Israel’s minister of intelligence and strategic affairs, Yuval Steinitz, is at the forefront of his government’s very high-profile effort to expose perceived flaws and close loopholes in the world powers’ new framework nuclear deal with Iran. There’s just one problem, he says: There is no deal. In fact, there isn’t even a written framework.
Asked for his overall assessment of a deal hailed by the US as “historic,” Steinitz responded with a sigh and the plaintive lament: “The deal? I don’t understand anything about it.”
He then suggested that the framework was foggy and marked a pitiful precedent for international diplomacy: “Usually there’s a signed document, and then the sides argue about the interpretation. Now, they’re not arguing about the interpretation, but over the text. Because nothing was agreed. There is no text. In Lausanne, they didn’t manage to reach an agreement. So, to an extent, they fabricated understandings. Some are less clear. Some are more clear. But they weren’t written. And so there are different narratives. I don’t think there’s been an international agreement in the past that wasn’t written and signed.”
Still, from what Steinitz can discern amid the vagueness and conflicting narratives, he has pieced together a bleak picture. Echoing Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, he said the non-written non-deal paves Iran’s path to the bomb — treating the regime “as though it can be trusted, like Holland or Japan.”
The root of the rot, he argued, was the decision by US-led world powers, about two years ago, to veer away from their previous insistence that Iran’s nuclear infrastructure be “dismantled and neutralized,” and opt instead for a “freeze and inspect” approach, which he said was “an unfortunately more minimal” path. Now, compounding that fundamental error, he said, came the recent porous understandings that neither freeze nor inspect effectively.
‘I don’t think there’s been an international agreement in the past that wasn’t written and signed’
In an interview with The Times of Israel on Wednesday, Steinitz stressed — for the benefit of those who criticize Israel’s ostensibly hard-line attitude — that “Israel didn’t change its position.” The “big mistake” was that the world powers did, he said, abandoning their demand to dismantle and neutralize, a demand that had produced a string of UN resolutions against an Iran that had “built a uranium enrichment project secretively and in breach of commitments.” The previous stance of the world powers known as the P5+1 had been “You want a peaceful nuclear program — well, fine, but no enrichment. Like Spain, Mexico, South Africa,” he said.
So Israel’s criticisms begin with that initial shift. The “overall approach is wrong,” said Steinitz. In Lausanne, however, the very vague terms of the understanding give every indication of failing even to ensure a competent, viable mechanism for the misguided “freeze and inspect” approach, he said.
For a start, he continued, the apparent terms do not freeze R&D on advanced centrifuges. Iran can thus continue to improve its centrifuges “legitimately” and break out to the bomb as soon as the restrictions on advanced centrifuges expire, in a little over a decade — the very flaw that President Barack Obama highlighted in his NPR interview on Monday, and which the State Department scrambled to explain away a day later.
Except that the right to ongoing R&D is actually more problematic than Obama acknowledged, said Steinitz. He posited that it would take Iran only about five years to complete the R&D on its IR-8 centrifuges, geared to enrich uranium 20 times faster than its current, basic line of IR-1s. “We’re not only worried about what happens in 10 years,” he said. “We’re worried that in five years, if and when their research is done, they will be able to break out to the bomb in two to three months. If they do break out, they can build 200 IR-8 centrifuges and install them in about two months,” and then produce enough enriched uranium for a bomb in a few weeks.
Steinitz said that the Iranians don’t yet have working IR-8 centrifuges; they are in development. When Foreign Minister Zarif and nuclear chief Salehi reportedly told MPs in Tehran that they’ll “inject gas” into their IR-8s on day one of the deal, Steinitz believes, they “apparently meant that they will be allowed to continue development from day one of the deal. They’ll put in a certain gas to check the models.”
The aftermath of the announcement of the deal has indeed been marked by diverging interpretations of the framework not only between Iran and the US but even between the US and France, which was on the same side of the negotiating table.
How will the IAEA be able to fully inspect and inspect what the regime is doing in the future, ‘if you don’t know where they’ve got to in the past’?
Then come the inspections, which Steinitz said were inadequately provided for in the Lausanne understandings. Iran, it appears, is still not being required to give a full accounting to the International Atomic Energy Agency on the possible military dimensions of its nuclear activities to date, he said. “And that is dangerous on a world level, since other countries will conclude that they too don’t have to give full answers to the IAEA — countries like Argentina, Brazil, Saudi Arabia and Egypt.”
And as regards Iran itself, he asked, how will the IAEA be able to fully inspect and inspect what the regime is doing in the future, “if you don’t know where they’ve got to in the past — for example, on nuclear warheads?”
What’s worse, he pressed on, is that the understandings do not provide for critical “anywhere, anytime” inspections of any and all suspicious sites. How did Steinitz reach that conclusion? In part, from Obama’s New York Times interview. “Tom Friedman asked him, If there are military sites with nuclear activities, can there be ‘anywhere/anytime’ inspections? Obama said no. He said, We’d have to request that of the Iranians, and if the Iranians say no, there’ll have to be arbitration.”
