A series of private, bilateral meetings between US and Iranian officials preceded public rapprochement between the two nations, Obama administration officials acknowledged on Saturday night. The resumption of direct talks between the two governments — after a hiatus of over three decades — led to an interim deal announced Sunday that will freeze much of the Islamic Republic's nuclear program. "We've made clear that we were open to having bilateral discussions with the Iranians," one senior US official said on a conference call with journalists. "When President [Hassan] Rouhani was elected and indicated a new direction, we decided to take that seriously and to to test it." The senior US official said that four of the secret US-Iranian meetings took place since Rouhani's August inauguration, a sign that the United States was trying to exploit the opportunity presented by the Iranian official's ascent. Most US-Iranian interaction had been made "quite public," the official said, and the number of talks that were kept private have been "limited." US officials briefed their Israeli counterparts on substantive conversations on an individual basis. According to the US official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, key Americans involved in the effort were William Burns, the US deputy secretary of state, and Jake Sullivan, the national security adviser to US Vice President Joe Biden. The two men, at times with other officials such as White House national security staff member Puneet Talwar, met Iranian officials at least five times this year, the official said. Burns, Sullivan and technical experts arrived in Muscat, Oman in March on a military plane - a way to preserve secrecy - to meet Iranians, the official added. The United States was so eager to keep the role of Burns and Sullivan secret that it brought them to Geneva twice this month for wider talks between Iran and the major powers but left their names off the official delegation list and made them use hotel side entrances and service elevators to keep the secret. A former Iranian official confirmed the secret talks and said they took place with the wary approval of Iran's Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who was skeptical of the outcome but agreed to all the meetings to take place. "All the meetings with Americans had the [supreme] leader's blessing. The first one was the most difficult one as we had to convince our top authority about the positive outcome of such meetings," said the former senior Iranian official. "The leader gave the green light but was not optimistic about the result," he said. "We took a risk but we won." An Iranian Foreign Ministry official, however, denied reports of secret meetings with the US, being quoted by IRNA as saying that "such speculation creates ambiguity over Iran’s clear-cut stance and interactive approach about the nuclear issue." The Oman channel itself was nurtured by US Secretary of State John Kerry, who, as chairman of the US Senate Foreign Relations Committee made an unannounced trip to the Gulf state to meet Omani officials. When Kerry became secretary of state, a job he has held since February 1, it was decided this channel would continue to help feed into the P5+1 talks, and Kerry visited Oman himself in May for talks with Omani officials. In November, the Wall Street Journal reported on a series of meetings that had taken place in Oman over the course of the past year, leading to an historic phone call between US President Barack Obama and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani on September 28. Kerry also spoke to the Iranian foreign minister by telephone on October 25 and November 2 - discussions that were not revealed by the State Department at the time. Asked if the clandestine meetings were instrumental in helping achieve Sunday's nuclear agreement between Iran and the six major powers, the senior US official replied: "Yes." The US Department of State considers Iran the world's leading state sponsor of terrorism, and sanctions it as such. The resumption of bilateral relations this year mark the first of their kind since the Iran's Islamic revolution in 1979.
Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei hailed what he termed the "achievement" of the country's negotiating team in clinching a long-elusive nuclear deal with world powers. The Fars news agency quoted him as saying "resistance against excessive demands should be the criterion" for nuclear officials. Iran's President Hassan Rouhani says the deal reached with the six world powers in Geneva recognizes Iran's nuclear rights by allowing it to continue enrich uranium. He said that Tehran's enrichment activities will proceed similar to before. In a statement in Tehran broadcast live on state television, Rouhani said talks on a "comprehensive agreement will start immediately." He said Iran has a strong will for them to commence right away.
Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu has called the deal reached between Iran and world powers a historic mistake, because it allows the most dangerous regime in the world to make a significant step forward to arming itself with the most dangerous weapon in the world. In remarks at the start of the weekly cabinet meeting, Netanyahu said that the world powers agreed to uranium enrichment activity in Iran, while ignoring the sanctions that they themselves led and which took years to put into place. He added that in exchange for this, Iran agreed to what he termed "cosmetic concessions" that can be reversed in a number of weeks. Netanyahu stressed that Israel is not held by the agreement, and reserves the right to defend itself from any threat. Netanyahu said that Israel will not let Iran develop military nuclear capabilities. In other political reaction, Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman said requires of Israel to reassess the situation and make decisions that are not simple. Speaking on Reshet Bet, he added that the responsibility for the fate of the Jewish people lies solely with the government of Israel. Finance Minister Yair Lapid said the deal is a bad one and Israel must ensure that the final agreement is better. Economics Minister Naftali Bennett said it is important that the world knows that Israel will not held to an agreement that endangers its existence. American sources said that US President Barack Obama will speak over the course of the day with Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu about the deal reached with Iran.
