Israeli officials registered fierce opposition to an emerging international nuclear deal with Iran on Friday, making clear that the Obama administration faced the uncomfortable prospect of reaching an agreement with one of America’s firmest enemies while overriding the objections of one of its firmest friends.
Backed by bipartisan supporters in Congress, Israel is casting a pall over what the White House had hoped was good news — a bargain for Iran to suspend most of its uranium enrichment for six months in exchange for a temporary easing of sanctions. Before meeting Secretary of State John F. Kerry on Friday, however, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said that the agreement would give up too much too early and that it threatened Israel’s security.
“This is a very bad deal,” Netanyahu said.
Kerry traveled from Israel to Switzerland, where he joined talks with Iranian and European foreign ministers in an attempt to narrow what he said were remaining differences in negotiations over Iran’s nuclear program. Kerry also bargained directly with Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, a clear sign that the Obama administration prizes the deal, and the possibility of better U.S. relations with Iran, despite Israeli objections.
“I want to emphasize there are still some very important issues on the table that are unresolved,” Kerry said in Geneva. “It is important for those to be properly, thoroughly addressed.”
Kerry’s brief remarks contained none of the hopeful rhetoric about a new day in U.S.-Iranian relations that he has voiced before, perhaps in deference to Israel. He did not make any public remarks in Israel, perhaps in hopes of avoiding a public confrontation with Netanyahu.
Netanyahu decided to go ahead with a statement on his own, in which he called the possible agreement the “deal of the century” for an undeserving Iran.
“Israel utterly rejects it, and many in the region share my opinion, whether or not they express that publicly,” Netanyahu said. “Israel is not obliged by this agreement, and Israel will do everything it needs to do to defend itself and the security of its people.”
In a further sign of U.S. alarm over the Israeli government reaction, President Obama called Netanyahu later Friday.
The angry Israeli response threatened a return to the more tumultuous U.S.-Israeli relationship that characterized much of Obama’s first term. Tensions between the two countries had improved during the president’s second term, and much of the animosity between him and Netanyahu was seen to have faded. Kerry, too, has invested significant diplomatic capital in advancing peace talks between the Israelis and Palestinians.
The renewed tensions over Iran threatened to undermine the goodwill inspired by the U.S.-brokered peace talks and increase congressional pressure on Obama to do more for Israel.
“The United States and Israel are in complete agreement about the need to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon,” White House deputy press secretary Joshua Earnest said Friday.
“The Israelis have expressed their serious concerns because of the threat that Iran having a nuclear weapon would pose to their nation’s security,” Earnest said. “The nation of Israel is a close ally of the United States, so we obviously are concerned about their security, too.”
U.S. officials have argued strenuously to Israel and its supporters that the deal would be the best way to test Iran’s commitment to defusing the nuclear threat and that the Obama administration stands ready to increase sanctions if the Islamic republic reneges on the deal.
The top Democrat on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Rep. Eliot L. Engel (N.Y.), tried to give Obama the benefit of the doubt Friday.
“While I support the president’s efforts to engage with Iran, I am deeply troubled by reports that such an agreement may not require Tehran to halt its enrichment efforts,” said Engel, a strong congressional backer of Israel. “If Iran intends to show good faith during these talks, it must at a minimum abide by United Nations Security Council resolutions calling for a halt to enrichment.”
The committee’s chairman, Rep. Edward R. Royce (R-Calif.), announced a hearing on the proposed deal next week.
“Instead of toughening sanctions to get meaningful and lasting concessions, the Obama administration looks to be settling for interim and reversible steps,” Royce warned.
The Senate banking committee is readying new sanctions legislation, but the panel’s chairman, Sen. Tim Johnson (D-S.D.), said he would await clarity on the negotiations in Geneva before deciding on when to move ahead.
The proposed Iran deal was structured in part to address Israeli and congressional concerns that Iran would be rewarded too richly by sanctions being removed before its ability to quickly make a nuclear bomb was destroyed or mothballed.
But in an interview Thursday with The Washington Post, Netanyahu compared lifting sanctions to puncturing a tire.
“It is very hard to get the air back into the tire,” Netanyahu said, adding that once sanctions are eased, it will be difficult or impossible to put together a coalition with the grit to enforce them again.
A prominent member of Netanyahu’s cabinet, Minister of Economy Naftali Bennett, went further Friday. Either the world insists that sanctions stay in place until Iran dismantles its centrifuges, or it settles for a deal that will allow Iran to ultimately continue its nuclear program, Bennett said.
Imagining an Iran with nuclear weapons, Bennett said, “Years from now, when an Islamic terrorist blows up a suitcase in New York, or when Iran launches a nuclear missile at Rome or Tel Aviv, it will have happened only because a bad deal was made during these defining moments.”
The tense meeting Friday morning between Kerry and Netanyahu was a last-minute effort to reassure the Israeli leader before Kerry flew to Switzerland. But the Israeli leader left little doubt that the fate of the Palestinian talks is linked to the outcome of negotiations with Iran.
The Israeli-Palestinian talks are already in a rocky phase.
Hanan Ashrawi, a member of the Palestine Liberation Organization executive committee, said in an interview that Netanyahu is threatening the future of talks with unrealistic security demands that she says are akin to his “neighborhood bully” attitude toward international negotiations with Iran.
Both stances risk undermining U.S. influence as a force for peace in the Middle East, she said.
“I don’t know how long the U.S. is willing to take it lying down.”
Booth reported from Jerusalem.