JERUSALEM — On Tuesday morning, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will give an important lecture on physics to a joint meeting of Congress.
The Netanyahu speech is intended as a last-ditch effort to derail a "bad deal" with Iran over its nuclear ambitions. Although the deal is still being negotiated and Secretary of State John F. Kerry has warned that many of the details are still being addressed, this has not stopped Israeli officials from offering a deep critique of what they see as its many flaws.
Netanyahu's concerns about the negotiations center on enriched uranium, R&D, advanced centrifuges and breakout times. He is likely to give enough details to make his case, but not so many that his listeners get cross-eyed.
As background, Minister of Intelligence and Strategic Affairs Yuval Steinitz offered a breakdown of Israeli concerns. Steinitz is a Netanyahu confidant and point man on the Iranian nuclear issue.
Here are his main points.
— Hey, we never agreed to this. “We have serious reservations about the overall approach,” Steinitz said. “We thought the ultimate goal was to neutralize the Iranian nuclear threat, not just restrain it and inspect it.”
— We were surprised. “We discover to our amazement negotiations are not about dismantling but controlling the problem,” he said.
— We’ve been here before. The world tried to freeze North Korea’s nuclear program and North Korea is now a self-declared nuclear state. “So we know how this went,” he said.
— The Iranians are sneaky. “The Iranians built the program underground, illegally, in a clandestine program, against international obligations,” he said. They were outed in 2002. “You want normal relations? Dismantle it.”
— Centrifuges. These are the machines that enrich uranium to a level capable of producing nuclear power or a nuclear weapon. Steinitz said the Iranians possess 20,000 centrifuges, 9,400 of them operational.
— The Iranians are clever. “I understand they are a country with 80 million people, an ancient civilization. They have their national dignity. They want to enrich uranium,” he said. So the Americans and other negotiating nations said, “Okay, we don’t want to humiliate you. Let’s agree to symbolic enrichment.”
— The Iranians are greedy. Steinitz said the Israelis assumed that the Iranians wanted to keep a few hundred dual-use centrifuges to enrich uranium. “But they wanted more,” he said. “Now the number we hear is 6,000 centrifuges” would remain in Iran.
— How many?!? “With 6,00o centrifuges, this reduces the breakout time to less than one year,” Steinitz said. “This is unacceptable.” Netanyahu wants zero.
— Breakout time. This refers to the time it would take Iran, if it dashed toward that goal and broke all its promises, to create enough material for one atomic device. Making an actual bomb or a warhead and putting it on a missile would take longer.
— No time to respond. “Okay, say the deal is one year to breakout,” Steinitz said. “Iran disengages and races toward breakout. It will take a few months to discover, take a few months to build a coalition to respond, and then we’re already there.”
— Stockpile. In 2013, Iran diluted its stockpile of the most dangerous nuclear material, its reserves of uranium that had been enriched to 20 percent. There is still an estimated 8,000 kilograms of the lower-enriched uranium in Iran, and that number could be reduced, substantially, in the final deal. Steinitz said the stockpile is not as important as the centrifuges.
— Research and development. Israel is concerned that Iran will be allowed to continue R&D of more modern and efficient centrifuges. “These are five to 10 times faster,” Steinitz said.
— Duration. The agreement with Iran might last 10 years, but restrictions would probably be lowered in the later years. This troubles Steinitz. “I’m not saying 10 years is insignificant. But this is about the future of Israel. We will be here in 10 years,” he said.
Kerry has stressed that the deal is still being negotiated. According to State Department officials, who briefed reporters on the condition of anonymity to discuss the ongoing talks, the negotiators are operating under the principle that “there is no agreement until everything is agreed to.”
That means that they consider the issues already leaked to the news media (and discussed above) to be moving targets that could change.
The overarching goal is to prevent Iran from being able to obtain a nuclear weapon, and to be able to verify that its nuclear program is entirely peaceful, the officials said. They aim to get a breakout time of at least a year — longer than the estimated two to three months Iran is at today. They say no one factor — centrifuges, stockpiles, duration — can be looked at in isolation; it’s the combination of factors they are working on.
The key to all this working is inspections by the International Atomic Energy Agency, so it can detect any attempts to cheat. The Israelis do not mention this much.
What Iran would get is some sanctions eased and eventually lifted. The Obama administration says it is insisting that even when sanctions are eased, they can be snapped back into place at a moment’s notice if Iran plays games.
“You can’t bomb knowledge into oblivion,” Kerry said. “The question is — can you provide an adequate level of management, intrusive inspections and limitations, all the insight necessary to be able to know with certainty the program is peaceful.”
Carol Morello in Montreux, Switzerland, contributed to this report.