JERUSALEM — Israeli leaders on Sunday condemned the interim deal reached between six world powers and Iran to temporarily freeze that country’s nuclear program, saying the agreement failed to roll back Tehran’s ability to produce a nuclear weapon.
"What was achieved last night in Geneva is not an historic agreement, but an historic mistake," Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said in public remarks at the start of the weekly meeting of his cabinet. "Today the world has become a much more dangerous place, because the most dangerous regime in the world has taken a significant step toward acquiring the world’s most dangerous weapon."
The six-month deal requires Iran to impose curbs on its nuclear activities in return for limited relief of economic sanctions, but allows it to continue enriching uranium at low levels, sufficient for energy production but not enough for bomb-making.
Netanyahu termed the results of the accord, which is supposed to provide a pause for negotiations of a comprehensive pact, "the first time that leading world powers have agreed to uranium enrichment in Iran." He said that sanctions "are being removed in return for cosmetic Iranian concessions that can be nullified in weeks."
"Israel is not obligated by this agreement," Netanyahu declared, again raising the prospect of an Israeli military strike against Iran’s nuclear program, which he has called an existential threat to his country. "The regime in Iran is committed to the destruction of Israel, and Israel has the right and duty to defend itself, by itself, against any threat."
U.S. President Barack Obama later called Netanyahu to discuss the accord. The White House summary of that call suggested Obama tried to reassure Netanyahu that the United States would be careful to take Israeli concerns into account as negotiations move forward.
“Consistent with out commitment to consult closely with our Israeli friends, the president told the prime minister that he wants the United States and Israel to begin consultations immediately regarding out efforts to negotiate a comprehensive solution,” the statement said.
Other members of Netanyahu’s cabinet were equally critical of the accord.
Yuval Steinitz, the strategic affairs minister, said the agreement "does not roll back Iran’s military enrichment capability but only freezes it in its current status." He compared the accord to failed agreements with North Korea to curb its nuclear program.
Under the accord reached early Sunday, Iran agreed not to install any new centrifuges for uranium enrichment or start up any that are not already working, or build new enrichment facilities.
Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, recently reinstated after being cleared in a corruption case, told Israel Radio that the deal was "the greatest diplomatic victory for the Iranians perhaps since the Khomeini revolution," a reference to Iran’s Islamic revolution in 1979.
Contrasting the accord with the recent agreement to disarm Syria of its chemical weapons, Lieberman noted that the deal with Iran did not require the dismantling of the centrifuges nor did it require removal of fissile material from the country.
The accord requires that the Iranian stockpile enriched to 20 percent, within striking-distance of weapons-grade fuel, be diluted or converted into oxide so it could not be used for military purposes. Iran has consistently maintained that its nuclear program is solely for civilian use and denies seeking a nuclear bomb.
Israel had pressed Washington to reach an agreement that would totally halt Iran’s enrichment program, a step the Iranians ruled out as a deal-breaker.
Citing concerns about the accord voiced by Saudi Arabia and other Arab Gulf countries, Lieberman said the agreement "brings us to a new reality in the entire Middle East" which will require Israel "to make a reassessment" of its policy options.
Analysts said that there was virtually no chance of an Israeli military strike as long as negotiations were underway with Tehran, but that there were many pitfalls that could scuttle a satisfactory final agreement.
Emily Landau, director of the arms control and regional security project at the Institute for National Security Studies at Tel Aviv University, said that the logic of the agreement – creating a six-month pause in the Iranian nuclear efforts while a final deal is concluded – was flawed.
"In the real world, things are not going to proceed in such a neat and orderly fashion," she said. "There will probably be Iranian demands for additional sanctions relief. The Iranians understand that the international community accepts that for everything they give on the nuclear front they get sanctions relief. Sanctions is the only leverage the international community has, and if it gives that up before a final agreement, it won’t get a deal."
Under the interim agreement, the U.S. has agreed to provide $6 to $7 billion dollars to Iran in sanctions relief, much of it oil revenue frozen in foreign banks.
Ephraim Asculai, a former member of the Israel Atomic Energy Commission who also worked at the International Atomic Energy Agency, said the major problem with the accord was that it did not significantly delay the time Iran would need to step up its uranium enrichment to reach levels needed to produce nuclear bombs.
"The breakout possibility has not been negated, and the time for a breakout – the time it would take Iran to break out and enrich to 90 percent and produce a first nuclear device – has not been prolonged," Asculai, a fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies, told journalists in a conference call. "It is still a rather short time, and the agreement does not do anything to change that time, perhaps in a very minor way."
Greenberg is a McClatchy special correspondent.