WASHINGTON — Israeli Intelligence Minister Yuval Steinitz asserted Tuesday, March 4, that Iran could be “forced” to stop enriching uranium under a comprehensive nuclear deal and said that Israel persuaded France to stiffen conditions for the interim accord reached with Iran last year.
Speaking at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, Steinitz echoed Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s comments earlier Tuesday to the annual conference of the American Israeli Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) that Iran must not only not be allowed to obtain nuclear weapons but should not have the capacity to do so.
However, the Obama administration has drawn the line at nuclear weapons, not capability, recognizing that Iranian scientists cannot unlearn how to build centrifuges and that the Iranian leadership needs to be able to defend any deal domestically. The Nov. 24 joint plan of action — approved by the five permanent members of the UN Security Council plus Germany (P5+1) — states that a comprehensive deal would include “a mutually defined enrichment program with practical limits and transparency measures to ensure the peaceful nature of the program.”
Steinitz called this a “miserable sentence,” adding, “You can find civilian justification for almost anything” and the number of centrifuges required for a civilian program of power generation was actually much greater than the 20,000 centrifuges installed in Iran, of which about 10,000 are operating.
US nuclear experts have talked about reducing that number to between 3,000 and 5,000 centrifuges under scrutiny by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), saying that would prevent Iran from “breaking out” and building weapons for six months to one year. At present, Iran has only one civilian nuclear power reactor operating at Bushehr, for which Russia provides fuel.
Steinitz said that Israel wanted Iran to be “incapable of producing a bomb for the next decade,” a goal he called “difficult but achievable.”
Asked by Al-Monitor whether Israel was not asking for the impossible — given the language in the Nov. 24 accord and Iran’s consistent rejection of zero enrichment — Steinitz said the negotiations, which resumed last month in Vienna, are “not about convincing” the Iranians but compelling them.
“It is possible to force them,” he said, if they are given a choice between saving their economy and enrichment. “They’re reasonable people.”
Iran’s refusal to stop enrichment, he added, “is part of the tactics of the negotiation.”
However, the international economic pressure exerted on Iran has already begun to ease in the aftermath of the Nov. 24 agreement, which suspended some penalties and explicitly forbids more nuclear-related sanctions while negotiations proceed. Indeed, the Obama administration has successfully staved off Congressional action on legislation that threatens new sanctions if current talks fail or if Iran violates the terms of the Nov. 24 agreement. That has left AIPAC in the unaccustomed position of having more than 10,000 members come to Washington for their annual conference but having no legislation — apart from nonbinding statements in the House and Senate — to push for immediate passage.
Israel’s continued full court press on the enrichment issue — like the letters circulating in the House and Senate — are about trying to toughen the terms of a comprehensive accord. Steinitz gave a hint of Israeli strategy when he claimed that Israeli diplomacy had already produced a stronger interim deal than would have otherwise been reached last year.
“In the initial draft, the Iranians were able to preserve their 20 percent stockpile” and merely stop producing more, he told the audience, referring to the cache of uranium enriched to 20 percent of the isotope U-235 that Iran has amassed since 2010. He said he had suggested to the French that this stockpile be dismantled and indeed the Nov. 24 plan of action requires Iran to dilute half of the 20 percent uranium to five percent and convert the other half to a powder that cannot be further enriched without conversation back into a gaseous form. The latest report by the IAEA shows that Iran has reduced its stockpile from about 196 kilograms to 161 kilograms — below the 250 kilograms, which if enriched to 90 percent, are necessary for a nuclear weapon.
Steinitz also said that the initial draft only barred Iran from operating a heavy water reactor at Arak, not from continuing to construct key elements of the facility, which has the potential to produce plutonium, another bomb fuel. He said it was Israel that suggested to the French that the agreement bar further advances at Arak.
A French diplomatic source told Al-Monitor in an email Tuesday evening that he could not comment on Steinitz’s assertion, but that “French positions on the ways to prevent Iran from having nuclear weapons are very well-known, public and constant, including regarding Arak and the 20 percent stockpile. We now have to talk about the definitive agreement. The Iranians must truthfully answer the question of whether or not they agree to give up the prospect of nuclear weapons.”
US officials, while not accepting Israel’s demands, have pledged to negotiate a tough agreement with Iran that meets the concerns of Israel and Arab states hostile to Iran as well as the international community.
Speaking to the AIPAC conference on Monday evening, Kerry said, “You have my word — and the president’s — that the United States will only sign an agreement that answers three critical questions the right way. First, will it make certain that Iran cannot obtain a nuclear weapon? Second, can it continuously assure the world that Iran’s program remains entirely peaceful as it claims? And third, will the agreement increase our visibility on the nuclear program and expand the breakout time so that if they were to try to go for a bomb, we know we will have time to act?”