israel views a nuclear-armed Iran as a threat to its very existence, citing Iran’s repeated calls for Israel’s destruction, its long-range missile program and its support for violent anti-Israel groups like the Hezbollah in Lebanon. Iran insists that its nuclear program is for civilian use.
“There is no reason why Iran, which claims it wants nuclear energy just for peaceful purposes, should maintain the ability to enrich uranium, which allows for the development of material necessary for building a bomb,” the Israeli official said.
Rouhani recently delivered a conciliatory speech at the United Nations in which he said Iran had no intention of building a nuclear weapon and declared his readiness for new negotiations with world powers.
At the end of the visit, Rouhani and Obama held a 15-minute phone call as the Iranian leader was traveling to the airport. It was the first conversation between the nations’ leaders in 34 years and raised hopes that a breakthrough on the nuclear issue could portend ties between the United States and Iran.
Netanyahu has greeted Rouhani’s outreach with deep skepticism, expressing fears that Iran will use upcoming nuclear talks as a ploy to get the world to ease painful economic sanctions while secretly pressing forward with its nuclear program.
On Friday, Netanyahu returned from the United States, where Iran was the main topic in talks with Obama and his address at the United Nations.