Israel has been trailing the negotiations between Iran and the P5+1 as an external expert. If we were to think of the negotiations as a public trial — on the way to a plea bargain — whereby the world powers represent the prosecution and Iran represents the defense, Israel could be viewed as an external expert witness for the prosecution. Israel and the [world] powers have been conducting intense consultations in this regard, a prerequisite for which is secrecy and discretion.
For the most part, the parties abide by this condition — neither one provides detailed briefings about the discussions that take place, except for general comments. Which is why on May 7, immediately after the long meeting in Jerusalem between Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and US National Security Advisor Susan Rice, the premier scheduled another meeting with Friends of the IDF in the US (FIDF), from which the following was leaked:
“Iran seeks to destroy the State of Israel and build atomic bombs for that purpose. I want to reiterate Israel’s position: We think that Iran must not have the capacity to make atomic bombs. Iran today has thousands of centrifuges, thousands of kilograms of enriched uranium to make a bomb. A bad deal would let them keep those capacities. It’s better to have no deal than a bad deal. I am concerned that we might face a bad deal allowing Iran to preserve its capacity to develop nuclear weapons. It would be better not to reach a deal than reach a bad one.”
Just in case anyone failed to get this, the next day, in an address commemorating the victory over Nazi Germany, Netanyahu sharpened the message. “Today we are much stronger and have far more capabilities. We have the ability to defend ourselves and repel the enemies. This is a big difference. We have a state. We have a military. We are determined and we are powerful. Nevertheless, we know that the best defense against Iranian nuclear weapons is [to ensure] that Iran does not have nuclear weapons. … What do they need those thousands of centrifuges for? Why do they need tons of enriched uranium? Only to manufacture nuclear weapons. Iran should be prevented from having this capacity. That should be the objective of the talks.”
To complete the message, a day earlier, during the traditional air force fly-by on the occasion of the Jewish state’s 66th Independence Day, a large fueling airplane was seen refueling an Israeli air force fighter aircraft in midair. This was described by briefed commentators in articles relating to the Independence Day holiday as "the most lethal capability yet."
This is as far as external propaganda goes. A high-ranking official who is well-versed in the consultations with the powers concerning the Iranian issue told Al-Monitor on May 8 that Israel is closely monitoring the negotiations with Iran. “The contacts with the United States take place in the setting of a close-knit, regular dialogue. It takes place at the level of leaders as well as between the senior professional echelons, such as the meeting with Rice earlier this week. It also includes all the professional bodies in the military, intelligence, Mossad and all other government branches. We’re kept in the loop, and we get updates in real time about almost everything. The same goes for the British and the French. The powers greatly appreciate Israel’s know-how and expertise in this area. Israel is considered to be serious and up to date, and the powers conduct an earnest and professional dialogue with us. They listen to our assessments and opinions, and they do so of their own free will and not under coercion. All in all, this is both a dignified and dignifying process,” said the source.
Rice arrived in Jerusalem as the head of a large delegation that also included Undersecretary for Political Affairs Wendy Sherman, who is in charge of the negotiations, as well as a bevy of US experts and professionals. She met here with Netanyahu for a long meeting that Yossi Cohen, the national security adviser and former Mossad deputy director, and Yuval Steinitz, minister for intelligence affairs, also attended.
Rice held another meeting in Israel which was equally intriguing, with President Shimon Peres. The official part of that meeting, which was attended by US Ambassador to Israel Dan Shapiro, was relatively short. At the request of the president’s aides, Peres and Rice were left for a tete-a-tete, without even a stenographer present. This quality time between the nonagenarian Israeli president and the US national security adviser lasted about 90 minutes, according to the president’s associates.
In Jerusalem, Rice is not considered an Israel sympathizer; quite the contrary. She is said to be the most hostile person to Israel in the Obama administration. That point aside, she has always harbored special and entirely different feelings for Peres. Holding him in high esteem, she is happy to listen to his assessments, and not just on the nuclear issue. It is my guess that Netanyahu would have wanted to be a fly on the wall during the meeting with Rice and Peres, who concludes his seven-year term in less than two months. In recent days, the relationship between Netanyahu and Peres has reached an all-time low since Peres became president. Presumably, Peres “grumbled” to Rice quite a bit about Netanyahu.
Until recently, Israeli officials were almost unanimous in their opinion that the chances for reaching an agreement between Iran and the world powers were not high. The working premise in Jerusalem was that if such a deal was not reached, the parties would slip into a status quo that would be acceptable to everyone, to allow US President Barack Obama to end his term without breaking his promise not to let Iran become nuclear. In recent weeks, however, this Israeli assessment has started changing, albeit not at the same pace as it has around the world.
