‘Netanyahu open to interim Iran deal — if the terms are right’

PM willing to consider ‘a real freeze for a real freeze’: If Iran stops enriching, world powers will add no more sanctions, official says

Raphael Ahren is a former diplomatic correspondent at The Times of Israel.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks at an alternative energy conference in Tel Aviv, Tuesday, November 12, 2013 (photo credit: Avi Ohayon/GPO/Flash90)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks at an alternative energy conference in Tel Aviv, Tuesday, November 12, 2013 (photo credit: Avi Ohayon/GPO/Flash90)

Israel is willing in principle to consider an interim agreement with Iran — but only if it entails a complete cessation of uranium enrichment by the Iranians, an Israeli government official said Wednesday. In exchange, the international community could offer not to add additional sanctions, he said.

“We’re not a priori opposed to an interim deal. I heard [Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu] say that many times,” the official told The Times of Israel, insisting on anonymity. However, he added, in any such deal, Tehran would not be allowed to continue enriching any uranium, not even to a low degree, and would receive in return a suspension of further sanctions, while all existing sanctions would remain in place.

“A real freeze for a real freeze,” the official said.

Over the weekend, the US, Russia, China, France, Britain and Germany — the so-called P5+1 — in Geneva came close to signing an interim agreement with Iran that would offer limited sanction relief in exchange for Iran halting uranium enrichment to 20 percent purity, while enrichment to the level of 3.5 percent would continue.

The P5+1 offered suspending sanctions on gold, petrochemicals, auto and airplane parts, as well as unfreezing approximately $3 billion in assets. In return, the Iranians would halt uranium enrichment to 20 percent purity, and convert existing stocks of 20% fuel rods. Enrichment to 3.5% purity, however, would be able to continue at Natanz and Qom, according to the near-finalized deal. The P5+1 and Iran will reconvene in Geneva to continue the talks on November 20.

“That’s a false symmetry” the Israeli official said, referring to the deal currently being considered by the sides. “The Iranian steps are meaningless; they in no way impede them from getting a nuclear weapon.” On the other hand, the international community’s readiness to temporarily suspend certain sanctions might appear to be a small step, yet it risks the unraveling of the entire sanctions regime, he said.

The terms of the possible interim agreement envisioned by Netanyahu would appear unrealistic: The Iranians are unlikely to totally freeze enrichment, something they declared to be their red line, and certainly not if they don’t receive any sanctions relief in return. The official’s statement is significant, however, in that it indicates that Jerusalem would be willing to endorse an agreement of some kind with the Islamic Republic before it completely dismantles its nuclear facilities.

Netanyahu has consistently attacked Iran for being a leading state-sponsor of terror, and some analysts have suggested that his vehement public opposition to an interim deal stems in part from his concern that it would legitimize a rogue regime before the nuclear threat is entirely banished.

In an interview Sunday with CBS’s Face the Nation, Netanyahu slammed the proposed interim deal in precisely that light. “The international community takes the one effective thing, which has been the sanction regime, and they reverse direction, they begin to legitimize Iran as having these capabilities. That’s a bad thing,” he said.

The P5+1 nations have been striving to first reach an interim agreement that would temporarily freeze Iran’s progress toward a nuclear weapons capability, in order to buy time to eventually reach a permanent deal. Publicly, Netanyahu rejects this phased approach, insisting instead on a full and final agreement that would remove all concerns over Tehran’s nuclear program.

On Wednesday, Netanyahu issued his harshest warning to date, saying that the currently discussed deal could lead to war.

“There are not just two possibilities on the Iranian issue: A bad deal — or war. This is incorrect. There is a third possibility — and that is continuing the pressure of sanctions,” Netanyahu said in the Knesset. “I would even say that a bad deal is liable to lead to the second, undesired, result.”

On Tuesday, the White House also warned of the dangers of war with Iran — if Congress voted on new sanctions on Iran.

“There is no reason to submit to Iranian diktat; neither is there any reason to be hasty,” Netanyahu told the Knesset plenum. “Iran is under very harsh economic pressure and the advantage is with those applying the pressure. It is possible to achieve a good deal to dismantle Iran’s military nuclear capability. This cannot be achieved by the proposal now being discussed in Geneva. That proposal would make a gaping hole in the sanctions through which the air could escape from the pressure of the sanctions.”

Netanyahu has been vocally opposed to a possible interim deal between P5+1 and Iran since news of a possible breakthrough emerged Thursday, leading to a very public disagreement between Jerusalem and Washington.

Comments Netanyahu made Thursday evening during a meeting with visiting members of the US Congress reveal that he was surprised to learn the details of the planned deal. “I’m absolutely stunned. Such a monumental mistake,” Netanyahu said. “If the news that I’m receiving of the impeding proposal by the P5+1 is true then I’m absolutely stunned.”

On Tuesday, US State Department spokesperson Jen Psaki said Washington is opposed to new sanctions on Iran. Instead, the deal on the table would include a “temporary pause in sanctions… We are not taking away sanctions. We are not rolling them back,” she said.

US officials have reiterated that the US remains committed to Israel’s security and to preventing Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon. “We do care deeply about the security of Israel,” Psaki said. “But we have a responsibility to pursue the diplomatic path, to see if that is — if we can resolve this through diplomacy. Diplomacy should be the first option.”

Also on Tuesday, the White House warned the Senate against increasing sanctions against Tehran, saying such a move could cause the breakdown of talks and ultimately lead to war. “The American people justifiably and understandably prefer a peaceful solution that prevents Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon, and this agreement, if it’s achieved, has the potential to do that,” White House spokesman Jay Carney told reporters. “The alternative is military action.”

On Wednesday, US Secretary of State John Kerry was set to defend the administration’s stance during a meeting with lawmakers.

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