Obama calls Netanyahu, restates vow to keep Iran from a bomb

After PM warns of ‘very, very bad deal,’ US president briefs Israeli PM on marathon talks with Tehran in Geneva

US President Barack Obama speaks to his Iranian counterpart, Hassan Rouhani, on September 27, 2013, marking the first time the two countries' leaders had engaged each other since 1979. (Pete Souza via White House Twitter page)
US President Barack Obama speaks to his Iranian counterpart, Hassan Rouhani, on September 27, 2013, marking the first time the two countries' leaders had engaged each other since 1979. (Pete Souza via White House Twitter page)

US President Barack Obama spoke with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu Friday night to discuss the ongoing efforts by Secretary of State John Kerry and other Western diplomats to reach an agreement with Iran.

Obama underscored Washington’s “strong commitment to preventing Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon” and discussed the US’s “ongoing efforts to advance a peaceful resolution of the international community’s concerns.”

News of the call, coupled with the convergence of Western ministers in Geneva on Friday and the imminent arrival of Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and a Chinese deputy foreign minister on Saturday, deepened the expectation that a deal between world powers and Iran was reaching its final stages.

Netanyahu also spoke to Russian President Vladimir Putin at the weekend, to lobby against the emerging deal.

The conversation between the American and Israeli leaders came hours after Netanyahu urged Kerry on Friday “not to rush to sign” a deal with Iran over its controversial nuclear program.

“I met Secretary Kerry right before he [left] to Geneva. I reminded him that he said that no deal is better than a bad deal. And the deal that is being discussed in Geneva right now is a bad deal. Iran is not required to take apart even one centrifuge. But the international community is relieving sanctions on Iran for the first time after many years,” he said.

“Iran gets everything that it wanted at this stage and pays nothing. And this is when Iran is under severe pressure. I urge Secretary Kerry not to rush to sign, to wait, to reconsider, to get a good deal,” Netanyahu added. “But this is a bad deal, a very, very bad deal. It’s the deal of a century for Iran; it’s a very dangerous and bad deal for peace and the international community.”

The PM’s comments came after his meeting Friday with the secretary of state, shortly before Kerry’s departure for Geneva to attend the negotiations between the P5+1 world powers and Tehran.

Kerry’s trip to Geneva was reportedly a last-minute decision. On arrival at the hotel in Geneva where talks are being conducted, the secretary of state said that there was no agreement yet and that several issues remained to be resolved. “Important gaps … still remain,” he told reporters, adding that there were “some very important issues on the table that are unresolved.”

Earlier Friday, Netanyahu told Kerry that Israel was not bound by any nuclear deal the West makes with Iran on its rogue nuclear program.

“I understand that the Iranians are walking around very satisfied in Geneva, as well they should be, because they got everything, and paid nothing. They wanted relief from sanctions after years of a grueling sanctions regime. They got that, ” Netanyahu said.

“This is a very bad deal. Israel utterly rejects it and what I am saying is shared by many, many in the region, whether or not they express it publicly. Israel is not obliged by this agreement and Israel will do everything it needs to defend itself, to defend the security of its people,” he affirmed.

Turning to seemingly address Kerry’s scathing critique Thursday night on Channel 2 of Israel’s West Bank policies, Netanyahu said: “I will never compromise on Israel’s security and our vital interests, not in the face of any international pressure. I think the pressure has to be put where it belongs, that is, on the Palestinians who refuse to budge. But I think in any case, no amount of pressure will make me or the government of Israel compromise on the basic security and national interests of the State of Israel. The people of Israel know this and they support it, as they should.”

Kerry and Netanyahu’s meeting Friday was held at Ben Gurion International Airport and was focused on the possible deal taking shape in Geneva — involving “limited” sanctions relief for Iran in response to an Iranian agreement to start scaling back nuclear activities — between world powers and Tehran, which Netanyahu on Thursday had labeled a “historic mistake.

A senior State Department official said the European Union’s top diplomat, Catherine Ashton, asked Kerry to attend the latest round of discussions. The official called the negotiations “a complex process” and said Kerry was “committed to doing anything he can” to help.

“We’re making progress,” said Michael Mann, the spokesman of Ashton, who convened the talks.

According to Britain’s Telegraph, the Iranian deal’s four main points were that Iran would stop enriching uranium to 20 percent and convert its existing stockpile into harmless uranium oxide. Iran would be able to continue enrichment to 3.5% purity necessary for nuclear power plants — but would agree to limit the number of centrifuges running for this purpose. The inactive centrifuges would be able to remain intact. Iran would also agree not to activate its plutonium reactor at Arak, which could provide an alternative route to a nuclear weapon, during the six-month period in which Iran will limit uranium enrichment to 3.5%. Lastly, Iran would agree not to use the advanced IR-2 centrifuges, which enrich uranium three to five times faster than the older model.