After weeks of an intensive campaign to dissuade Western powers from striking a deal with Iran failed to yield a result as world powers reached an agreement Sunday, Israel remained on the offensive. Sunday morning, Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman said "there is no achievement in the is agreement. This is the biggest diplomatic victory Iran has known in recent years – since the Khameini regime (came to power)." When asked if the deal contains any positive aspect, Lieberman replied "no, there is no such thing." The tone was echoed by a government spokesperson who said "This is a bad deal. It gives Iran exactly what it wanted – a significant reduction of sanctions while preserving the most significant part of its nuclear program," a official from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's office said. "The agreement allows Iran to continue to enrich uranium, leaves the centrifuges in place and allows it to produce fissile material for a nuclear weapon. The accord did not lead to the dismantling of the Arak plant... (while) Economic pressure on Iran could have produced a much better agreement that would have led to a dismantling of Iran's nuclear capacities," the statment added. "Israel does not see itself as bound by this bad, this very bad agreement that has been signed," Economy Minister Naftali Bennett According to Lieberman, "We are entering a new era – the State of Israel will have to think things over." "It is clear that this deal acknowledges the right of Iran to enrich uranium. This very recognition brings us to a nuclear arming race. The Iranians were rewarded," the newly reinstated foreign minister said. Lieberman reminded that the UN's atomic watchdog has already reported that "Iran disregards Security Council resolutions, and has noted numerous issues with its military program." Lieberman added that "it will be very interesting to see how the Saudis and their pundits react. Not for nothing, yesterday (Saturday) a summit was held between Gulf states. This (enrichment) is the most problematic issue for us, as it is for Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Egypt – no one will sit on the sidelines clapping and cheering." He further warned that "all these countries will now join the (arms) race. There is no doubt that the Saudis, Egyptians and Turks will now begin speaking in the same terminology (used by Iran) – nuclear program for peaceful purposes, nuclear energy, but they will do exactly what Iran did." According to the foreign minister, "Iran is now on the verge. There are many countries on the (nuclear) verge, Germany and Japan for example, but now one is concerned, despite the fact that they have all the information and technology needed. The reason is that they have responsible and peaceful leadership. We know exactly what leadership Iran has – they continue terror activities against Jews and Israel, they're involved in Syria, Lebanon and Gaza." When asked whether the deal pushes Israel towards a possible attack on Iran, Lieberman responded that "we are entering a new world." Justice Minister Tzipi Livni addressed the deal during a special Ynet broadcast: "This is a terrible deal that will threaten not only us, but the entire world. We must now act decisively with the US and our allies in order to try and improve positions towards the next agreement, if one will indeed be signed, and create a political front so that Iran would not be perceived as legitimate."
