Israel fears the United States will settle for a “less for less” nuclear agreement with Iran, a senior Israeli official told the Wall Street Journal on Wednesday, ahead of the resumption of negotiations next week in Vienna.
Israel, which fiercely opposed the 2015 nuclear deal negotiated by former US president Barack Obama, has waged a reported sabotage campaign against Iran and threatened military action. On Tuesday, Prime Minister Naftali Bennett indicated that Israel was prepared to break with the US and other allies to take action against Iran, if needed.
The US has also cautioned that military action is possible if Iran comes close to producing a nuclear weapon.
“Israel is very concerned that the US is setting the stage for what they call a ‘less for less’ agreement,” the senior Israeli official said, speaking on condition of anonymity. “Such an agreement would be detrimental and would only benefit the Iranian regime.”
“Such an agreement will convince the Iranian public and countries in the region that nuclear blackmail works,” added the official. “It looks like the US might be giving Iran a bargain deal.”
The warning came after a top US general said Iran has the ability to build a nuclear weapon in a very short time and that the US military was ready with other options to prevent this should diplomacy fail.
“Our president said they’re not going to have a nuclear weapon,” General Kenneth McKenzie, commander of US Central Command, told TIME magazine in comments published Wednesday. “The diplomats are in the lead on this, but Central Command always has a variety of plans that we could execute, if directed.”
While other US officials have spoken in recent days of “other options” should efforts to bring Iran back to the nuclear deal fail, McKenzie’s comments were the clearest yet regarding an American military option.
McKenzie, the top US commander in the Middle East, said he believes Tehran has currently not made the decision to press ahead with building an actual warhead, but is putting itself in a position where it could do so in a very short time.
“They’re very close this time,” McKenzie said. “I think they like the idea of being able to breakout.”
Reports in recent days have indicated that both the US and Israel believe that Iran has pushed far enough ahead with its illegal enrichment program that it could build a nuclear weapon within a matter of weeks to months, should it choose to do so.
The UN nuclear watchdog told member nations in its confidential quarterly report last week that Iran has an estimated stock of 17.7 kilograms (39 pounds) of uranium enriched to up to 60% fissile purity, an increase of almost 8 kilograms since August. The highly enriched uranium is only a short technical step from becoming weapons-grade.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken has spoken of “other options,” although negotiator for the JCPOA talks Rob Malley, in an interview this week with the US broadcaster NPR, made it clear the United States was thinking foremost of economic pressure.
Nevertheless, Malley warned that Washington would not “sit idly” if Iran delayed progress at the talks.
“If [Iran] continues to do what it appears to be doing now, which is to drag its feet at the nuclear diplomatic table and accelerate its pace when it comes to its nuclear program… we’ll have to respond accordingly,” Malley said.
Also on Wednesday, the UN nuclear watchdog said there had been “no progress” in talks with Tehran on disputes over the monitoring of Iran’s atomic program, just days before talks restart on reviving the 2015 Iran nuclear deal.
Rafael Grossi, director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), told a quarterly meeting of the agency’s board that talks he held in Tehran on Tuesday were “inconclusive” despite being “constructive.”
Behrouz Kamalvandi, spokesman for the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran, told Iranian television his team “tried until the last moment” but there is still work to be done.
Iran will return to talks in Vienna with world powers after a five-month gap following the election of an ultra-conservative president, Ebrahim Raisi.
The deal has been gradually disintegrating since former US president Donald Trump unilaterally withdrew from it in 2018.
The following year, Iran retaliated by starting to move away from its commitments under the deal, also known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or JCPOA.
The negotiations are being held indirectly, with an EU envoy shuttling between Malley and the Iranian delegation, which refuses to meet the US representative face-to-face.
Iran has demanded a lifting of all sanctions, but the Biden administration says it is only discussing measures imposed by Trump as part of the withdrawal from the nuclear deal, including a sweeping unilateral US ban on all other nations buying Iran’s key export of oil.