Skeptical of Iran nuclear deal, Israel calls for changes

JERUSALEM — Clearly unsatisfied with assurances from President Obama about the provisions of the Iran nuclear deal,Israel on Monday listed specific requirements that it declared were necessary in any final agreement.

The list, produced by Yuval Steinitz, Israel’s minister of intelligence and strategic affairs and one of the Israeli government’s harshest critics of the negotiations, marked a change in direction for the government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Until now, Israel has argued, at least publicly, that the only good deal would halt all uranium enrichment by Iran, essentially rolling back the clock by 20 years. It has never before defined the “better deal” that Mr. Netanyahu told Congress the world needed.

But Mr. Steinitz’s list of desired modifications for the final agreement, due to be concluded by June 30, appeared carefully designed to echo some of the more sophisticated critiques of the agreement that have circulated since the United States described critical elements of the deal on Thursday.

Israeli policy makers have grappled for some time with the question of whether to stick, at least publicly, to Israel’s maximalist demands, even though they appeared increasingly out of sync with the reality of a negotiation that clearly was going to require concessions on all sides.

Before the details of the framework were made known, some Israeli officials feared that showing any flexibility might be interpreted as a green light by the Obama administration to engage in further give and take, precluding a more nuanced approach.

Mr. Steinitz’s tone was a bit different, saying the changes — including some restraints American negotiators had attempted unsuccessfully to obtain in past negotiations — would make the accord “more reasonable.”

But the Obama administration fears that reopening the issues with Iran in the last stages of the talks would invite it to do the same, rapidly unraveling the deal.

So far, the administration has shown no inclination to relitigate some of the most contentious issues that have been argued over for the last two years, culminating in eight days of intense negotiation at a hotel in Lausanne, Switzerland, on the banks of Lake Geneva. But Mr. Steinitz said that the suggestion that there was no alternative to the framework, or that Israel had not put forward an alternative, “is wrong.”

“The alternative is not necessarily to declare war on Iran,” he said, briefing international reporters at a Jerusalem hotel. “It is to increase pressure on Iran and stand firm and make Iran make serious concessions and have a much better deal.”

The Lausanne framework calls on Iran to limit enrichment of uranium at its Natanz facility to a level useful only for civilian purposes, drastically cut its fuel stockpile and cut back the number of installed centrifuges by about two-thirds. It would convert the underground Fordo facility into a research center, but would be barred from enriching there. Iran would also modify its Arak heavy water reactor to drastically reduce its output of plutonium, another path to a bomb.

In exchange, the United States and other nations would lift sanctions that have constrained the Iranian economy. President Obama said the sanctions would be lifted only after Iran had delivered on its commitments regarding Fordo, the centrifuges and other issues, although he said there were details still to be worked out.

The Israeli list of additions to the framework includes the following:

• An end to all research and development activity on advanced centrifuges in Iran. The Lausanne framework, as described by the United States, leaves unclear what kind of work Iran will conduct. But it is a worry to American and Israeli officials because Iran will be readying to deploy the much more efficient centrifuges as soon as the major limitations on uranium production end, in 2030.

A significant reduction in the number of centrifuges that are operational or that can quickly become operational if Iran breaks the agreement and decides to build a bomb. The accord allows about 5,000 to operate for the first decade at the main plant at Natanz, roughly half the number spinning today.

• The closing of the Fordo facility as an enrichment site, even if enrichment activities are suspended there. This was also an early United States objective. The compromise struck allows a small number of centrifuges to spin but bars the enrichment of uranium there; instead, other elements will be created for medical isotopes.

• Iranian compliance in revealing its past activities with “possible military dimensions.” It is unclear from the wording of the American statement if Iran must completely answer a dozen questions posed by the International Atomic Energy Agency — 11 of which it has declined to answer so far — before it would receive full sanctions relief.

• A commitment to ship its stockpile of enriched uranium out of Iran. Iran said last week that it would not ship the stockpile out of the country, but the American statement left open the possibility of sending it abroad or diluting it in Iran.

• “Anywhere, anytime” access for inspectors charged with verifying the agreement in Iran. The inspection regime falls short of this, but sets up some kind of mechanism — the details of which are unclear — to resolve disputes if Iran blocks inspection of a suspected site.

The reaction from Israel came after Mr. Obama’s assurances that the preliminary agreement was the “best bet by far” to prevent Tehran from obtaining a nuclear weapon and his pledge to the Israelis that the United States had “got their backs.”

The disagreements between Israel and the Obama administration over the Iran talks have severely strained the American-Israeli relationship in recent months, with the tone on both sides often confrontational.

The White House was infuriated by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s decision to address a joint meeting of Congress in March in order to criticize the emerging agreement without consulting the White House.

Despite Mr. Obama’s more conciliatory tone toward Israel in recent days, Israel has made it clear that it intends to keep up the pressure. On Sunday, Mr. Netanyahu appeared on ABC’s “This Week,” CNN’s “State of the Union” and NBC News’s “Meet the Press,” where he said: “I’m not trying to kill any deal. I’m trying to kill a bad deal.”

Yet Israel’s former intelligence chiefs have been more welcoming. Efraim Halevy, a former head of Israel’s Mossad intelligence agency, suggested that those in Israel who have been critical of Mr. Obama should change their tone.

Mr. Halevy told Israel’s Army Radio on Monday that “in order to influence you have to act with a certain kind of respect for your partner.”

Adel al-Jubeir, Saudi Arabia’s ambassador in Washington, echoed the Saudi cabinet of ministers in expressing hope that the final deal in June would prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons.

He would not say whether the agreement announced by the United States last week had gone far enough toward meeting that goal. “I don’t know because the details have not been worked out.” he said. “There are a number of areas where, I think, more clarification needs to take place.”

On Monday in Jerusalem, Mr. Steinitz, the minister of intelligence and strategic affairs, said Israel would be making further efforts to persuade the Obama administration and Congress, as well as Britain, France, Russia and other world powers, “not to sign this bad deal or at least to dramatically change or fix it.”

Referring to Mr. Obama’s explanation about inspections in an interview with Thomas L. Friedman, a New York Times columnist, Mr. Steinitz said it was “not good enough.”

It was unsatisfactory, Mr. Steinitz said, because of the time required to refer suspicions to a committee, and because no nation would want to expose sensitive intelligence data to a committee that included an Iranian presence.

But Mr. Steinitz said the Israeli government had conducted a “sober analysis” of the agreement and was raising questions, including why the framework does not address Iran’s intercontinental ballistic missile program, which it says threatens the United States. The negotiation has never included Iran’s missile capability.

As Mr. Steinitz was outlining his government’s position, the White House said it was actively seeking out supporters of Israel in its intensive effort to build support for the agreement.

“This is a deliberate attempt to make the case to individuals who are concerned about the security of Israel that going along with an agreement like this that would prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon isn’t just in the best national security interests of the United States, which it is, it’s also clearly in the best interests of the nation of Israel,” said Josh Earnest, the White House press secretary. “That will be an important part of our case moving forward.”

By The New York Times