In Washington, Bennett calls to toughen Iran sanctions

As Obama urges freeze on new penalties, minister says world ‘two seconds’ from dismantling nuclear program

Naftali Bennett, right, meeting with Senator John McCain in Washington, Thursday. (photo credit: Shmulik Almany/Flash90)
Naftali Bennett, right, meeting with Senator John McCain in Washington, Thursday. (photo credit: Shmulik Almany/Flash90)

Economics Minister Naftali Bennett told a US crowd on Thursday that a nuclear deal with Iran was possible, but only if the West dialed up sanctions on Tehran instead of offering to ease up on them.

Bennett, dispatched to the US to campaign against a deal between the West and Tehran to lower sanctions in exchange for curbs on nuclear activity, spoke at the Brookings Institute in the capital hours after US President Barack Obama stumped across town against new sanctions on the Islamic Republic.

“I am convinced that if we ratchet up the pressure we can get the right deal,” Bennett said.

The minister said the West nearly had Iran in a chokehold and seemed to be giving in at the wrong time.

“It’s like a boxing match where the other guy’s on the floor and the referee’s counting 6, 7, 8, 9 and at this very last moment we go and pick him up and let off the pressure. Now’s not the time to let up,” he said. “We’re two seconds from achieving our goal of dismantling Iran’s nuclear program.”

Earlier Thursday at a White House news conference, Obama called on Congress to take a wait-and-see approach to efforts for a diplomatic deal before leveling new sanctions on Tehran.

Let’s test how willing they are to actually resolve this diplomatically and peacefully,” Obama said. “We will have lost nothing if, at the end of the day, it turns out that they are not prepared to provide the international community the hard proof and assurances necessary for us to know that they’re not pursuing a nuclear weapon.”

“If we’re serious about pursuing diplomacy, then there’s no need for us to add new sanctions on top of the sanctions that are already very effective and that brought them to the table in the first place,” he added.

Bennett also met Thursday with Senator John McCain, who called US Secretary of State John Kerry “a wrecking ball” for his Iran policy.

Kerry has come under heavy criticism in Jerusalem as well for what is seen as an overzealous drive for a nuclear deal, with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Sunday called bad and dangerous.

Bennett’s speech, in which he also touted Israel’s reported destruction of nuclear facilities in Iraq and Syria, came hours after a report by the UN’s atomic agency showed that Iran had actually slowed its nuclear activity.

The International Atomic Energy Agency report claimed Iran’s stockpile of uranium enriched to 20 percent — a form that can quickly be further enriched to weapons-grade — grew by about 10 kilograms (about 20 pounds) since the August report to total a little less than 200 kilograms (440 pounds). That’s about 50 kilograms (110 pounds) less than the amount experts say is needed for further conversion into weapons-grade uranium.

It also reported that Iran installed only 4 additional centrifuges at its main enrichment facility, compared to 1,800 of the enriching machines between May and August, the period covered by the last report. And it said no new advanced centrifuges have been added to the 1,008 it had installed there as of August.

As well, the report noted that “no additional major components” have been installed since its last report at the reactor being assembled at Arak, southwest of Tehran. The six powers are demanding a slowdown of construction of that reactor as part of a first-step deal and ultimately want all construction to stop.

A senior diplomat familiar with the technical aspects of Iran’s nuclear program said the slowdown was not due to technical problems. He demanded anonymity because he was not authorized to comment on the confidential report.

Israel is opposed to any deal at the nuclear talks to lift sanctions on Iran ahead of a complete end to enrichment. Netanyahu said he was “not impressed” to hear that Iran has not expanded its nuclear program.

“They don’t need to,” he said in Jerusalem. “They’ve got enough facilities, enough centrifuges to develop … the fissile material which is at the core of an atomic bomb.”

The confidential report obtained by The Associated Press was circulated among the IAEA’s 35 board member nations. It also was sent to the U.N. Security Council, which has imposed sanctions on Tehran for its refusal to heed its resolutions demanding it stop enrichment, mothball the reactor and curb other activities.

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