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US: Iran’s threats on Israel, terror support never part of talks

Senior administration official says Israel knew these issues weren’t included, but is using their absence to fight the deal

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

US Secretary of State John Kerry sits across from Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammed Javad Zarif on July 1, 2015, in Vienna, Austria (State Department photo)
US Secretary of State John Kerry sits across from Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammed Javad Zarif on July 1, 2015, in Vienna, Austria (State Department photo)

WASHINGTON – The United States never considered including Iran’s sponsoring of terrorism and calls for Israel’s annihilation into the nuclear agreement, a senior US administration said Monday. Israel knew this all along but decided to turn these issues into make-or-break conditions for support of the deal, the official told Israeli reporters.

Jerusalem’s insistence that any deal address these issues would have killed any prospects to reach an agreement, the senior official continued, adding that the conditions that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu outlined in his March Congress speech made plain that Israel would object to any nuclear deal with Iran.

“This has been a nuclear negotiation for over two years with the P5+1 and Iran, with very vigorous consultations with successive Israeli governments about the details of that negotiation,” the senior official said, referring to the five permanent members of the UN Security Council and Germany. “Frankly, in none of our conversations with Israel over the years about the Iran nuclear negotiations were we contemplating bringing in those other elements of Iranian behavior,” the official said.

Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister Abbas Araqchi speaking in Tehran, Iran, on October 22, 2013. (AFP/Atta Kenare)
Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister Abbas Araqchi speaking in Tehran, Iran, on October 22, 2013. (AFP/Atta Kenare)

Iranian nuclear negotiator Abbas Araqchi had a different take on the matter, telling Iranian journalists on Saturday: “We said during the talks that we cannot not provide weapons to Hezbollah, and we are not willing to sacrifice them for our nuclear program. Therefore, if you want to keep the weapon sanctions as part of the agreement, we will continue with our efforts. We discussed this matter for a while.”

Netanyahu moved the goalposts

Speaking to the Israel Diplomatic Correspondents Association, the senior official said the administration “never contemplated a deal” that goes beyond Iran’s quest for nuclear weapons capability. But during Netanyahu’s controversial March 3 address to a joint meeting of Congress, the senior official suggested, Israel moved the goalposts for the deal by demanding that Iran must first abandon its support of terrorism and its calls for Israel’s destruction before a deal should be signed.

“As soon as the conversation was broadened to include all these other things — that’s a recipe for no deal, because the P5+1 is not going to negotiate those issues, either,” the senior administration official said. “We’d essentially have to end these negotiations and say the premise we’ve been operating under no longer holds and we now want these negotiations to be about essentially of Iranian foreign policy and the nature of the Iranian regime. And that’s a recipe for no deal.”

Netanyahu’s mistrust of Iran is “understandable,” the official said, but his demand that Iran’s nuclear program cannot be separated from its behavior in the region poses a “fundamental different” to the administration’s view. “Because our approach is always to compartmentalize and deal with the nuclear issue, because we see it as the most important threat and the one that we can address through the P5+1 negotiations. But we’re not going to address those other areas of Iranian behavior.”

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu chairing the weekly cabinet meeting in Jerusalem on August 2, 2015. (Gali Tibbon/AFP/Pool)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu chairing the weekly cabinet meeting in Jerusalem on August 2, 2015. (Gali Tibbon/AFP/Pool)

It’s unclear whether Netanyahu really believes that the nuclear standoff with Iran cannot be solved addressing it’s destabilization of the region, or whether “he just didn’t want to support any deal,” the senior official said. “But the point is that once his concept for the deal was broadened in that way, he was fundamentally in a different place than we been throughout this whole process over the last two-plus years with the Iranians.”

At the same time, the US will not pivot to Iran or even see it as a partner in tackling Sunni extremism in the Middle East. “We’re not in any way contemplating cooperating with Iran on Syria in any way,” the official said.

“This is not about rapprochement or change in Iran. If that were to happen, If Iran were to evolve in a different direction, that would be an ancillary benefit but it’s not something we’re banking on. Another way to think about this: People talk about legacy. If Iran ends up with a nuclear weapon in 10 years – it’s not a good legacy.”

America’s support for Israel remains entirely unaffected by the nuclear deal, the senior official asserted, adding that Washington remains ready to increase its military assistance to the Jewish state. “If Israel were interested in having a discussion about additional security guaranties, we would be open to having this discussion.”

Israeli lobbying perfectly legitimate

Israel's Ambassador to Washington Ron Dermer (Miriam Alster/Flash90)
Israel’s Ambassador to Washington Ron Dermer (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

Israel’s ambassador to the US, Ron Dermer, is “unusually vigorous in his outreach to the Hill,” the senior official said, but added that Jerusalem’s lobbying against the deal is neither surprising nor illegitimate. Dermer is not the only representative of an allied government trying to convince lawmakers to oppose policies advanced by the administration.

While the US and Israel disagree on the merits of the nuclear deal, there is no debate on where America stands on issues such as preventing Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon or that Israel’s security is sacrosanct, the official asserted. “What’s not debated is whether we’re going to be with Israel. US policy is going to be aligned with Israel.”

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