WASHINGTON — To the Israeli government, the preliminary deal with Iran that the Obama administration is trying to seal this week is a giveaway to a government that has spent two decades building a vast nuclear program. It enshrines the status quo — at a time when the Iranians are within reach of the technical capability to build a bomb — and rewards some unproven leaders with cash and sanctions relief.
President Obama and his top aides see the same draft deal in sharply different terms. To them, it is a first effort to freeze the Iranian program, to buy some time to negotiate a more ambitious deal, and to stop two separate methods of developing a bomb, one involving uranium, the other plutonium. In return, the Iranians get modest relief from sanctions, but not what they desperately desire, the ability to again sell oil around the world. That would come only later as part of a final agreement that would require the Iranians to dismantle much of their nuclear infrastructure.
Those two divergent views have deeply politicized the question of whether the accord that the United States and its European allies are considering should be termed a good deal or a bad one. It is a fundamental disagreement that has left in tatters whatever halfhearted efforts Mr. Obama and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel have made over the past five years to argue that they are on the same page when it comes to Iran.
Every time Mr. Obama and his secretary of state, John Kerry, ask for a little time and space to test the new Iranian leadership’s claims that it is ready for a new approach, and for compromise, Mr. Netanyahu responds that the proposed agreement is “a very bad deal,” “extremely dangerous,” “a mistake of historic proportions” or, as he said in an interview with CNN on Sunday, “an exceedingly bad deal.” And he has often raised the specter of an Israeli strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities even if a deal is signed, something the Obama administration believes would split apart the global coalition it has built to squeeze Iran.
Yet the disagreement is about far more than negotiating tactics. In interviews, both American and Israeli officials conceded that the terms of the preliminary accord reflect a difference in fundamental goals. Mr. Obama speaks often of his determination to prevent Iran from ever obtaining a nuclear weapon; Mr. Netanyahu sets a far higher bar of preventing Iran from gaining, or keeping, the capability to ever build one.
Mr. Netanyahu “will be satisfied with nothing less than the dismantlement of every scrap of the Iranian nuclear infrastructure,” one administration strategist said the other day. “We’d love that, too — but there’s no way that’s going to happen at this point in the negotiation. And for us, the goal is to make sure that we are putting limits and constraints on the program, and ensuring that if the Iranians decided to race for a bomb, we would know in time to react.”
The White House, alarmed by Mr. Netanyahu’s outspoken opposition and by an effort in Congress to enact a new round of sanctions on Iran that Israel supports, is trying to shore up its own arguments. Mr. Obama is bringing the leaders and ranking members of the Senate foreign relations, intelligence, armed services and banking committees to the White House on Tuesday to make the case that if Iran is going to be coaxed into a deal, the country’s new leaders must go home with some modest appetizer of sanctions relief — as an indication that the United States is ready to deal.
Two of the most eminent members of the foreign policy establishment, Zbigniew Brzezinski and Brent Scowcroft, issued a joint statement on Monday that “should the United States fail to take this historic opportunity, we risk failing to achieve our non-proliferation goal and losing the support of allies and friends while increasing the probability of war.” They repeated Mr. Obama’s central argument: “Additional sanctions now against Iran with the view to extracting even more concessions in the negotiations will risk undermining or even shutting down the negotiations.”
The details of the proposed agreement have been closely held by the administration — and, the Israelis claim, from Jerusalem — but what is known about the deal gives both sides plenty of talking points.
While the Americans say it “freezes” the Iranian program and rolls it back, the fact is that only some elements are frozen, and the rollbacks in the initial agreement are relatively minor. For example, Iran would continue adding to its stockpile of low-enriched uranium, meaning uranium enriched to reactor grade, or less than 5 percent purity. But the United States maintains that under details of the agreement it cannot yet disclose, the overall size of Iran’s stockpile would not increase.
The reason appears to be that Iran would agree to convert some of its medium-enriched uranium — fuel enriched to 20 percent purity, or near bomb grade — into an oxide form that is on the way to becoming reactor fuel. But that process can be easily reversed, notes Olli Heinonen, the former chief inspector of the International Atomic Energy Agency. Mr. Netanyahu’s camp and some Israeli analysts say the Israeli leader’s unstinting opposition is both substantive and political. He truly believes that a deal lifting sanctions without fully halting enrichment and dismantling centrifuges is a terrible mistake. But he has also staked his premiership on fighting the Iranian nuclear threat, and the change in approach by his closest allies leaves him a bit rudderless.
“The situation has changed and everybody else except Israel understands that a deal means to be more flexible,” said Giora Eiland, a senior research fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies in Tel Aviv. “Netanyahu speaks only about a good deal. The Americans are speaking about a reasonable deal, which is better than having no deal at all.”
For his part, Mr. Kerry has questioned publicly whether Mr. Netanyahu is aware of all the details in the agreement. And in some cases, Israeli officials appear to have distorted what Iran would get in return.
At a briefing with international journalists on Wednesday, Yuval Steinitz, Israel’s minister of strategic affairs, said the deal would directly erase $15 billion to $20 billion of what he estimated was the $100 billion the current sanctions are costing Iran annually, and lead to relief of up to $40 billion because of indirect effects. The State Department immediately debunked those numbers, noting the sanctions relief would be for only six months, not a year. And the Americans put the figure at under $10 billion. But Israeli leaders have continued to cite the higher estimates.
There are also different accounts of what would happen to a heavy-water nuclear reactor now under construction near the town of Arak. The facility is critical to Iran’s plans because, if operating, it could provide it with a steady supply of plutonium, the fuel North Korea and now Pakistan have used for their arsenals.
France stepped into the negotiations 10 days ago complaining that the draft accord would allow Iran to get too close to being able to insert fuel into that reactor — at which point it could not be bombed by Israel without risking a radioactive, environmental disaster. The proposed agreement has since been modified, American officials say, to make sure that Iran is months to a year from being able to put fuel in the reactor.
To the United States, that is plenty of warning time but the Israelis want the plant taken apart, and the parts shipped out of the country.
“We want an outcome more like Libya, less like North Korea,” Mr. Steinitz said during a recent visit to Washington. He was referring to the 2003 deal in which Libya turned over every element of its nuclear program to American and international inspectors, who flew the parts out of the country. North Korea, in contrast, disabled its plutonium-producing reactor five years ago and now appears to have just restarted it, without a public condemnation from the White House.
But at the more basic level, this is an argument about more than just what the Iranians give up, and what they get in return. “In order to get into sync on the strategy, you need trust, and the trust has been eroded,” said Abraham H. Foxman, the national director of the Anti-Defamation League, who has just returned from Israel and is lobbying vigorously against the preliminary deal.
If the trust is falling apart, it is not for lack of communication: Mr. Obama and Mr. Netanyahu talked for 90 minutes in one call last week. “It went about as you might expect,” said one official briefed on the call. When it was over, the Israeli prime minister denounced the deal more loudly than ever, though on Sunday he told his cabinet that “I would like to make it clear that there can be disagreements even among the best of friends, certainly on issues related to our future and our fate.”
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