(Steinitz, obviously, was paraphrasing. What Obama said was, “Obviously, a request will have to be made. Iran could object, but what we have done is to try to design a mechanism whereby once those objections are heard, that it is not a final veto that Iran has, but in fact some sort of international mechanism will be in place that makes a fair assessment as to whether there should be an inspection, and if they determine it should be, that’s the tiebreaker, not Iran saying, ‘No, you can’t come here.'”)
Steinitz was anything but persuaded. “We say that is ineffective. It will take time,” he said — time in which Iran can render suspicious sites less suspicious. “And, of course, if Israel or the UK or the US have intelligence that arouses suspicions, say, about two or three sites, military bases, facilities — these could be huge compounds — and there is an arbitration committee, Iran will deny the allegations. They’ll say, Show us proof. Well, we’re not going to give them our intelligence. We’re not going to expose our intelligence to the Iranians. So we think it’s useless.”
All of which, in Steinitz’s bleak conclusion, means that, “They claim that there’s a freeze and inspections, and we see loopholes.”
But what more can Israel do about this state of affairs, apart from gearing up to look after itself?
It couldn’t have made its objections any clearer. A month ago, Netanyahu was publicly lobbying Congress against the Obama-backed deal, to the president’s evident fury. Since last Thursday, the prime minister has been blitzing US media with his complaints. He asked that a final deal be conditioned on Iranian recognition of Israel; the president swatted the demand away. Steinitz on Monday asked 10 questions about the framework and listed a series of loophole-closing demands for a “more acceptable” deal. Hours later, Obama adviser Ben Rhodes went on his own Israeli TV blitz, effectively ruling out more stringent demands on Iran. The deal as it now stands meets the US’s “core objectives,” Rhodes told Channel 2. “We believe that this is the best deal that can emerge from these negotiations,” he reiterated to Channel 10.
Steinitz indicated he was undeterred by such tactical obstacles. “We’ll continue the dialogue with the US and with all the P5+1 players,” he promised. “We’ll keep expressing our positions. It is having an effect. There is American media resonance. The 10 questions that I raised, and my parameters for a more acceptable deal — when it was said that Israel wasn’t offering an alternative — are resonating.”
Steinitz insisted that the holes in the disputed parameters could yet be plugged, “if there is sufficient pressure on Iran.”
“If there is sufficient pressure,” he repeated, “I believe Iran will give in on all or most of these points,” he claimed, sounding just a little as though he was trying to convince the both of us. “If the Iranians see there’s no alternative, that they’ll be facing ever greater economic pressure, that there’s the risk of a military strike…”
He tailed off, then sallied forth again, on a slightly different, more idealistic tack: “The P5+1 shouldn’t be saying, What’s the alternative. Iran should be saying, What’s the alternative. Two years ago, when he was running for election, [President Hassan] Rouhani asked, What’s the alternative? We have to make concessions, he said. We have to save the economy, he said. Now, it’s Obama and the P5+1, the world’s powers, that are asking what’s the alternative.”
How to explain this grim reversal? I wondered. Is Obama a man of bad intentions?
“I certainly don’t think that the president has bad intentions,” Steinitz fired back rapidly and firmly. “I greatly appreciate his security guarantees to Israel, his commitment to Israel, the dialogue with Israel. Heaven forbid, I don’t accuse Obama or [Secretary of State John] Kerry of bad intentions, but they’re making a terrible mistake — one that recalls the 2007 North Korea deal, hailed by the whole world. Four years later, they had the bomb.”
If absolutely not malice, then, what’s driving the administration?
“I think there’s a delusion by Obama and Kerry and some European states,” Steinitz said, “that Zarif and Rouhani are moderates who represent moderates in Iran. They all said that Rouhani was different from Ahmadinejad, and that Iran would change for the better in the Rouhani era, and that if we just give Rouhani and Zarif sanctions relief, we’ll empower them vis-a-vis the Revolutionary Guards and [Supreme Leader Ali] Khamenei and the extreme factions.”
Instead, Steinitz argued, the opposite has played out. “Iran has not changed for the better. Iran has changed for the worse. Iran’s behavior is much more aggressive around the Middle East than it was under Ahmadinejad.”
It more openly supports terrorist groups and Shiite militias in Iraq and Syria and Lebanon, he elaborated. It now openly talks about arming the Palestinians in the West Bank. And look at its support for the rebels in Yemen, he urged.
“The [previous] interim agreement, with its partial sanctions relief, didn’t encourage moderation,” Steinitz concluded. “The concept that you’ll empower the moderate Rouhani and Zarif was a very nice concept two years ago. But it’s totally unconnected with the facts on the ground.”
As The Times of Israel’s political correspondent, I spend my days in the Knesset trenches, speaking with politicians and advisers to understand their plans, goals and motivations.
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