Iran and six world powers reached a breakthrough deal on Sunday to curb Tehran's nuclear program in exchange for limited sanctions relief. Aimed at ending a dangerous standoff, the agreement between Iran and the United States, France, Germany, Britain, China and Russia was nailed down after more than four days of negotiations in the Swiss city of Geneva, much to the disappointment of Israeli officials. The accord was designed as a package of confidence-building steps to ease decades of tensions and confrontation and banish the specter of a Middle East war over Tehran's nuclear aspirations.European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton, who has been coordinating talks with Iran on behalf of the major powers, said it created time and space for talks aimed at reaching a comprehensive solution to the dispute. "This is only a first step," Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif told a news conference. "We need to start moving in the direction of restoring confidence, a direction in which we have managed to move against in the past," he said, adding Tehran would expand cooperation with the International Atomic Energy Agency, the UN nuclear watchdog, to address what he called some concerns. Speaking later Sunday morning in Iran's Press TV, Zarif further claimed that the powers recognized Iran's nuclear program and in a final "step" all sanctions on the Islamic republic would be lifted.Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's government denounced the deal Sunday as a "bad deal" that Israel did not regard itself as bound by. "This is a bad deal," an official in Netanyahu's office said. "Israel does not see itself as bound by this bad, this very bad agreement that has been signed," Economic Minister Naftali Bennett, a member of Netanyahu's security Cabinet, told Israel's Army Radio. In Washington, President Barack Obama said the deal was an important first step towards a comprehensive solution to Iran's nuclear program and its provisions were key to preventing Iran from proliferating. "Simply put, they cut off Iran's most likely paths to a bomb," Obama told reporters. A senior US official said the agreement halted progress on Iran's nuclear program, including construction of the Arak research reactor, which is of special concern for the West as it can yield potential bomb material. It would neutralize Iran's stockpile of uranium refined to a fissile concentration of 20 percent, which is a close step away from the level needed for weapons, and calls for intrusive U.N. nuclear inspections, the official said. Iran has also committed to stop uranium enrichment above a fissile purity of 5%, a US fact sheet said. Refined uranium can be used to fuel nuclear power plants – Iran's stated goal – but also provide the fissile core of an atomic bomb if refined much further. The deal has no recognition of an Iranian right to enrich uranium and sanctions would still be enforced, the US official added. Iran will get access to $4.2 billion in foreign exchange as part of the accord, and is also expected to receive limited sanctions relief on gold, petrochemicals and autos, a Western diplomat said.Intelligence Minister Yuval Steinitz, who is responsible for monitoring Iran's nuclear program, says there is no reason for the world to be celebrating. He says the deal, reached in Geneva early Sunday, is based on "Iranian deception and self-delusion." It was the first Israeli reaction to the deal. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was expected to discuss the matter with his Cabinet later Sunday as well as hold a phone conversation with US President Obama. British Foreign Secretary William Hague said in a Twitter message that it was an "important and encouraging" first-stage agreement with Iran, whose nuclear program "won't move forward for 6 months and parts rolled back." French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said the deal only confirmed Iran's right to civil nuclear power. "After years of blockages, the agreement in Geneva on Iran's nuclear program is an important step to preserving security and peace," Fabius said in a statement.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Wednesday insisted on the need for a "real" solution to the Iranian nuclear crisis, after talks with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Moscow. "We would all like a diplomatic solution, but it needs to be a real solution," said Netanyahu, adding that this would involve Iran halting uranium enrichment and centrifuge work in the same way as Syria was allowing its chemical weapons arsenal to be destroyed. "We believe it is possible to reach a better agreement," Netanyahu added, "but it requires us to be consistent and persistent." Netanyahu noted that Israel and Russia had a shared interest in ensuring that Iran does not develop nuclear weapon, stressing that the Islamic republic must be forced to stop enriching uranium and cease all nuclear activities. Speaking as talks got under way in Geneva between Iran and world powers, Putin for his part said he hoped that "in the nearest future a mutually acceptable solution is found" to end the crisis. US Secretary of State John Kerry said on Wednesday the issue of whether Iran will ultimately be allowed to enrich uranium will not be decided in an interim deal under discussion between major world powers and Iranian officials in Geneva. "Whatever a country decides or doesn't decide to do, or is allowed to do under the rules, depends on a negotiation," Kerry told reporters. "We are at the initial stage of determining whether or not there is a first step that could be taken, and that certainly will not be resolved in any first step, I can assure you," he added.
Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu will meet Russian President Vladimir Putin in Moscow on Wednesday, as Israel begins preparing its “day after” scenario in expectation of an imminent interim agreement between the P5+1 and Iran. Netanyahu continued on Tuesday to implore the P5+1 – the US, Russia, China, France, Britain and Germany – to improve the conditions of the deal shaping up. But as he did so, others began talking about strategy for the eventuality that a deal is signed when the sides meet on Wednesday in Geneva for the third time this month. Likud MK Tzachi Hanegbi, a Netanyahu confidant, said on Tuesday that Israel would not see itself bound by an agreement that does not prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons. But at a briefing organized by The Israel Project, he said that Jerusalem understands this is “a first step toward a final agreement, and will go forward” in its efforts to convey its concerns and convince the world of what is needed to keep Iran from getting nuclear arms. “We are not going on strike,” he said. “We will not do a sit-in. We will be more frustrated than before, because we were more optimistic that we would be able to convince some of the countries [in the P5+1] that this is the wrong path to follow, but we will go forward in our efforts to convince as many as possible.” Israel’s main problem with the proposed deal is that it freezes Iran’s program but does not dismantle it or significantly roll it back, in exchange for sanctions relief that Jerusalem believes severely weakens the pressure on Tehran. Intelligence Minister Yuval Steinitz said on Tuesday that in accepting this agreement, the world would be demonstrating that it “is willing to deceive itself.” Netanyahu, meanwhile, showed no sign of letting up on his public diplomacy campaign against the deal. Accompanying visiting French President François Hollande to an innovation conference and exhibit in Tel Aviv, Netanyahu said, “What we are seeing is the future. I think where radical Islam is trying to take us is the past. We are for modernity. They are for a dark medievalism. We’re for opening up our societies for everyone – men, women, minorities and the right to be different. They’re for uniform suppression [by the dictates] of a rigid doctrine, and they want to back it up with weapons of death.” Netanyahu repeated that it would be a “grave mistake” to ease the pressure on Iran at this time. “It would be a great mistake to capitulate before Iran when they have every reason right now to respond to the pressures that have been put on them. Rather than surrendering to their charm offensive, it’s important that they surrender to the pressure that can be brought to them to have them abandon their nuclear program.” Hanegbi emphasized the importance of Netanyahu’s meeting with Putin, though the Geneva talks are set to resume before the two leaders meet. “Russia is a very important player, a key player, because out of the six countries [in the P5+1] it is the one with the most intimate relations with Iran. They built the reactor at Bushehr and are supplying Iran with weapons. They are very influential. Even though it might not have an effect on Geneva, we feel the dialogue between us and the Russians on this is enormously important,” Hanegbi said. This will be Netanyahu’s fifth visit to Russia since he became prime minister again in 2009, and he continued a dialogue with the Russians that was also carried out by his predecessors, Ariel Sharon and Ehud Olmert. Hanegbi said that dialogue has proven effective, and pointed to the fact that the Russians have kept their state-of-the-art S300 anti-aircraft missiles out of the Syrian arena. Netanyahu will be accompanied on his trip by Deputy Foreign Minister Ze’ev Elkin, a native Russian speaker who has served as an interpreter in the past during Netanyahu-Putin meetings. Israel, meanwhile, was not the only actor engaging in aggressive public diplomacy ahead of Wednesday’s talks in Geneva. Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, who heads Iran’s delegation at the Geneva talks, issued a five-minute video on Tuesday, with subtitles in various languages. In it, he said that the standoff over Iran’s nuclear program could be solved as long as the Western powers treated Iran as an equal and did not seek to impose their will. “This past summer, our people chose constructive engagement through the ballot box, and through this, they gave the world a historic opportunity to change course,” he said. “To seize this unique opportunity, we need to accept an equal footing and choose a path based on mutual respect.” According to Brig.-Gen (res.) Michael Herzog, now a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, one of the problems was that the P5+1 nations did not seem to agree on an “endgame” for the permanent agreement. “I’m not sure the P5+1 knows where they want to go,” he said. He noted that there was no agreement among the countries on basic questions such as how far they want to set Iran back from “breakout capacity” and whether the heavy water reactor at Arak needed to be totally decommissioned or not. Herzog, who over the past decade held senior positions in the Defense Ministry, said in a conference call organized by the Clarion Project that there were several open issues that still needed resolution in Geneva. The first is whether the preamble to the agreement will say that Tehran has the right to enrich uranium, as a signatory to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. As of a few days ago, the Islamic Republic was demanding that this right be spelled out, while the P5+1 position was that the NPT does not grant a right to enrich uranium, but only the right to a civilian nuclear program for peaceful purposes. Uranium enrichment is not needed for a civilian program. Herzog speculated that that preamble will be kept vague and say that Iran will enjoy the rights under the NPT, but leave open to interpretation by both sides whether that includes the right to enrich uranium. Herzog said that the agreement will most likely stipulate that the Iranians cannot enrich uranium to 20 percent, but then the question will arise of what to do with uranium already enriched to that level. While the Iranians will want to oxidize it, something they can convert back if they so decide, the P5+1 wants to see it converted into fuel rods, which is irreversible. Another major issue has to do with the heavy water reactor at Arak, and whether – as the Iranians are demanding – they will be able to continue work on the project but not make it operational for the next six months, or – as the French are demanding – all work must stop on that plant. Finally, he said, agreements will have to be reached on the type of supervision regime to be put into place, and what kind of inspections the International Atomic Energy Agency will be able to carry out. So far, the Iranians have refused to allow inspection at the Parchin facility, believed to be where military components of the nuclear program are being worked on. Iranian political figures, meanwhile, have lined up to accuse Paris of jeopardizing chances to reach a deal after Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius warned against accepting “a fool’s game” – lopsided concessions to Tehran. On Monday, Hollande set out a tough stance during his visit to Israel, saying he would not give way on nuclear proliferation with respect to Iran. His remarks received criticism on Tuesday from an Iranian parliamentary official. “We advise the president of France to comment on the basis of facts, not assumptions, and beyond that, not to be the executor of the Zionist regime’s [Israel’s] plan,” Alaeddin Boroujerdi, head of the assembly’s national security and foreign affairs committee, told Iran’s official news agency. On Tuesday, Iranian parliamentarians gathered signatures to demand that the government continue enriching uranium to levels of 20 percent and finish building the Arak reactor. “The government is obliged to protect the nuclear rights of Iran in the forthcoming negotiations,” Mehr news agency quoted MP Fatemeh Alia as saying.
