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Reviving 2015 protest, Netanyahu says ‘terrible’ Iran deal even worse than original

Opposition leader criticizes government for failing to torpedo drive toward US rejoining pact, while appealing for unity; says no deal will ever stop Tehran

Carrie Keller-Lynn is a political and legal correspondent for The Times of Israel

Benjamin Netanyahu speaks to the media  in Tel Aviv on August 24, 2022. (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)
Benjamin Netanyahu speaks to the media in Tel Aviv on August 24, 2022. (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)

Opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu railed against the possible imminent return to a deal between leading powers and Iran meant to curb Iran’s nuclear weapon ambitions, saying it was worse than the original accord he battled against seven years ago.

“The terrible deal with Iran… casts a heavy shadow on our security and our future,” Netanyahu told reporters in Tel Aviv.

“The deal enables Iran to get everything and give nothing… The current deal is worse than the previous deal,” the former prime minister said, wielding a wand at slides on a jumbo-sized screen.

In the lead-up to the signing of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action in 2015, Netanyahu crusaded to stop the US, UK, Russia, China, France and Germany from making a deal with Iran, including making a bold but politically controversial direct address to Congress.

Then-US president Donald Trump tore up the accord in 2018, citing many of Netanyahu’s complaints, and promised to negotiate a better pact, though that never happened.

After over a year of negotiations, the US and Iran now appear to be close to reviving the deal via indirect talks sponsored by the EU. On Tuesday, a US official said the sides were closer, but gaps remain, after Iran dropped two key demands. Moments before Netanyahu’s speech, the US confirmed it had replied to Iran’s latest proffer, which came in response to a last-ditch effort to revive the broken-down negotiations.

It’s unclear if any deal could have satisfied the Likud leader. Rather, he advocated a path that integrates crushing sanctions staying in place alongside a credible military threat.

“Deals don’t stop the nuclear plan,” he said. “The combination of grinding sanctions and a rich, realistic, credible military threat are the only things that stop [a nuclear weapons program].”

Russian President Vladimir Putin (left) and Iran’s President Ebrahim Raisi hold a meeting in Tehran on July 19, 2022. (Sergei Savostyanov/Sputnik/AFP)

Reviving many of his critiques of the 2015 deal, Netanyahu said the deal would give Iran “hundreds of billions of dollars” for terror activity, up to $1 trillion by the deal’s 2031 sunset. This money, Netanyahu claimed, will go to fund “terror and Iranian aggression in the region.”

Netanyahu also said that the deal would allow Iran to dramatically increase its uranium enrichment capabilities through the deployment of an “advanced centrifuge network.” Within 2 years, Iran could put 3,500 upgraded centrifuges to work, he claimed, bumping enrichment capabilities to up to 20 times current levels. Enriched uranium is the fissile material needed for a nuclear reaction.

Under the existing deal, Iran is allowed to build 3,500 IR-2m or IR-4 centrifuges starting in 2028, which are seen as an upgrade over the IR-1 centrifuges it had been using. It can build more advanced IR-6 and IR-8 centrifuges starting in 2024, but without rotors. After the US pulled out, Iran began deploying advanced centrifuges anyway, using them to enrich uranium at Natanz, according to reports.

Netanyahu alleged that the deal would deliver “international immunity” to Iran’s nuclear programs by legitimizing it.

“The P5+1 are basically saying you can continue to advance towards being a nuclear threshold state and you are immune from attack,” Netanyahu said.

He also noted the apparent lack of requirements under the imminent deal to stop terrorist activity or the development of ballistic weapons necessary to carry a warhead, which were also left out of the previous deal.

He claimed the pact would require no meaningful commitment to stop nuclear weapon development, and would not result in effective international oversight.

While criticizing the current government for failing to derail the deal by refusing to publicly break with Washington, he nonetheless appealed for unity against the Iranian threat.

“A nuclear weapon doesn’t differentiate between left and right, between Jews and Arabs, between secular and religious. It threatens all of us,” the former prime minister said.

Prime Minister Yair Lapid speaks about Iran at a security briefing for the foreign press at the Prime Minister’s office in Jerusalem, Wednesday, August 24, 2022. (Debbie Hill/Pool via AP)

Earlier on Wednesday, Prime Minister Yair Lapid criticized the deal, hitting many of the same talking points as Netanyahu.

In contrast, though, he said he was not against a deal in principle, but that the current one is “bad” because it does not prevent Iran from developing a nuclear weapon.

“Israel is not against any agreement. We are against this agreement, because it is a bad one,” Lapid said. “In our eyes, it does not meet the standards set by President Biden himself: preventing Iran from becoming a nuclear state.”

Lapid, as well as Defense Minister Benny Gantz, have clarified repeatedly over the past days that Israel — never a party to the 2015 agreement — will not consider itself obligated by a revived version and retains its discretion to act independently.

“Iran’s rush toward a nuclear (weapon) must be significantly pushed back,” Gantz said Wednesday, a day before he was scheduled to travel to the US  for a series of meetings aimed at influencing the direction of the deal.

Alternate Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, who retained the Iran portfolio after stepping down from the premiership at the end of July, made a rare statement on Tuesday that called on US President Joe Biden and his administration to “abstain from signing this deal.”

On Wednesday, he hit back at the Likud leader, noting that the 2015 deal was signed when Netanyahu was prime minister, while efforts to revive it when he, Bennett, was premier had failed.

Earlier on Wednesday, Netanyahu made television appearances on American Fox News and Emirati al-Arabiya to deliver similar messages against the potential Iran deal.

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