Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Tuesday sent a clear message to the United States that Israel would not see itself bound by any agreement Washington might reach with Iran over its nuclear program.
Speaking at the start of a meeting of the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, the prime minister appeared to react to reports that Washington was in renewed contact with Iran regarding moribund nuclear deal talks.
Netanyahu said that over the years Iran had replaced the Arab nations as the principal threat to Israel.
“More than 90 percent of our security issues stem from Iran and her [proxies],” he said, comparing them to a spreading cancer. “Our position is clear: Israel will not be bound by any deal with Iran and will continue to defend itself.”
Netanyahu said Israel remained opposed to a return to the original 2015 nuclear deal, which the US pulled out of under former president Donald Trump.
“We are working to stop Iran and, on the other hand, we are making great efforts to expand the circle of peace. These things present us with great challenges, but also possibilities,” Netanyahu said.
Israel was not a party to the original nuclear deal between Iran and world powers, which Netanyahu lobbied hard against. Efforts by Europe and US President Joe Biden’s administration to revive the agreement and bring Washington back into the pact have also been met with protests from Jerusalem.
Israel argues that diplomatic efforts fall short of preventing Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon, and instead advocates a credible military threat.
Netanyahu’s comments came after a US official confirmed late Monday that Washington was in contact with Iran regarding the moribund nuclear deal talks, but denied that discussions on an interim agreement were taking place.
The comments, reported by Reuters, came hours after Iran appeared to acknowledge that talks were taking place, with the country’s Foreign Ministry thanking Oman for its role as mediator.
The US official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Washington had communicated with Iran to warn it regarding what measures could be met with belligerence or, conversely, help facilitate more productive negotiations.
“There are no talks about an interim deal,” the US official said. “We have made clear to them what escalatory steps they needed to avoid to prevent a crisis and what de-escalatory steps they could take to create a more positive context.”
The US official declined to detail what steps Iran had been told to avoid or encourage, but indicated that Washington was seeking greater cooperation between Tehran and the International Atomic Energy Agency watchdog.
On Tuesday the Haaretz daily quoted a senior Israeli official as saying that Jerusalem was now concerned that Washington planned to reach understandings with Tehran but not formalize them into an agreement, in part so it would not have to be brought to Congress for a vote.
Biden administration officials denied this, telling Haaretz that “the president rose through Congress and works with Congress more than most presidents. The idea that he would try to bypass it is not really indicative of the behavior of the administration.”
On Friday, Axios reported that last month US officials made clear in messages passed to Iran that there would be a severe response if Tehran reached the 90 percent uranium enrichment levels required for use in a nuclear weapon — a short technical step from the current level.
The most recent estimate by the International Atomic Energy Agency is that Iran has 114.1 kilograms (251 pounds) of uranium enriched to 60% purity — a level for which nonproliferation experts already say Tehran has no civilian use.
On Sunday, Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei expressed support for an agreement on the country’s nuclear program with the West, but added that “the existing infrastructure of the nuclear industry should not be touched.”
He claimed that the international community was powerless to keep Iran from a nuclear weapon if it sought one, but also urged cooperation with the IAEA while warning against succumbing to “bullying” based on “unfounded claims.”
Iran insists that its nuclear program is for civilian use only and it is not seeking nuclear weapons capabilities.
On Monday, Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesperson Nasser Kanaani said Tehran was not interested in an interim agreement with Washington, but would consider a revival of the 2015 nuclear deal, which had offered sanctions relief for enrichment curbs before the US pulled out in 2018.