Intelligence Minister Yuval Steinitz flew to France on Sunday to try to influence the next round of talks on a deal over Iran’s nuclear program, his spokesman said.
Steinitz was “on a mission from Prime Minister [Benjamin Netanyahu] for a short visit to Europe in an attempt to influence the details of the emerging agreement on the Iran nuclear issue,” a statement from Eyal Basson said.
Steinitz traveled to the French capital with National Security Adviser Yossi Cohen for a closed-door diplomatic blitz to convince mediators to harden their positions on Iran, even at the expense of a breakdown in negotiations, Israeli media reported.
Steinitz was expected to meet French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius and members of the French negotiating team in the Iran talks, the Haaretz daily reported.
The P5+1 group of world powers — the US, Russia, France, England, China and Germany — has been seeking a comprehensive accord with Iran that would prevent it from developing a nuclear bomb, in return for an easing of economic sanctions.
The Jewish state is not privy to all of the details of the impending deal, although Israeli officials have repeatedly warned that the Jewish state stands to lose the most in the event that Tehran acquires the bomb. An EU official said in February that Israel was no longer being fully briefed on the talks.
Ahead of a looming March 31 deadline to formulate a framework deal with Iran, a senior French diplomat said Sunday that Israel’s stance on the issue had become increasingly unworkable.
The unnamed French official criticized Israel’s position on the Iranian nuclear program as “unrealistic,” and said that Netanyahu went “too far” in a polarizing March 3 address to a joint session of the US Congress on the topic.
“Israel has marginalized itself. In November 2013, we were working with them and they played the game. They didn’t take unrealistic positions,” the diplomat told Reuters. “But here they have gone too far. We told them to play their part so they could influence a final accord, but they have taken unrealistic positions.”
Netanyahu has repeatedly stated that the Iranian nuclear program is an existential threat to Israel and that he will fight “a bad deal” that could leave the Islamic Republic with breakout capabilities to nuclear weapons.
To that effect, he went ahead with his contentious speech before the US Congress to discuss the deal, raising the ire of the White House, Democratic US congressmen and his political opponents in Israel.
Despite denying UN atomic inspectors unfettered access to some of its facilities, Iran insists that its program will only be used for peaceful purposes.
Steinitz, the minister who was in Paris Sunday for consultations on the talks, reiterated Israel’s belief that Tehran is bent on developing nuclear weapons to use against Israel.
“This is an effort to prevent a [nuclear] deal that is bad and full of loopholes, or at least… to succeed in closing or amending some of these loopholes,” he told Israel Radio.
According to the Reuters report, among the negotiating powers, France’s position vis-à-vis Iran’s nuclear project has been the closest to Israel’s, with Steinitz crediting French diplomats for “helping us a great deal.”
France has expressed skepticism over the speed of a potential deal in which Iran would place its nuclear program under severe restrictions in exchange for a stage-by-stage lifting of international sanctions. There have been reports of differences between the United States and France in the talks, which were set to resume on Wednesday or Thursday in Switzerland.
A draft nuclear accord being negotiated between the United States and Iran would force Iran to cut hardware it could use to make an atomic bomb by about 40 percent for at least a decade, while offering the Iranians immediate relief from sanctions that have crippled their economy, officials told The Associated Press last week.
As an added enticement, elements of a UN arms embargo against Iran could be rolled back.
The very existence of a draft in circulation provided perhaps the clearest indication the sides were nearing a written agreement as they raced to meet the March 31 deadline for a framework pact. The deadline for a full agreement is the end of June.
Officials said the tentative deal imposes new limits on the number of centrifuges Iran can operate to enrich uranium, a process that can lead to nuclear weapons-grade material. The sides are zeroing in on a cap of 6,000 centrifuges, officials said, down from the 6,500 they spoke of in recent weeks. Israel has insisted that Iran does not require any enrichment capacity if it is to run a civilian nuclear program.
But US officials insist the focus on centrifuge numbers alone misses the point. Combined with other restrictions on enrichment levels and the types of centrifuges Iran can use, Washington believes it can extend the time Tehran would need to produce a nuclear weapon to at least a year during the 10 years it is under the moratorium. Right now, Iran would require only two to three months to amass enough material if it covertly seeks to “break out” toward the bomb.
The one-year breakout time has become a point the Obama administration is reluctant to cross in the set of highly technical talks, and that bare minimum would be maintained for 10 years as part of the draft deal. After that, the restrictions would be slowly eased. The total length of the deal would be at least 15 years, possibly even 20.
Among US allies, France is the most adamant about stretching out the duration of the deal. A European official familiar with the French position said it wants a 25-year time-span. After the deal expires, Iran could theoretically ramp up enrichment to whatever level or volume it wants.
AFP, AP and Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.