The deep divide between the Obama administration and Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu on the Iranian nuclear issue resurfaced during this week’s two-day (May 7-8) Jerusalem talks held by the visiting US National Security Advisor Susan Rice, who was joined by Wendy Sherman, US Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs and head of the US delegation to the nuclear talks.
Rice reiterated President Barack Obama’s contention that Iran and the P5+1 countries must reach a deal by the year’s end, before internal political conditions in Iran alter the landscape. The US urges Israel to recognize that Iran is already irreversibly a nuclear threshold state, and so it should be permitted to maintain a civilian nuclear program. This includes uranium enrichment and the construction of new nuclear reactors, with the proviso that Tehran commits not to turn its capabilities to military uses.
The Obama administration is prepared to pledge that every intelligence-gathering method at its disposal will be used to monitor Iran’s nuclear program and ensure that the threshold is not crossed. It promises Israel, as Rice repeated in her Wednesday conversation with Netanyahu, that Obama will not allow Iran to arm itself with nuclear weapons.
But debkafile’s sources in Jerusalem report that Netanyahu rejected the American position, arguing that Israel cannot leave its security in the hands of intelligence agencies whose forecasts and evaluations of the past years have often proved inaccurate.
Directly after Netanyahu and Rice met on Wednesday, a senior Israeli official said Israel continues to insist that Iran should not have the right to enrich uranium. The official, who spoke with unusual frankness, said that the Obama administration’s eagerness to seal the deal has more do with US domestic political concerns than Tehran.
“We would be happy to see July 20 pass without a deal,” the official said, referencing the target date set for a comprehensive agreement. He added that there was worry in Israel that Obama might be tempted to accommodate Iran now, in order to head off potential gains by Republicans in the November mid-term elections.
The Israeli official was emphatic about his bottom line: “Are we going to agree to [let Iran go ahead with] enrichment? No!”
On Thursday, May 8, Netanyahu echoed this outlook, saying: “Iran must not have centrifuges or enriched uranium.” Rice proposed a limit on the number of centrifuges Iran is permitted to operate, as well as a cap on the amount of uranium it can enrich.
Our sources say Netanyahu flatly rejected Rice’s argument that the quantity and sophistication of the centrifuges are not of he highest importance, compared with the real question of how many centrifuges Iran will be allowed to operate under close international scrutiny.
“The best defense against a nuclear Iran is to keep a nuclear weapon out of its hands. Tehran needs centrifuges and enriched uranium for the single purpose of building a nuclear weapon. Tehran must be deprived of this capability,” Netanyahu said Thursday.
According to debkafile’s sources in Washington, ahead of the Rice visit to Israel, administration officials conferred with several former Israeli security figures who are regularly consulted by Netanyahu on the nuclear issue. They were asked for an opinion on whether the prime minister would buy a compromise that permitted Iran to keep several thousand centrifuges and enrich a specified amount of uranium up to a low five percent grade.
Those advisers came back to Netanyahu with the impression that Obama was fixated on a fast deal regardless of Israel’s opposition. They also warned him that his rejection of the US compromise proposal would bring down on Israel’s head a propaganda campaign in both the local and international media that would impugn his credibility on the Iranian nuclear issue.
Jerusalem regards the Newsweek charge of Israeli spies crossing the red line in America as the opening shot of this campaign.
Officials in Jerusalem are also rubbishing a report on the subject that the Yediot Aharonot Hebrew tabloid is running Friday, May 9. It quotes Uzi Ilam, a long-retired former head of the Israeli Atomic Energy Committee, as arguing that Netanyahu is using the pressing Iran nuclear issue for political gain, when in fact, he says, Iran won’t be able to make a nuclear bomb for 10 years.
Knowledgeable officials say his information is years out of date. Almost all leading US, European and Israeli nuclear experts agree that Iran has reached the point of being able to manufacture a nuclear bomb in two or three or months.