JERUSALEM — Just two days after representatives of the United States and other key world powers met in Istanbul with Iran to discuss its nuclear program, Israel is throwing cold water on the effort, with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu charging that Iran was being given a freebie.
Both U.S. and Iranian leaders expressed satisfaction with the initial meeting Saturday of talks between Iran and the P5+1 _ the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council plus Germany. Both sides saw the agreement to meet again May 23 in Baghdad as a step forward after more than a year of no talks.
But Netanyahu was unimpressed. "My initial impression is that Iran has been given a freebie," Netanyahu said. "It has got five weeks to continue enrichment without any limitation, any inhibition."
President Barack Obama had defended the talks in comments to reporters Sunday in Cartagena, Colombia, where he was meeting with heads of state from Latin America. He called the talks an opportunity for us to negotiate and see if Iran comes to the table in good faith."
The notion that somehow weve given something away ... would indicate that Iran has gotten something, Obama said. In fact, theyve got some of the toughest sanctions that theyre going to be facing coming up in just a few months if they dont take advantage of these talks. I hope they do."
Officials in Jerusalem, however, remained pessimistic over the talks, saying that the U.S. and world leaders were giving Iran the one thing they needed to develop a nuclear weapon _ time.
History teaches us that so far, Iran has always used talks to buy time, and in that time they have moved their nuclear weapons program forward, said Eitan Livne, director of Iran Research for the Israel Project advocacy group. The Iranians have proven to be experts in this maneuver.
Livne said that Israeli officials feel vindicated by a report released in November by the International Atomic Energy Agency, the U.N.s nuclear watchdog, that found that Iran had a program to develop nuclear weapons until 2003 and that some parts of that program might still survive. The report, however, said the IAEA had been unable to determine if Iran was pursuing nuclear weapons now.
Israel feels that it is clear in the eyes of the world, especially after the U.N. report, that Irans intentions are dangerous and that this is a military nuclear program. Iran has already postponed, in a very effective way, all past attempt to negotiate with them. That is why Israel currently feels so pessimistic, Livne said.
A senior Israeli official, interviewed by the Hebrew-language daily Maariv, was quoted as saying that Israels government had held different expectations for the talks in Istanbul.
In contrast with the understanding we reached, we were surprised that the Iranians were given five more weeks to continue enriching uranium without interruption. This was not at all our expectation from the talks, the paper reported the official as saying. The official was not named.
A statement from Netanyahus office said that the Israeli premier found the results of the talks unacceptable _ arguing that Iran must immediately stop all uranium enrichment, remove enriched material from the country, and dismantle the nuclear facility in Qom.
Israels expectations were unrealistic, said Professor David Menashri, director of the Center for Iranian Studies at Tel Aviv University.
I can understand that Israel is not happy with the talks so far, but that is because their expectation was that Iran would be given a simple choice to say yes or no, Menashri said. Israel would have preferred a harsher policy towards Iran _ but that is always their position.
Israeli officials, Menashri said, were making a mistake in openly criticizing the talks so quickly.
I had hoped that our politicians would shut their mouths on the issue of Iran and let the international community handle it for a change, he said. Israel should not clash with the U.S., and they should give the talks some time before declaring them a failure.
He criticized the saber-rattling that he said was all too common in the Israeli press.
Over the weekend, Israels Channel Ten news program featured a lengthy report on Israels air force gearing up for an attack on Iran this summer.
The report, which featured senior military reporter Alon Ben-David, was arranged and approved by the Israeli militarys press office. It was also given clearance by Israels military censor.
"Dozens if not more planes will take part in the mission: attack and escort jets, tankers for mid-air refueling, electronic warfare planes and rescue helicopters, the report said.
While no strike is likely to occur before the P5+1 talks with Iran resume in May, Ben-David said that the "coming summer will not only be hot but tense.
Years of preparations are likely to come to realization, he said, adding that the moment of truth is near.
(Frenkel is a McClatchy special correspondent.)