Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s rejection of a potential agreement on Iran’s nuclear program, which he denounced as a “very bad deal,” threatens to ignite the most serious U.S.-Israel dispute in years.
His public criticism follows a series of meetings on the topic with U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, who flew to Geneva today to join talks with Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif. They’re seeking to nail down the first step in an accord that would relieve some sanctions against Iran if it curtails certain nuclear activities.
The clash over Iran negotiations follows an effort by President Barack Obama to reassure Netanyahu of his support for Israel, including a trip there in March, after a series of disputes. Kerry’s talks with Netanyahu have sought to avoid a blanket rejection of initial moves toward a nuclear pact, which could fuel opponents in the U.S. Congress pressing to toughen sanctions.
Netanyahu told reporters today that Israel “utterly rejects” and “is not obliged by” an agreement that world powers and Iran are trying to put together. He spoke before a morning meeting with Kerry, who stopped in Tel Aviv from Jordan en route to Geneva for the nuclear talks.
“I understand that the Iranians are walking around very satisfied in Geneva, as well they should be, because they got everything and paid nothing,” Netanyahu said. “Iran got the deal of the century and the international community got a bad deal. This is a very bad deal.”
Obama called Netanyahu today to discuss the Geneva talks and “underscored his strong commitment to preventing Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon, which is the aim of the ongoing negotiations,” according to a White House statement.
Kerry, upon arriving in Switzerland, made a point of saying that negotiators hadn’t concluded a deal. Brent crude for December delivery rose for the first time in four days, gaining as much as 1.9 percent after Kerry said “some important gaps” remain.
“The tone of Prime Minister Netanyahu’s comments are sure to cause consternation in the White House,” Robert Danin, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and former U.S. government Mideast policy official, said in an e-mail. “It is too early to say that it will lead to a rift; indeed I don’t think the White House wants that or is prepared to allow one to emerge.”
“But should they come to believe that Netanyahu is trying to mobilize American public opinion against the president’s policies, then there will be a real potential for significant turbulence in the relationship,” Danin said.
Mark Dubowitz, executive director of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies in Washington, who has helped write sanctions legislation, said pressure will build in Congress to move ahead with added strictures against Iran because some allies consider a potential interim nuclear deal to be too weak.
“My sense is it’s going to be a very, very tough sell to hold off” congressional action on additional sanctions, “especially with the Israelis and the Saudis just completely freaking out,” said Dubowitz, who consults with the Obama administration and Congress on sanctions policy.
The Senate Banking Committee is preparing to discuss legislation imposing new curbs on Iran. Chairman Tim Johnson, a South Dakota Democrat, said in a statement that he hasn’t decided on timing for committee action.
“I don’t know the outcome of negotiations now under way in Geneva, and I plan to wait to hear any results of those talks from our negotiators before making a final decision on any additional sanctions,” Johnson said.
House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, a Virginia Republican, said in a statement today that “any agreement that does not require the full and complete halting of the Iranian nuclear program is worse than no deal at all.” Easing sanctions “without a guarantee that Iran will end its nuclear program is foolish,” House Armed Services Committee Chairman Howard “Buck” McKeon, a California Republican, said in a statement.
Groups that lobby on Iranian sanctions and nuclear proliferation spent $9.1 million in the three months ended Sept. 30, according to disclosure reports. The 31 organizations that listed Iran among their lobbying issues include the American Petroleum Institute and other oil industry groups.
The American Israel Public Affairs Committee has spent $2.2 million so far this year on lobbying. In each of this year’s disclosure forms, AIPAC has said it is lobbying on “economic and diplomatic tools to stop Iranian nuclear program.”
Criticism of the Geneva negotiations risks derailing “the best chance to guard against a nuclear-armed Iran,” said Daryl Kimball, executive director of the Washington-based Arms Control Association.
“Unfortunately, some key players -- including Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu and some members of Congress -- are demanding much more from the talks and risk getting nothing,” Kimball said in an e-mail. “Demanding the perfect deal and getting nothing is reckless and dangerous.”
White House deputy spokesman Josh Earnest said today it’s “premature” to criticize a deal that’s still being negotiated and that the U.S. and Israel are “in complete agreement” about keeping Iran from obtaining the capacity for nuclear weapons.
If an initial agreement provides relief from sanctions it would “be proportional to whatever concessions the Iranians themselves make” and “would be completely reversible,” Earnest told reporters.
Netanyahu says a nuclear-armed Iran would threaten Israel’s survival. He said yesterday that moderating pressure on the Iranians would be a “mistake of historic proportions.” Iran says its nuclear program is peaceful.
The Israeli leader has urged the U.S. and five other powers taking part in the talks with Iran -- France, Germany, the U.K., Russia and China -- to reject any proposal unless it ensures a halt to all Iranian uranium enrichment and the construction of a plutonium-producing reactor.
The tensions over Iran have frayed relations that Netanyahu and the White House have worked to repair in recent months. The friction has also clouded Kerry-led efforts to negotiate an agreement to end decades of Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Netanyahu last month linked developments on Iran to progress on peacemaking with the Palestinians. He reinforced that linkage today in his remarks before meeting with Kerry, saying his refusal to “compromise on Israel’s security and our vital interests” extends to talks with the Palestinians.
Iran has asserted its right to enrich uranium and has said it will accept tougher safeguards to meet international concerns while continuing some level of enrichment.
A public U.S.-Israeli dispute over an Iran deal could lead to the worst tensions between the allies since 1992, when then-Secretary of State James Baker said President George H.W. Bush wouldn’t approve $10 billion in loan guarantees to help house emigrating Soviet Jews unless Israel promised to halt settlement expansion. Before that dispute was resolved, some Israeli cabinet members said Bush was an anti-Semite and anti-Israel.
Netanyahu said today Israel’s concerns about the nature of an Iran deal are “shared by many, many in the region, whether or not they express that publicly.”
The “essence of the concern” is that “America is selling out too cheaply and it’s giving in, an extremely serious change in the whole balance of power in the region,” said Jonathan Rynhold, a researcher at the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies at Bar-Ilan University near Tel Aviv.