Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, center, attends the weekly cabinet meeting at his office Nov. 24 in Jerusalem, Israel. (Abir Sultan / Getty Images)
TEL AVIV, ISRAEL — Rejecting an agreement concluded late Saturday in Geneva between Iran and six world powers as an “historic mistake,” Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu warned that Israel is not bound by a deal that preserves Tehran’s capacity to produce nuclear weapons.
“What was achieved last night in Geneva is not an historic agreement; it is an historic mistake,” Netanyahu said Sunday at the start of a weekly cabinet meeting.
“For the first time, the world’s leading powers have agreed to uranium enrichment in Iran while ignoring the UN Security Council decisions that they themselves led.”
Assailing Tehran’s concessions to five permanent members of the UN Security Council and Germany as “cosmetic” and easily reversible, the Israeli prime minister vowed “to defend itself by itself” against the Iranian nuclear threat.
He was referring to Tehran’s commitment not to enrich uranium beyond purity levels of five percent and to submit to inspections of declared nuclear facilities.
“Sanctions have been given up in exchange for cosmetic Iranian concessions that can be canceled in weeks. This agreement and what it means endangers many countries including, of course, Israel ... and Israel has the right and the obligation to defend itself,” Netanyahu said.
In stark contrast to Netanyahu’s rejectionist stance, US President Barack Obama hailed the interim agreement as achieving “a great deal” by rolling back “key parts” of Iran’s nuclear program. The so-called First Step Agreement, Obama said, creates “time and space over the next six months” to reach a comprehensive solution to the Iranian nuclear threat.
“For the first time in nearly a decade, we have halted the progress of the Iranian nuclear program, and key parts of the program will be rolled back,” Obama said Nov. 23.
Specifically, Obama said the interim deal halts Iranian enrichment to certain levels, neutralizes part of its stockpiles and precludes Iran from using its next-generation centrifuges. Obama said the deal prohibits Iran from installing or activating new centrifuges, halts construction at its plutonium reactor and mandates full access to international inspectors.
“These are substantial limitations which will help prevent Iran from building a nuclear weapon,” Obama said. “Simply put, they cut off Iran’s most likely paths to a bomb ... and because of this agreement, Iran cannot use negotiations as a cover to advance its program.”
The US president said Washington understands that Iran, “like any nation, should be able to access peaceful nuclear energy. However, “because of its record of violating its obligations, Iran must accept strict limitations on its nuclear program that make it impossible to develop a nuclear weapon.”
“The burden is on Iran to prove to the world that its nuclear program will be exclusively for peace purposes,” Obama said.
According to Obama, the P5+1 agreement provides Iran with “modest relief” from sanctions,” but retains “our toughest sanctions” as the parties work to conclude a “comprehensive solution” over the next six months.
This formula, Obama insisted, offers Iran “a dignified path to forge a new beginning with the wider world based on mutual respect.”
He warned, however, that Iran will face “growing pressure and isolation” if follow-on negotiations fail to achieve a comprehensive final deal.
“As we go forward, the resolve of the United States will remain firm, as will our commitments to our friends and allies — particularly Israel and our Gulf partners, who have good reason to be skeptical about Iran’s intentions,” Obama said.
While Obama reaffirmed vows “to do what is necessary to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon,” he refrained from articulating previous warnings that all options remain on the table.
“Ultimately, only diplomacy can bring about a durable solution to the challenge posed by Iran’s nuclear program. As president and commander in chief, I will do what is necessary to prevent Iran from obtaining a cnuclear weapon. But I have a profound responsibility to try to resolve our differences peacefully, rather than rush towards conflict,” he said.
No New Sanctions
Obama rejected calls by Netanyahu and key members of Congress to impose new sanctions as a means of leveraging Iran into additional diplomatic concessions.
“Now is not the time to move forward on new sanctions — because a doing so would derail this promising first step, alienate us from our allies and risk unraveling the coalition that enabled our sanctions to be enforced in the first place,” Obama warned.
Sen. Robert Menendez, D-N.J., chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said legislation proposing new sanctions will allow a “six-month window” to determine Iran’s sincerity in reaching a final agreement.
The lawmaker said he and key colleagues would continue to promote new sanctions so additional pressure would be “immediately available should the talks falter or Iran [fails] to implement or breach the interim agreement.”
In a Nov. 24 statement, Menendez criticized the P5+1 interim deal for not reducing Iran’s nuclear program in proportion to the sanctions relief provided to Tehran.
“The interim agreement reached is but a beginning. ... Given Iran’s history of duplicity, it will demand ongoing, on the ground verification. Until Iran has verifiably terminated its illicit nuclear program, we should vigorously enforce existing sanctions.”
Menendez and 13 other Democratic and Republican senators announced Nov. 21 they would work together in coming weeks to pass bipartisan Iran sanctions legislation.
Speaking to reporters in Geneva Nov. 24, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said the interim accord marked a “win-win” for everyone by extracting concessions from Tehran along with assurances from the US and EU partners to ease sanctions.
“Iran has agreed to a range of additional measures apart from those that the [International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA)] is already undertaking. So I believe that in the long run, it’s a win-win for everyone,” Lavrov said.
He said Moscow was sure Iran would “conscientiously collaborate with the IAEA” and that the P5+1 interim deal creates “confidence we often lacked and which caused unnecessary tensions in the Middle East and the Persian Gulf.”