Netanyahu: US return to ‘old deal’ will pave Iran’s path to nuclear arsenal

As White House inches toward talks with Tehran, Iran’s FM says country will immediately ‘reverse all remedial measures’ if US unconditionally lifts sanctions imposed by Trump

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during a visit to a Covid-19 vaccination center in Sderot, southern Israel, January 27, 2021. (Liron Moldovan/Pool/Flash90)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during a visit to a Covid-19 vaccination center in Sderot, southern Israel, January 27, 2021. (Liron Moldovan/Pool/Flash90)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu responded on Friday to the United States’ announcement that it was willing to hold talks with Tehran on a return to the nuclear deal, saying Israel believes the old agreement will “pave Iran’s path to a nuclear arsenal.”

“Israel remains committed to preventing Iran from getting nuclear weapons and its position on the nuclear agreement has not changed,” the Prime Minister’s Office said in a statement. “Israel believes that going back to the old agreement will pave Iran’s path to a nuclear arsenal. Israel is in close contact with the United States on this matter.”

The Reuters news agency, citing a source familiar with the matter, said the US had informed Israel ahead of time about Thursday’s announcement, but that President Joe Biden had not told Netanyahu directly.

Israel has voiced strong opposition to Washington returning to the 2015 nuclear deal in its original form.

In this Feb. 3, 2007 file photo, a technician works at the Uranium Conversion Facility just outside the city of Isfahan, Iran. (AP Photo/Vahid Salemi, File)

Netanyahu has long been a leading critic of the agreement and has warned against reengaging with Tehran on the accord.

On Monday he vowed opposition to those who oppose his hawkish stance toward Iran and a day later he spoke on the phone with Biden for the first time since the US president took office, after an eyebrow-raising four weeks of waiting.

Among the topics the two discussed was “the Iranian threat and challenges of the region.”

The Biden administration said Thursday it’s ready to join talks with Iran and world powers to discuss a return to the nuclear deal. It has also reversed the Trump administration’s assertion that all UN sanctions against Iran had been restored. Trump’s move had been ignored by the rest of the Security Council and the world, and the overwhelming majority of members in the 15-nation council had called the action illegal because the US was no longer a member of the nuclear deal.

Washington also eased stringent restrictions on the domestic US travel of Iranian diplomats posted to the United Nations.

The top Republican on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Rep. Michael McCaul of Texas, quickly denounced the steps. “It is concerning the Biden Administration is already making concessions in an apparent attempt to re-enter the flawed Iran deal,” he said. “The Trump Administration created leverage for President Biden on Iran — we should not squander that progress.”

The State Department said the US would accept an invitation from the European Union to attend a meeting of the participants in the original agreement. The US has not participated in a meeting of those participants since then-president Donald Trump withdrew from the deal in 2018.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken speaks to staff at the US State Department during the first visit of US President Joe Biden (L) in Washington, DC, February 4, 2021. (SAUL LOEB / AFP)

Such an invitation has not yet been issued but one is expected shortly, following discussions earlier Thursday between US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and his British, French and German counterparts.

The envoys urged Iran to allow continued United Nations nuclear inspections and stop nuclear activities that have no credible civilian use. They warned that Iran’s actions could threaten delicate efforts to bring the US back into the 2015 deal and end sanctions damaging Iran’s economy.

Blinken reiterated that “if Iran comes back into strict compliance with its commitments… the United States will do the same,” according to a joint statement after Thursday’s meeting that reflected closer trans-Atlantic positions on Iran since Biden took office.

The diplomats noted “the dangerous nature of a decision to limit IAEA access, and urge Iran to consider the consequences of such grave action, particularly at this time of renewed diplomatic opportunity.”

They said Iran’s decision to produce uranium enriched up to 20% and uranium metal has “no credible” civilian use.

The 2015 accord is aimed at preventing Iran from developing nuclear weapons. Tehran denies it is seeking such an arsenal.

According to the New York Times, Jerusalem is still digesting the latest developments, with unnamed officials saying Israel seeks to engage constructively with Washington on the issue.

Israel, and many Gulf states also worried about Iran’s expansionism, are hoping a broader deal can be negotiated that will include longer-lasting limitations on the nuclear program, as well as limits on Tehran’s ballistic missiles and support for regional proxy groups.

“We would like the negotiations to emphasize what the world would like to see: an agreement for a longer time — for at least 50 years, if not more,” Likud Minister Tzachi Hanegbi told the NY Times. He said Israel cannot accept “an agreement that will expire in four to five years. It has to be an agreement that will be valid for generations. Anything else will not achieve the goal of preventing a nuclear Iran.”

US President Joe Biden, right, and Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, left. (AP/Alex Brandon / Russian Foreign Ministry Press Service via AP)

The diplomats also expressed concern about human rights violations in Iran as well as its ballistic missile program.

Iran has said it will stop some of the International Atomic Energy Agency’s inspections of its nuclear facilities next week if the West doesn’t implement its own commitments under the 2015 deal. The accord has been unraveling since Trump pulled the US out of the agreement.

Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif tweeted Friday that Iran would immediately “reverse all remedial measures” if the US “unconditionally and effectively” lifts “all sanctions imposed, re-imposed or re-labelled by Trump.”

He said Iran agreed with the Biden administration’s decision to reverse the widely discredited claim by its predecessor that the UN had imposed new nuclear sanctions.

“We’ll follow action with action,” Zarif said.

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