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Netanyahu Budging Slightly on Iran

JERUSALEM, Oct 23 2013 (IPS) - Israel keeps urging the group of six major powers to agree nothing less than a full dismantlement of Iran’s nuclear capability. Yet Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu might have to come to terms with settling for an agreement which, though sustainable, falls short of his longstanding demand.

As the nuclear talks between Iran and the P5+1 group (Britain, China, France, the U.S., Russia and Germany) were under way last week in Geneva, the Israeli prime minister was visiting an armoured regiment on a training exercise along the Israeli-Syrian frontline in the occupied Golan Heights.

“It would be a historic mistake to relieve the pressure on Iran without dismantling its nuclear capability,” he warned. “Iran is currently down. Setting off the sanctions in full force to bring about the desired results is feasible. I urge the international community to do so.”

Gone are the days when Netanyahu could threaten Iran by drawing a red line on the quantity of uranium enrichment of 20 percent purity required to produce weapon-grade nuclear material.

The first round of talks ended on a positive note but didn’t seem to heed the Israeli prime minister’s call to maintain – let alone upgrade – sanctions imposed on Iran by Western nations.

“There’s an agreement in principle to go for a gradual approach,” Shlomo Brom, a strategic expert at the Tel Aviv-based Institute for National Security Studies, tells IPS.

“Iran wants a substantial removal of sanctions at the initial stage for only limited concessions; the P5+1 want exactly the opposite. The negotiations will consist in building a wise enough process to play between these two poles.”

Hence the upsurge of insistence from Israeli officials that the P5+1 powers don’t drop their guard, amidst assessments that the negotiators are mulling partial sanctions relief in exchange for Tehran’s willingness to downsize its uranium enrichment programme.

“The greater the pressure on Iran, the greater the chances for diplomacy, so it would be stupid to reduce the sanctions prior to a satisfactory solution,” Israeli Strategic and Intelligence Affairs Minister Yuval Steinitz tells IPS.

“Our request, demand, policy and the way we try to convince our allies is, ‘you inflicted effective pressure on Iran; don’t make it collapse’,” Tsahi HaNegbi, a foreign affairs and defence committee legislator close to Netanyahu, tells IPS.

Gone are the days when Netanyahu could threaten Iran by drawing a red line on the quantity of uranium enrichment of 20 percent purity required to produce weapon-grade nuclear material.

Iran limited the quantity of its enriched uranium of 20 percent purity below the 250 kg threshold. “This isn’t the parameter to judge Iran’s nuclear progress,” says Brom.

By installing more than 1,000 advanced centrifuges, Tehran roughly quintupled its ability to enrich uranium from a lower level of purity. The intermediate enrichment level thus became irrelevant.

So did Netanyahu’s red line.

So a year later, at the U.N. General Assembly, Netanyahu went back to basics, demanding a full dismantlement of Iran’s nuclear infrastructure.

Balancing the fact that Israel isn’t a negotiating party, Netanyahu enhanced his country’s role by striking a tough stance tinted with gloom and doom, and self-righteousness.

“If Israel is forced to stand alone, Israel will stand alone,” he told the U.N. General Assembly earlier this month. “Yet in standing alone, Israel will know that we’ll be defending many others.”

The nuclear talks resume in a fortnight. A six to 12-month timeframe to conclude a deal is being evoked.

Time is indeed of the essence, stresses HaNegbi: “This timeframe for us is forever. Negotiations with Iran already took over a decade. We already ran out of time. We won’t wait for, say, nine months.”

Heading a delegation of diplomats and defence officials to the U.S., Steinitz isn’t optimistic: “The Iranians can easily reduce enrichment temporarily and then resume it.”

Still, he’s willing to give time a chance. “If in the meantime the Iranian freeze any activity, the timeframe might be reasonable.”

“Cautious Iran won’t provoke the parties during this period,” Brom says. “So whether talks take one or even two years isn’t important – so long as they result in a satisfactory agreement. There’ll be a freeze on additional nuclear progress – but no suspension – and therefore enough time to negotiate.”

Where time is most critical is when Tehran achieves ‘breakout capacity’ – the ability to dash towards a nuclear weapon if it chose, before Israel took pre-emptive action.

Breakout time depends on the number and efficacy of each centrifuge; on the accumulated material’s quantity and quality; and, if Iran expelled the International Atomic Energy Agency monitors, on the length of time from that moment till Iran builds a bomb.

The negotiators must ensure that an agreement includes a set of parameters which allows enough time – the longer the better – to neutralise breakout capacity in such a sustainable way that enables pre-emptive action to stop it, Brom explains.

“Netanyahu won’t get everything he wants. Dismantling Iran’s nuclear programme means a five-year breakout time – precisely the same amount of time it takes for an average state to produce a nuclear weapon from scratch – that won’t happen.

“If there’s an agreement, breakout time will be between a few months and five years,” Brom predicts.

“A compromise resulting in Iran possessing a bomb not in a few months but in two to five years isn’t a great achievement. Meanwhile, the sanctions which took years to establish will have been removed, and renewing them will be impossible,” counters HaNegbi. “There won’t be any leverage left.”

Earlier this month, the Israel Air Force held a long-range drill including air-to-air re-fuelling and dogfights over Greek waters.

It’s an open secret that prominent Israeli military officials and experts cast doubt on the merits of military action on Iran.

A strike would postpone Iran’s progress towards acquiring nuclear capability for only a few years and wouldn’t prevent the process itself, Brom emphasises.

“The purpose is to prevent Iran from becoming a nuclear power. It’s well understood that an agreement is better than a military operation – if you get the same results. Moreover, an agreement is accompanied with assurances of assessment, plus monitoring and verification systems.

“Netanyahu will have no other choice but to accept such agreement,” Brom concludes.

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