Iran nuclear agreement a ‘historic mistake,’ Netanyahu says

Prime minister promises that Israel will stop nuclear weapons program; President Peres says pact to be judged by results, not words; ministers lambaste agreement

Lazar Berman is The Times of Israel's diplomatic reporter

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu leads the weekly cabinet meeting in Jerusalem on November 24, 2013. Photo by Miriam Alster/FLASH90
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu leads the weekly cabinet meeting in Jerusalem on November 24, 2013. Photo by Miriam Alster/FLASH90

The nuclear deal reached between Iran and six world powers early Sunday morning was “a historic mistake,” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Sunday, excoriating the agreement and vowing to keep Tehran from getting a nuclear weapon.

“What was accomplished last night in Geneva is not a historic agreement; it’s a historic mistake,” Netanyahu said at the start of Sunday morning’s weekly cabinet meeting. “Today the world has become much more dangerous, because the most dangerous regime in the world took a meaningful step toward acquiring the most dangerous weapon in the world.”

Netanyahu’s remarks came just hours after Iranian delegates and world powers reached a first-step accord in Geneva aimed at easing Western concerns that Tehran could one day attain nuclear weapons.

“For the first time the world’s leading powers agreed to the enrichment of uranium in Iran, while ignoring the Security Council resolutions that they themselves championed,” the prime minister said. “These sanctions have been removed for cosmetic Iranian concessions that can be canceled in weeks. This agreement and what it means threaten many countries, and including, of course, Israel. Israel is not bound by this agreement. The regime in Iran is committed to Israel’s destruction and Israel has the right and responsibility to defend itself, by itself, against any threat.”

He added that Israel would not allow Iran to develop nuclear weapons.

Netanyahu was expected to speak by phone with US President Barack Obama later in the day, Reuters reported.

Netanyahu has been vocal on the world stage in his criticism of a deal with Iran.

In his UN General Assembly speech in September, Netanyahu blasted Iranian President Hassan Rouhani as a “wolf in sheep’s clothing” and warned the US against mistaking a change in Iran’s tone with an actual change in nuclear ambitions. The Israeli leader subsequently denounced the potential nuclear agreement as the “deal of the century” for Iran.

President Shimon Peres released a less fiery statement Sunday saying that Israel prefers diplomacy but the deal “will be judged by results, not by words.”

Addressing the Iranian people, Peres said, “You are not our enemies and we are not yours. There is a possibility to solve this issue diplomatically. It is in your hands. Reject terrorism. Stop the nuclear program. Stop the development of long-range missiles. Israel like others in the international community prefers a diplomatic solution.”

“The international community will not tolerate a nuclear Iran,” Peres concluded. “And if the diplomatic path fails, the nuclear option will be prevented by other means. The alternative is far worse.”

The deal limits continued Iranian enrichment of uranium to 5 percent in exchange for eased sanctions.

A White House official said the deal included an agreement that Iran would halt progress on its nuclear program, including a plutonium reactor at the Arak facility. The deal also calls on Iran to neutralize its 20-percent-enriched uranium stockpiles. Tehran has also agreed to intrusive inspections under the terms of the deal.

US Secretary of State John Kerry, who joined the final negotiations along with the foreign ministers of Russia, China, France, Britain and Germany, said the pact will make US allies in the Middle East, including Israel, safer by reducing the threat of war.

Netanyahu’s  words came after a morning which saw a bevy of Israeli ministers criticize the deal, with only a handful of lawmakers backing it.

Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman said the agreement had created a “new reality in the whole Middle East, including the Saudis.”

When asked if this would lead to an Israeli military strike on Iran, Liberman said Israel “would need to make different decisions.”

Home Front Command Minister Gilad Erdan told Army Radio that it would now be more difficult for Israel to act for the duration of the six-month agreement.

Intelligence Minister Yuval Steinitz, who is responsible for monitoring Iran’s nuclear program, said there was no reason for the world to be celebrating. He said the deal, reached in Geneva early Sunday, is based on “Iranian deception and [Western] self-delusion.”

“Just like the failed deal with North Korea, the current deal can actually bring Iran closer to the bomb,” Steinitz said. “Israel cannot take part in the international celebrations based on Iranian deception and self-delusion.”

MK Reuven Rivlin (Likud) wrote on Facebook that American attempts to calm Israel would only worry him more.

“There is no doubt that the agreement exposes differences, not just tactical but also strategic, between us and between the West and the US.”

Economics Minister Naftali Bennett called the deal “bad, very bad.”

“If a nuclear suitcase blows up five years from now in New York or Madrid, it will be because of the deal that was signed this morning,” he said on Facebook. “There is still a long campaign ahead of us. We will continue to act in every possible way.”

Finance Minister Yair Lapid panned the interim agreement and said Israel would have to work to make sure a final deal had better terms.

“This is a bad deal that does not bring even one centrifuge to a halt. I am worried not only over the deal, but that we have lost the world’s attention.”

“Those that support this agreement only say one good thing about it, and that’s that we win time en route to a final agreement,” Deputy Foreign Minister Zeev Elkin told Channel 2 TV. “Our main activity is now directed at a very clear destination — what will be in the final agreement.”

Labor MK Omer Bar-Lev was one of the few Israeli voices to back the deal, saying it entails significant impediments to Tehran’s race to nuclear weapons and is far preferable to a military confrontation.

“Considering the achievements such as the dismantling of [Iran’s] stockpile of uranium enriched to 20 percent, reducing the number of centrifuges, halting construction of the heavy water facility [in Arak], all the while sanctions of Iranian oil and banking industries continue, compared to the alternative of a military strike at this point it is clear that the agreement reached is far superior,” he said.

Times of Israel staff and AP contributed to this report.

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