“I’m not sure,” a high-ranking Israeli official taking part in the consultations told Al-Monitor. “The optimism about working out an arrangement between Iran and the [world] powers is based on concrete data.” According to him, this optimism is predicated on the fact that Iran and the United States are eager to reach an arrangement. The source said, “Iran, to rescue its economy; the United States, because Obama must present an achievement in light of the situation in Syria, North Korea, Russia, Ukraine, China and Japan, and because of the breakdown in the negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians. Obama’s entire foreign policy is collapsing, which is why an achievement on Iran and the conclusion of the crisis could salvage his image. Obama is concerned by the mid-term elections in November and the possibility of losing the senate, so he simply must score an achievement vis-a-vis Iran.”
This conjuncture of interests, according to Israeli officials, is what prompted the real effort in recent months, as well as the rapprochement that has been noted between Iran and the world powers in terms of the negotiations. “But on the other hand,” the source added, “the gaps remain wide.”
Rice's meeting with her Israeli interlocutors initially dealt with mutual intelligence updates followed by an exchange of opinions about the ultimate objective of the negotiations and the ways to reach it. The Israeli side underscored the need to prevent Iran from enriching uranium on its soil. “This was also the preliminary position of the world powers,” said an Israeli source. “The problem is that when we say this, we also mean it, whereas when the [world] powers say it, it is just their opening position.”
Israel demands a total waiver of the Iranian enrichment capability. The powers demand a considerable reduction in that capability. Although Israel would not admit it, even the Israeli leadership is aware of the fact that it would be impossible to totally prevent enrichment, and that Iran will have to be left with some residual capacity if only to save face. The question remains exactly how much enrichment. And that is precisely the bone of contention between Israel and the powers. Israel talks about “token enrichment” of a few dozen to a couple of hundred centrifuges. Jerusalem is concerned that the powers might agree to let Iran use a few thousand centrifuges. At the moment, this is the most substantial gap between the powers and Israel, and it is this gap that was addressed this week in Jerusalem.
Iran currently has some 19,000 centrifuges. Based on various intelligence sources, it appears that Iran’s bluster of having installed a large number of the latest generation of centrifuges that allow for accelerated and shorter enrichment process was baseless. Out of the 19,000 centrifuges, 9,000 are operational, whereas 10,000 have just been installed but are still nonoperational.
“The name of the game,” said the Israeli source, “is to allow limited enrichment that will prevent Iran from quickly breaking toward a nuclear bomb.” This, according to Israel, is the real mission of the world powers in the upcoming round vis-a-vis Iran, and this was the message that Israel relayed to the United States in the meetings this week. For her part, Rice emphasized to Israel once again that for Obama, diplomacy takes priority. But in the same breath, she pledged that nothing in the original US position had changed: Iran will not have nuclear capability, period.
Compared to the issue of enrichment, the issue of the reactor in Arak is said to be “lighter.” The assessment — both in Israel and among the world powers — is that Iran will agree to convert the reactor from a heavy water reactor to a light water one, thus neutralizing Iran’s ability to build a plutonium bomb. During the meetings, Israel’s intelligence information was cross-referenced with that of the West, indicating that Iran has indeed met the terms of the interim agreement and is about to finish discarding all the medium-level enriched uranium it possessed, estimated at 210 kilograms (463 pounds). Part of this quantity was converted to fuel rods and part of it to acid. However, Israel stressed to Rice that the number of centrifuges allows Iran to overcome the delay in the schedule with relative ease, even with the medium-level enriched uranium gone. Thus, the final conclusion remains unchanged: the name of the game is the scope of Iranian enrichment capability that will remain in Iranian hands.
The round of talks with Iran is slated to begin shortly. Israel continues its intensive talks with all the players, except Iran. Minister of Strategic Affairs Yuval Steinitz spends most of his time shuttling between the capitals of Europe, the United States, Russia and the Far East. Last month, he met with UK Secretary of State William Hague in London when he stopped in Brussels on May 8 and he will hold meetings in Washington next week. According to credible Israeli sources, US Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel will arrive in Israel shortly as a guest of Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon. He is also scheduled to meet with Netanyahu and other Israeli leaders.
The power struggle between Iran and the rest of the world is about to reach its decisive moment. Watching from the sidelines, Israel tries to keep its eyes on the ball with a clear goal in mind: the ball must not be allowed to turn into a nuclear bomb.