The spat between allies Israel and the US continues: The American administration believes the path proposed by Israel to subdue Iran with sanctions may lead to war and not to a peaceful resolution of the nuclear issue, State Department Spokesperson Jen Psaki told reporters after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu warned over Twitter against a "bad deal" with Iran. "I think we're looking at multiple tracks here, including our continued pursuit of seeing whether a diplomatic path is possible. The alternative in our view is a path to war," Psaki said. Earlier on Friday, Netanyahu took to Twitter to warn against rushing into a "bad deal" with Iran. "The proposal enables Iran to develop atomic bombs and build long-range missiles to reach the US and Europe," it read. "Iran is getting everything and giving nothing." Psaki said she saw the tweet Friday but had no response to it. She reiterated though that Israel and the United States had the same goal of preventing Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon. "The place where we diverge a bit is on the tactical level, where we believe we need a first step that halts Iran's program to give us time to negotiate this long-term agreement and they believe we should just keep upping the pressure on Iran to get them to capitulate all at once to a long-term agreement," Psaki said. "We don't, obviously, think that's a path that is possible." At the same time, Netanyahu was interviewed for the French newspaper La Figaro, ahead of French President Francois Hollande's scheduled visit to Israel next week. Netanyahu called on France not to "flex" in next week's talks with Iran, and noted the special relationship between Israel and France.
Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu says he is looking forward to meeting with French President Francois Hollande, who arrives Sunday on a visit to Israel and the Palestinian Authority. The French leader will be accompanied by French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius. In an interview with the Le Figaro newspaper, Netanyahu said the French president is a close friend of the state of Israel and he looks forward to hosting him at a time when the major powers, including France, are discussing ways to halt the Iranian nuclear program. Netanyahu added "We hope France will not yield." Netanyahu stressed that the United States remains an important ally, the most important ally for Israel, But he said its relationship with France is also very special. "On the Iran issue, our countries have defended common stances for years, regardless of the party in power, and we are mainting this vital partnership with President Hollande," Netanyahu said. Netanyahu said Israel welcomes what he called Iran's "coherent and resolute stance" on the Iranian issue. Talks in Geneva between Tehran and world powers last week ended in deadlock, reportedly amid reservations expressed by France, which were subsequently adopted by other world powers. Another round of talks is scheduled for this coming week.
US administration officials say Iran would get only minor relief from economic sanctions under an international proposal to prevent it from producing nuclear weapons. The two unnamed officials were quoted by the Associated Press. One official familiar with the negotiations said the sanctions relief being offered to Iran was "way south" of what the official termed "wildly exaggerated" estimates that have been reported, which have ranged from 15 to 50 billion dollars. Another official who is familiar with details of the sanctions relief being considered said the relief being discussed as part of an initial six-month agreement would be "limited, temporary, targeted and reversible." Representatives from Iran and six world powers -- the United States, Britain, Russia, China, France and Germany -- are due to hold another round of nuclear talks in Geneva this coming week. Before, interviewed on Kol Yisrael, the US Ambassador to Israel Dan Shapiro has said that the US and Israel have a joint target - to prevent Iran from developing nuclear weaponry. Ambassador Shapiro said that President Barack Obama is determined to reach that target, both for the security of the United States and the security of Israel.
In the words of Ambassador Shapiro, differences of opinion among friends and allies are legitimate, and the close ties between the two countries will survive the current dispute.