JERUSALEM — Israeli officials are warily watching the resumption of talks between Western powers and Iran to resolve the dispute over its nuclear program, concerned that the negotiations will produce an easing of economic sanctions without a halt to what Israel says is Tehrans march toward an atomic bomb.
As part of a diplomatic offensive to head off what Israel fears will be Western concessions with only cosmetic changes in return, Israeli government leaders are outlining conditions they say must be met to make any agreement stick.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Tuesday that it would be a historic mistake if sanctions on Iran were eased just when they were about to achieve their goals. But the definition of those goals is in deep dispute, with wide gaps between the parties on what would be a satisfactory outcome of negotiations.
Israeli officials are urging Western negotiators to secure a dismantling of Irans nuclear program, which Israel says is for military purposes and Iran asserts is for civilian use.
At a meeting with reporters this week, Intelligence and Strategic Affairs Minister Yuval Steinitz said Israel wanted to see an agreement along the lines reached a decade ago with Libya, under which materials from its nuclear and chemical weapons programs were removed or destroyed. He said Israel feared that agreements with Iran could end up like those reached with North Korea, which has continued its nuclear weapons program, including nuclear missile tests, despite several accords.
We want the Geneva talks to succeed, and we dont close the door for a diplomatic solution, Steinitz said, but he cautioned that the accord had to be sufficient and satisfactory.
What that means for Israel was spelled out in a lengthy Israeli security Cabinet statement issued Tuesday as the talks got underway.
The statement said Iran should comply with several U.N. Security Council resolutions and other steps including ceasing enrichment of uranium, removing stockpiles of enriched uranium from its territory, dismantling underground facilities near Qom and Natanz, including the centrifuges they contain, and halting work on the plutonium-producing heavy water reactor in Arak. The statement also referred to a U.N. resolution requiring Iran to halt developing ballistic missiles capable of delivering nuclear weapons.
A top Iranian negotiator, Abbas Araqchi, on Sunday ruled out any removal of enriched nuclear material from Iran or any concessions on its right to enrichment, though statements by Iranian President Hassan Rouhani and parliamentary speaker Ali Larijani have hinted at readiness for concessions on these issues.
Steinitz said Israel wanted a serious and satisfactory solution that can be trusted for years so that Munich 1938 will not repeat itself, a reference to a pact reached with Nazi Germany before World War II. Steinitz said Iran had no need to keep enriched nuclear material but could obtain nuclear fuel for peaceful purposes from Canada, Sweden and other nations.
In a nod to Israeli concerns, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry told a gathering of the pro-Israel lobby AIPAC this week that Washington would not seek a deal at any price.
Right now, the window for diplomacy is cracking open. But I want you to know that our eyes are open, too, Kerry said. While we seek a peaceful resolution to Irans nuclear program, words must be matched with actions. In any engagement with Iran, we are mindful of Israels security needs. We are mindful of the need for certainty, transparency, and accountability in the process. And I believe firmly that no deal is better than a bad deal.
In their remarks on the newly resumed talks, Israeli officials have played down earlier threats of military action should diplomacy fail. But in a special parliamentary session Tuesday marking 40 years since the Yom Kippur War, Netanyahu alluded to such an option.
A lesson of the 1973 war, in which the Egyptian and Syrian armies surprised Israeli forces, is that pre-emptive strikes must not be ruled out, Netanyahu said. There are situations in which thinking about the international response to such a step is not equal to the bloody price we would pay in absorbing the strategic blow we would be compelled to respond to later, perhaps too late.
Greenberg is a McClatchy special correspondent.