In return, the British paper reported, the US “would ease economic sanctions, possibly by releasing some Iranian foreign exchange reserves currently held in frozen accounts” and ease “some restrictions on Iran’s petrochemical, motor and precious metals industries.”

On Thursday night, Netanyahu said the proposals “on the table in Geneva” would “ease the pressure on Iran in return for ‘concessions’ that aren’t concessions at all.” He said the proposals would leave Iran with a capacity to build nuclear weapons. “I believe that adopting [these proposals] would be a mistake of historic proportions. They must be rejected outright,” he said at a conference of Israeli and Diaspora leaders in Jerusalem Thursday.

Later, during a meeting with a US Congress delegation, Netanyahu angrily called the offer being discussed in Geneva the “deal of the century” for Iran. Sanctions had brought Iran to the brink of economic collapse, and the P5+1 countries have the opportunity to force Iran to completely dismantle its nuclear weapons program, the prime minister said. “Anything less than that” would reduce the likelihood of a peaceful solution to the crisis, he said, and Israel would always reserve the right to protect itself against any threat.

Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif responded to Netanyahu’s statement about a “historic mistake,” telling the Guardian: “I don’t think he’s an authority on mistakes because he’s been making mistakes for his entire life. He’s been calling the Iranian program six months away from a nuclear weapon since 1991, so I don’t consider him a credible authority.”

In an interview with Israel’s Channel 2 Thursday, Kerry stressed the negotiators in Geneva were requiring Iran to “provide a complete freeze over where they are today.” He argued that it was “better” to be talking to Iran, and seeking to “expand” the time it would take Iran to break out to the bomb, than not to be talking to Iran, and have it continuing to advance its nuclear program. “We have not taken away any of the sanctions yet,” he said. “We will not undo the major sanctions regime until we have absolute clarity,” he said.

If Iran did not “meet the standards” required by the international community, Kerry said, it knew “worse sanctions” were in prospect, and even, as the “clock ticks down… there may be no option but the military option. We hope to avoid that.”

Earlier Thursday, the White House said world powers negotiating with Iran were pursuing an agreement that would offer some sanctions relief if Tehran halts and possibly reverses parts of its nuclear program.

White House spokesman Jay Carney said the first step would deal with Iran’s most advanced nuclear activities.

Carney said that, in exchange, the world powers would consider targeted and limited sanctions relief. He said the relief would be reversible, and sanctions could even be tightened, if Iran breaks its word.

The meeting between Kerry and Netanyahu Friday took place a day after the secretary of state launched an unusually bitter public attack on Israeli policies in the West Bank, during an interview with Israel’s Channel 2, warning that if current peace talks fail, Israel could see a Third Intifada and growing international isolation, and that calls for boycott, divestment and sanctions would increase.

US Secretary of State John Kerry speaks with journalists from Israel's Channel 2 and the Palestinian Broadcasting Corporation on November 6, 2013. (Photo credit: US State Department/Twitter)
US Secretary of State John Kerry speaks with journalists from Israel’s Channel 2 and the Palestinian Broadcasting Corporation on November 7, 2013. (photo credit: US State Department/Twitter)

“The alternative to getting back to the talks is the potential of chaos,” Kerry said during the interview. “I mean, does Israel want a Third Intifada?” he asked. “Israel says, ‘Oh, we feel safe today, we have the wall. We’re not in a day-to-day conflict,’” said Kerry. “I’ve got news for you. Today’s status quo will not be tomorrow’s…” Israel’s neighbors, he warned, will “begin to push in a different way.”

“If we do not resolve the issues between Palestinians and Israelis, if we do not find a way to find peace, there will be an increasing isolation of Israel, there will be an increasing campaign of delegitimization of Israel that’s been taking place on an international basis,” he went on.

Turning to settlements and Israel’s presence in the West Bank, he added: “If we do not resolve the question of settlements, and the question of who lives where and how and what rights they have; if we don’t end the presence of Israeli soldiers perpetually within the West Bank, then there will be an increasing feeling that if we cannot get peace with a leadership that is committed to nonviolence, you may wind up with a leadership that is committed to violence.”

Israel’s Channel 2 quoted an unnamed official in Jerusalem responding bitterly to the secretary’s remarks, saying Israel would not “succumb to fear tactics” by the secretary, and would not compromise on its vital security needs. The official also reportedly noted that Kerry’s comments would not “encourage” the Palestinians to compromise.

The Israeli official seemed to be angrily echoing Kerry’s own comments in connection with the Iranian nuclear program in late October, when he said that America “will not succumb to those fear tactics” — remarks interpreted by commentators as criticism of Israeli warnings about the dangers of talking to Tehran.

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