Contradicting Secretary of State John Kerry, Israel’s Mossad intelligence agency denied on Thursday reports that its chief warned US senators against a bill that would hit Iran with sanctions if ongoing nuclear talks fail to secure an agreement by their June deadline.
A report saying that the head of the spy agency, Tamir Pardo, opposed new sanctions was carried by Bloomberg on Wednesday and Kerry also cited Pardo’s purported comments. But the Mossad insisted Thursday that Pardo’s remarks had not been accurately reported.
“Mossad head Tamir Pardo met two days ago with a delegation of US senators, at the request of the senators and with the prime minister’s permission,” the agency said in a rare statement. “Despite what the report said, the head of the Mossad did not say he opposes additional sanctions against Iran; the head of the Mossad emphasized in the meeting the extraordinary effectiveness of the sanctions against Iran, for a number of years, in bringing Iran to the negotiating table.”
The Mossad statement also said Pardo had emphasized to the senators that he believes in a “carrot and stick” approach, but that there were not enough sticks available to the West. “Pardo noted that without firm pressure it would not be possible to bring about meaningful compromises from the Iranian side.”
On Wednesday Secretary of State Kerry said “one of the top intelligence personnel within the Israeli intelligence field” had warned the visiting US Congressional delegation that more sanctions would be akin to “throwing a grenade into the process.”
Pardo did refer to sanctions throwing a “grenade” into the process, the Mossad statement acknowledged, but was describing a temporary crisis that would lead to renewed talks under more favorable conditions for the West — not implying that the grenade would eliminate the chances of negotiating a deal.
The Mossad statement also stressed that Pardo had expressed in no uncertain terms that he opposes the terms of the current agreement being negotiated with Iran, and that it would lead to a regional arms race.
Wednesday’s Bloomberg report also maintained that Israeli intelligence officials had advised US officials that a new sanctions bill sponsored by senators Robert Menendez and Mark Kirk could drive the nuclear negotiations with the Islamic Republic to collapse.
In Israel on Thursday evening, Hebrew media reports said Israeli officials had clarified to the US administration before Kerry spoke that Pardo’s comments appeared to have been misunderstood or misreported.
Israel’s minister for strategic affairs, Yuval Steinitz said Thursday, “I looked into this on Tuesday, and I can state without equivocation: The Bloomberg report is without foundation. The respected senators did not hear, in their meetings in Israel with the head of the Mossad or others, comments to the effect that further sanctions or further pressure on Iran are forbidden.”
A Ynet report late Thursday said Israel had “clarified to the Americans” on Tuesday that Pardo had not made the remarks attributed to him. Officials in Jerusalem “checked the protocols” of the meeting time and again, this report said, and “could not fathom” how the Americans could have interpreted Pardo’s remarks to suggest he opposed further sanctions. Jerusalem was also shocked that the Americans had made public remarks that were made by an intelligence official in a closed meeting.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has backed the sanctions bill, which is seen as likely to be vetoed by US President Barack Obama. During his State of the Union address earlier this week, the president said he would veto any new sanctions bill.
The Bloomberg report came shortly after news broke that Netanyahu would address the US Congress on the Iranian nuclear project, upon the request of House Speaker John Boehner on Wednesday. Netanyahu on Thursday confirmed the visit, which Boehner said would take place on March 3.
According to the Bloomberg report, two US officials confirmed that the Mossad had said that the passage of the bill would torpedo the talks — a view that is consistent with the US intelligence assessment.
“We’ve had a standing assessment on this,” a senior US official said. “We haven’t run the new Kirk-Menendez bill through the process, but the point is that any bill that triggers sanctions would collapse the talks. That’s what the assessment is.”
Among the visitors to Israel who presumably met with Mossad chief Pardo was chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Bob Corker, who is advancing separate legislation that would require a senate vote to affirm any agreement made with Tehran, but no sanctions. Corker told Bloomberg that during his Israel visit, he did not encounter any opposition to his plan.
“We have heard no one, no one, say that if Congress were to weigh in on the final agreement it would in any way destabilize the negotiations,” he said.
But other US lawmakers in the delegation said they received conflicting messages from Israeli officials on the sanctions bill.
“We met with a number of government officials from many different parts of the government. There’s not a uniform view there,” Republican John Barrasso said.
Obama has argued forcefully against any new measures against the Islamic Republic, saying Iran is already chafing under existing sanctions and imposing new ones could torpedo ongoing talks on an agreement to prevent Tehran from developing a nuclear bomb, a goal it denies having.
Menendez, who has fiercely fought for his bill, on Wednesday sharply criticized the Obama administration’s approach, was reportedly irked by the Mossad intervention, and contacted Israeli Ambassador to the US Ron Dermer for an explanation.
Menendez has chafed for over a year at Obama administration pushback against efforts he is leading with Kirk to pass sanctions that would go into effect should Iran walk away from talks with major powers over its nuclear capabilities.
The Senate Democrats, in the leadership last year, managed to quash the Menendez-Kirk initiative. Now that the Republicans are in the Senate majority, it’s back on, and Menendez says he’s ready to push ahead. The Kirk-Menendez bill, although it has yet to formally appear, is strongly backed by the American Israel Public Affairs Committee.
Obama, in resisting new sanctions now, has the backing of some top Senate Democrats, including Sens. Barbara Boxer (D-Calid.), Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), Chris Coons (D-Del.), Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) and Tim Kaine (D-Va.), and two Republicans: Sens. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) and Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.).
It remains unclear whether Kirk-Menendez has the 67 votes needed to override Obama’s veto.
Times of Israel staff, JTA, and AFP contributed to this report.