US, Iran make major progress toward nuke deal, Israel TV claims

Nascent secret agreement aims to keep Tehran ‘two to three years’ from nuclear weapons capability; report comes one day after Netanyahu warned against ‘bad deal’

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)

Iran and the United States have secretly made significant progress toward an agreement that would aim to keep Iran “two or three years away” from a nuclear weapons capability, and would see an easing of economic sanctions on the Islamic Republic, an Israeli TV report said on Wednesday.

The behind-the-scenes negotiations have moved a long way forward — far more than is widely thought — with Oman among the mediators, Israel’s Channel 2 news said.

“Israel knows [about] this,” the report added.

There was no confirmation of the report, which was made by the station’s Middle East affairs correspondent Ehud Ya’ari.

The TV report came just a day after Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu warned against “a bad deal” being done with Iran, under which sanctions were eased but Iran was left with the capacity to enrich uranium and/or pursue a plutonium route to the bomb.

There is “more than a likelihood” that the accelerated diplomatic contacts will produce a deal, the TV report said, adding that Russia’s President Vladimir Putin “will come in at a certain stage… and play an important role,” as he did in resolving the crisis over Syria’s use of chemical weapons a little over a month ago. For now, though, it is the US and Iran that are doing the negotiating.

The same station later quoted an unnamed “European security source” saying that some consideration was being given to “easing some of the sanctions,” but only if Iran “takes significant steps” including a halt to enrichment. It said a French team was currently in Israel, seeking insights and input from Israel ahead of new week’s new round of negotiations with Iran.

In Geneva next week, the so-called P5+1 powers are set to resume diplomatic talks with Tehran over its rogue nuclear program. President Barack Obama told Netanyahu at the White House last Monday that the US was determined to “test” the diplomatic route, but would be “clear-eyed” in engaging with Iran.

On September 27, Obama spoke by telephone with Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani — the highest level contact between the US and Iran since the Islamic Revolution in 1979.

Reports earlier Wednesday said Iran was preparing to offer to limit its production of nuclear fuel in exchange for an easing of international sanctions. It will make the offer in Geneva next week, according to a report in the Wall Street Journal.

“The Iranians are preparing to go to Geneva with a serious package,” said a former Western diplomat quoted in the report. “These include limits on the numbers of centrifuges operating, enrichment amounts and the need for verification.”

Iran is expected to offer “to stop enriching uranium to levels of 20% purity, which international powers consider dangerously close to a weapons-grade capability,” agree to ship its stockpile of nuclear fuel to a third country for storage, open its nuclear facilities to more thorough international inspections, and close the enrichment facility near Qom, the Journal report said.

Intelligence Minister Yuval Steinitz called Iran’s reported offer a “joke.”

In a statement released by his office Wednesday morning, Steinitz said that “the so-called gestures offered by Iran [in the report] are a joke. The closure of the Qom facility would mean that, in its first year of nuclear capability, Iran would be able to produce five bombs instead of six, and the limiting of uranium enrichment to 20% is even less significant in a situation where Iran already has 20,000 centrifuges.”

“Israel is ready for a real, serious diplomatic solution which would mean that Iran’s nuclear program would be similar to that of Canada or Mexico,” he added.

Netanyahu warned in a speech at the UN General Assembly last Tuesday that Iran was seeking to fool the world and had no genuine intention of giving up its goal of attaining a nuclear arsenal. He said Iran was bent on destroying Israel, and that Israel would “stand alone” if necessary to thwart the Iranian nuclear weapons ambition.

A close colleague of Netanyahu’s, Likud MK Tzachi Hanegbi, told The Times of Israel soon after Netanyahu’s speech that the prime minister was indicating to Iran that Israel will take action “even if the Americans will be prevented from acting.”

On Tuesday, Netanyahu reiterated his insistence that any Western deal with Iran must guarantee the removal of all of Iran’s uranium enrichment centrifuges and the cessation of its plutonium production program.

Netanyahu asserted that while Iran was desperate for a reduction in the severity of the international sanctions imposed on its economy, it had no intention of stopping its military nuclear aspirations. “I think that there’s nothing wrong with diplomacy if it achieves a good deal,” he said. “But a bad deal is worse than no deal. And a bad deal is a partial deal that removes the sanctions, or most of them, and leaves Iran with the capacity to enrich uranium and pursue the plutonium route to nuclear bombs.”

Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif is set to present the Iran’s diplomatic package to the P5+1 next week “to kick off what is expected to be an intense new round of negotiations,” according to officials quoted in the report.

Both Zarif and Rouhani have said that Iran will continue to pursue a “peaceful” nuclear program, which the US has indicated could be acceptable under certain conditions to the international community.

The Obama administration’s chief Iran negotiator, Undersecretary of State Wendy Sherman, told a Senate hearing last week, “We respect the right of the Iranian people to access peaceful nuclear energy.”

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