Steinitz: No need to be overly pessimistic on Iran

Ahead of Tuesday’s nuclear talks, minister points to the dismantling of Libya’s program as model, warns world powers not to let Geneva 2013 become Munich 1938

Raphael Ahren is the diplomatic correspondent at The Times of Israel.

Intelligence Minister Yuval Steinitz briefing reporters in Jerusalem, October 14, 2013. (photo credit: Raphael Ahren/TOI)
Intelligence Minister Yuval Steinitz briefing reporters in Jerusalem, October 14, 2013. (photo credit: Raphael Ahren/TOI)

Ahead of a new round of nuclear talks between Western powers and Iran starting Tuesday, Intelligence and Strategic Affairs Minister Yuval Steinitz said a diplomatic solution was still possible, and said Tehran should discontinue its nuclear weapons program just as Libya did 10 years ago.

Israel will endorse any agreement that ensures Tehran’s inability to create nuclear weapons, including one that would grant the regime the use of nuclear energy for civilian purposes, he said Monday. “We want the Geneva talks to succeed. We don’t close the door on a diplomatic solution,” he said.

But Steinitz, a close Likud ally of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, also reiterated Israel’s position that the Islamic Republic must cease all uranium enrichment and ship out all already enriched material. Speaking to foreign media in Jerusalem, the minister warned the West against repeating the mistakes of 1938, drawing a direct comparison between Nazi Germany and Iran.

Rather than prematurely lifting sanctions on Iran, while the regime continues to work toward a nuclear weapons capability, the West should first insist on a complete end to Tehran’s enrichment activity and removal of already existing stockpiles of enriched material. Libya, which harbored nuclear ambitions but surprisingly abandoned them a decade ago, could serve as a model, he posited.

“Libya was trying to develop its military nuclear industry. It was discovered by the MI6, by the British intelligence service, in 2003, and soon after there was an agreement with Libya about its nuclear program,” Steinitz said.

Worried that the West might be ready to enter an agreement with Iran that would curb its military weapons program but allow it to continue low-level uranium enrichment, Steinitz pointed to North Korea. Over the last few years, the international community reached three agreements with the reclusive regime, all of which were violated and eventually allowed to Pyongyang to launch nuclear tests earlier this year.

There were vital lessons to be learned, he said, from the differences between the handling of the Libyan and North Korean crises. “All the agreements with North Korea were about stopping progress toward nuclear weapons, freezing the situation, stopping any further progress and improving supervision,” Steinitz said. “It didn’t work. The agreement with Libya was about dismantling the Libyan capacity to promote nuclear weapons, destroying the centrifuges or sending them to United States to be destroyed. Libya gave up its enrichment facility.”

On Tuesday and Wednesday, the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council and Germany — the so-called P5+1 — will meet with Iran in Geneva to negotiate over Tehran’s nuclear program. The talks mark the first round of high-level negotiations since the June election of Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani, which has led to a limited but rapid rapprochement between the regime and the West. The détente, viewed extremely skeptically in Jerusalem, culminated last month in a 15-minute phone call between Rouhani and US President Barack Obama, the first conversation on such a level since Iran’s Islamic Revolution in 1979.

‘Nuclear civilian energy: yes — uranium enrichment: no. It’s that simple’

Obama told Netanyahu he would be “clear-eyed” in the US’s engagement with Tehran but made plain his hope that the nuclear standoff could be resolved diplomatically and in the near future.

“Right now, the window for diplomacy is cracking open. But I want you to know that our eyes are open, too,” US Secretary of State John Kerry said Sunday. “While we seek a peaceful resolution to Iran’s nuclear program, words must be matched with actions. In any engagement with Iran, we are mindful of Israel’s security needs… And I believe firmly that no deal is better than a bad deal.”

Israel insists than any agreement prohibit Iran from independently enriching uranium and require the regime to ship out its stockpile of already enriched material. “What we’re saying is a very simple thing: Demand the only rational, logical, satisfactory solution. Nuclear civilian energy: yes. Uranium enrichment: no. It’s that simple,” Steinitz said.

Iran says it is willing to talk about reducing the rate of enrichment but has ruled out the removal of its uranium stockpile. “Of course we will negotiate regarding the form, amount, and various levels of enrichment, but the shipping of materials out of the country is our red line,” Deputy Foreign Minister Seyyed Abbas Araqchi said Sunday.

Iran's Deputy Foreign Minister Seyyed Abbas Araqchi. (screen capture: Youtube/PressTV)
Iran’s Deputy Foreign Minister Seyyed Abbas Araqchi. (screen capture: Youtube/PressTV)

If Iran’s nuclear program is not intended to produce a bomb, as Tehran insists, it need not insist on enriching uranium, or refuse to remove already enriched material, according to Steinitz. “If it’s for a purely civilian purpose, there is no real reason to keep enrichment facilities, or to keep the already enriched material. Let’s deliver it to France, or to Russia, or Holland, and you can get in return nuclear fuel,” he told reporters at Monday’s event, which was organized by The Israel Project.

The removal of “most of the already enriched material” is not exclusively an Israeli demand, but is anchored in several UN Security Council resolutions, the minister added. “And why should Iran escape from Security Council legal decisions that are already in place? If they really want to change their relations to the world, first they need to comply… with already existing Security Council resolutions. Once you comply, you can be accepted into the international community and we can discuss other things, including lifting of the sanctions.”

“We should all do our best to ensure that Geneva 2013 will not become Munich 1938,” Steinitz added, referring to Europe’s appeasement of Adolf Hitler before World War II.

However, the minister made a particular effort not to sound too fatalistic, portraying Israel as optimistic regarding this week’s negotiations. “If you take the last few decades, there are many successful cases: Libya was trying to get nuclear weapons — failed. Syria failed. Iraq failed. South Africa gave up its nuclear weapons. Ukraine gave up some nuclear weapons that were in those territories.

“So if you look around,” he continued, “many countries gave up, willingly or unwillingly, their military nuclear projects and there is only one failure so far on behalf of the international community, and this is North Korea. And one case which is still open, and this is Iran. I don’t think that we have to be necessarily pessimistic. Sooner or later there might a positive solution. But it depends on us, and by ‘us’ I mean the West and not necessarily little Israel.”

read more:
Never miss breaking news on Israel
Get notifications to stay updated
You're subscribed