Tough Talk by Netanyahu Hid a Shift on Iran

For all of the attention focused on what Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu of Israel aid in his high-profile address to Congress on Tuesday, what may be just as important is what he did not say, New York Times writes today.

While he condemned President Obama’s proposed nuclear deal with Iran as dangerously lenient, one word was missing from his expansive speech: Zero. It is a word he likes, one he has used before to describe his bottom line when it comes to an acceptable Iranian nuclear program — zero capability whatsoever.

But its absence from Netanyahu’s carefully prepared text was no accident, according to the Israeli camp, and it signaled a shift in position, however slight. Rather than insist that Iran be left with no centrifuges and that it be barred from any enrichment of uranium, as he has in the past, Netanyahu signaled that he could live with a modest capability, just not one as robust as Obama would permit.

His position and Obama’s remain miles apart, probably too distant to reconcile, and the Israeli leader’s revised view is even further removed from what Iran has demanded. But it did raise the question of whether the retreat from the maximalist posture meant that Netanyahu could ultimately, if grudgingly, swallow an imperfect deal, even if only after Israeli elections on March 17, and that his strong statements were intended partly to bargain for the best terms possible.

“The alternative to this bad deal is a much better deal,” Netanyahu told Congress. “A better deal that doesn’t leave Iran with a vast nuclear infrastructure and such a short breakout time. A better deal that keeps the restrictions on Iran’s nuclear program in place until Iran’s aggression ends.”

In a statement upon returning to Jerusalem after the speech, Netanyahu argued that he had proposed a better deal, not no deal. “In my speech before the Congress, I presented a practical alternative, which would impose tougher restrictions on Iran’s nuclear program, extending Iran’s breakout time by years,” he said.

The issue centers on what sort of nuclear program Iran should be allowed to have, if any. Iran insists that it wants only to develop civilian nuclear power, not weapons, but few outside Tehran believe that, given its militant ideology, deep ties to terrorist groups, ample oil reserves and history of shrouding its program in secrecy.

19,000 Centrifuges

Iran has about 19,000 centrifuges, with about 10,000 of them spinning to enrich uranium. The United States and its partners in the talks initially sought to cap it at a few hundred centrifuges, then 1,500, then about 4,000 as long as Iran shipped much of its uranium stockpile to Russia for conversion to fuel rods. The proposed

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proposed cailing now being discussed ihe s around 6,000 or 6,500, accordintg to some reports. But Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran’s supreme leaders, suggested last year that the

countrty aspired to eventually install 190,000 centrifuges, New York Times writes.

In the past, Netanyahu made clear that even 6,000 centrifuges was unacceptable. Only dismantlement would ensure Israel’s security, he argued. “I believe that means zero enrichment, zero centrifuges, zero plutonium and, of course, an end to ICBM development,” he said last year during a joint appearance with Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany.

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But on Tuesday, rather than zero, Netanyahu said only that Iran should not be left with a “vast” body of nuclear equipment, without explaining what counts as vast. The prime minister’s team privately suggested that meant that Israel would not object strenuously to letting Iran keep several hundred centrifuges, still significantly fewer than the United States would accept.

“The prime minister showed both a pragmatic approach and, contrary to some claims, an alternative path to the very bad one that was proposed by” the United States and its partners in Europe, Russia and China said an Israeli official, who insisted on anonymity to discuss diplomatic issues.

At another point in the speech, in fact,Netanyahu seemed to concede that Iran and the world powers would actually reach a deal and therefore hoped to shape its terms rather than simply step away from it. He offered new proposed terms that he hoped the world powers would adopt.

While criticizing the proposed time frame of 10 years or so for the agreement, calling that the “blink of an eye in the life of our children,” he suggested that Obama add more conditions, namely forcing Iran to renounce terrorism, aggression against its neighbors and threats to Israel’s survival. The limits imposed by the agreement would remain in effect even after 10 years if Iran did not live up to such commitments, he suggested.

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“We can insist that restrictions on Iran’s nuclear program not be lifted for as long as Iran continues its aggression in the region and in the world,” Netanyahu told Congress.

World Powers

” If the world powers are not prepared to insist that Iran change its behavior before a deal is signed ,” he added, “at the very last they should insist that Iran change its behavior before a deal expires. If Iran changes its behavior, the restrictions would be lifted. If Iran doesn’t change its behavior the restrictions should not be lifted.

Whether that is realistic remains open to debate. Obama, who did not watch the speech but said he later looked over the transcript, told reporters on Tuesday that he saw “nothing new” in Netanyahu’s presentation. Administration officials have said all along that Netanyahu’s positions were unrealistic and unworkable, and would blow up the talks and leave Iran unchecked.

The White House defends its proposed deal — which it says still has only a 50-50 chance of being agreed to by Iran — as the best that may be achieved and far better than no deal. While still allowing Iran the ability to enrich some uranium, it would be limited enough that it would take Iran a year to accumulate enough fuel for a bomb if it broke the agreement, the White House says. International inspections would provide a safeguard that would otherwise not exist.

Martin S. Indyk, a former special envoy for Middle East peace for the Obama administration, said Netanyahu took an unnecessarily confrontational approach that would not help him influence the negotiations.

“If Netanyahu is shifting to an attempt to add conditions to the agreement rather than torpedoing it, he’s going about it the wrong way,” said Indyk, who is now at the Brookings Institution in Washington. “Congress is a blunt instrument to impact the content of the negotiations. The way to do that is to work with the president, who provides the instructions, and his secretary of state, who is the chief negotiator. Unfortunately, he has managed to alienate both of them.”


Others were skeptical of his intentions. “Does Netanyahu truly believe the ‘better deal’ he proposes is achievable?” asked Robert J. Einhorn, a former top State Department official who worked on Iran policy. “Or is he trying to send the United States on a fool’s errand that he knows will produce a stalemate in the negotiations? One has to assume the latter.”

Richard Nephew, who was the lead sanctions expert for the American negotiating team until leaving the State Department at the end of last year, said Netanyahu’s abandonment of the zero option was interesting but probably not meaningful enough.

“The speech itself doesn’t lend itself to too many shades of gray,” said Nephew, who joined Columbia University’s Center on Global Energy Policy this month. “I think it is probably true that Netanyahu has understood for months that zero was unachievable. He probably could accept a face-saving few hundred centrifuges, but that was never in the cards.”

“In my opinion,” he added, “his speech outlines that nothing within reason or realistic expectation would be acceptable. But it is hard to understand what he would accept.”

Netanyahu of Israel used one of the world’s most prominent plateforms in the world on Tuesday to warn against what he called a “bad deal” being negotiated with Iran to freeze its nuclear program, culminating a drama that has roiled Israeli – American relations for weeks.

Obama sharply rebutted Netanyahu less than two hours later before a meeting with the new defense secreatory, Ash Carter, offering a vigorous defense of the deal he has proposed to Iran and arguing that the israeli leader’s speech was “nothing new” with no other credible approach.

“The prime minister didn’t offer any viable alternative,” Obama said.