Despite Jerusalem’s vociferous opposition to the nuclear deal the six world powers struck with Iran this week, Israeli officials have made some crucial contributions to it, a senior American official said Thursday.
“We have had extraordinarily close consultation with Israel. Experts from Israel have been essential in the development of this deal,” Undersecretary of State Wendy Sherman said.
“In fact, one of your lead experts wrote an email to us after the deal looking for further consultations to see where our joint efforts produced a result,” Sherman said in a phone conference with Israeli diplomatic correspondents.
Sherman also defended the deal, arguing that the P5+1 nations — the US, Britain, France, China, Russia and Germany — succeeded in establishing an airtight inspection regime that will not permit Iran to cheat. The 24-day grace period Tehran has before it has to allow inspectors access to suspicious sites is actually a “very, very short time,” she said.
Israelis were involved in various areas of the agreement finally drafted after intensive talks in Vienna, including critiquing the redesign of the Arak reactor and looking at issues of weaponization, according to Sherman, a senior member of the American negotiating team. Under the agreement, the heavy-water nuclear reactor at Arak will be redesigned so it no longer can produce weapons-grade plutonium.
“We’ve been very grateful for the expertise that Israelis at every level, and in every sphere of your inter-agency, have given to us and shared with us,” Sherman said.
The administration has offered to discuss upgrading its defense assistance to Israel in wake of the deal, but was rebuffed by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. “The prime minister was not ready to have that discussion yet,” Sherman said.
During her stay in Vienna, where the deal was finalized and signed on Tuesday, she spoke three times with Israel’s national security advisor Yossi Cohen, Sherman said. After the agreement was announced, she briefed Cohen and Yuval Steinitz, Netanyahu’s ministerial point-man on Iran, on its details. “We stay in very close touch,” she said. “We take this relationship very seriously.”
Sherman acknowledged Netanyahu’s bitter opposition to deal, saying that his concerns about Israel’s security are understandable given the tough regional neighborhood. “But quite wisely,” she added, “he urged Israeli experts to continue consultations with us and give us the benefit of the expertise that Israel had. And that’s has been very valuable and was very consequential to the steps that we took.”
There have been “some bumps on the way,” Sherman admitted, “because there’s a very different view about whether this deal in fact ultimately is the best way to ensure Israel’s security. We believe that it is, along with the qualitative military edge that is fundamental to our relationship.”
Washington and Jerusalem have a “robust security relationship,” which will not be affected by differences of opinion on the Iran deal, she vowed.
Sherman rejected Israeli criticism on the agreement’s oversight mechanism, arguing that it contains “the most extensive inspections and monitoring regime and transparency measures that have ever [been] put in place.”
The fact that Iran would have 24 days before it has to grant international inspectors access to undeclared military sites where they suspect illicit nuclear activity does not mean that Iran could cheat easily, she insisted.
“It would be very hard for Iran to establish a covert enrichment facility, given that we have such eyes on the [uranium] supply chain,” she said. “It’s not so easy to clean up a nuclear site.”
Iran is making a voluntary commitment here. It is not a defeated or occupied foe
The much-discussed 24-day period may seem like a long time, “but in nuclear matters, according to the scientists and the technical experts, it’s actually a very, very short time,” Sherman said. “So we feel that we have unparalleled access.”
No country that has not been defeated in war has ever agreed to “anywhere, anytime” inspections, Sherman argued, adding that the P5+1 power never aimed for this during the negotiations. “Iran is making a voluntary commitment here. It is not a defeated or occupied foe. It is cooperating with the IAEA [International Atomic Energy Agency].”
Asked by The Times of Israel to reconcile that stance with a statement by US Secretary of Energy Ernest Moniz, who just three months ago said he expected the deal to include “anywhere, anytime” access, Sherman indicated that he never actually meant what he said.
“I think this is one of those circumstances where… we’ve all been rhetorical from time to time,” she said. “We believe this access agreement … does create the guarantee that if the IAEA needs access it will get access. And that’s really fundamental here. That phrase, ‘anytime, anywhere,’ is something that became sort of popular rhetoric, but I think people understood that what it really meant is that if the IAEA felt it has to have access… then it will be guaranteed. And that is what has happened.”
There has been no change in the negotiators’ positions, Sherman insisted. “The objective always remained a monitoring and verification system that ensured that there could not be a covert [nuclear program], that we would know it if Iran started down that road.”