U.S. and Israel escalate war of words over Iran deal

Israel and the United States have stepped up their war of words over the framework agreement that aims to limit Iran’s nuclear activities in exchange for a gradual rollback of sanctions.
President Barack Obama made his most detailed effort yet to persuade skeptics of the accord reached last week in Switzerland in a weekend interview with the New York Times, asserting that the deal is the “best bet” to prevent Iran’s acquisition of a nuclear weapon and promising to “stand by” Israel in the event of Iranian aggression.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, his skepticism of the deal undiminished, made the rounds of American talk shows April 5 to denounce a deal that he said gives Iran a “free path” to the bomb. And on April 6, Israel’s minister of strategic affairs, Yuval Steinitz, in an effort to rebut claims that Israel had offered no alternative to a military campaign against Iran, presented reporters in Jerusalem with a list of modifications he said would make the agreement “more reasonable.”

On “Meet the Press,” Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu compares the recent Iran agreement to the 1994 deal between the U.S. and North Korea. The show’s host, Chuck Todd, is at left. photo/jta-youtube

Steinitz’s requirements included the closing of the underground nuclear facility at Fordo, a commitment to ship uranium stockpiles out of the country and an inspections regime that would allow international monitors the ability to go “anywhere, anytime” in Iran.
Under the terms of the framework accord reached April 2 in Lausanne, the Fordo facility would be reconfigured and would not enrich uranium, but it would not be shuttered entirely. Iran also would be permitted to continue to enrich uranium using its first-generation IR-1 centrifuges at its facility in Natanz. The accord requires Iran to grant the International Atomic Energy Agency access to investigate allegations of covert activity “anywhere in the country.”
In his interview with Times columnist Thomas Friedman, Obama said the deal is a “once-in-a-lifetime” opportunity to open a new chapter with Iran while preserving all American options and capabilities in the event that Iran fails to uphold its end of the bargain.
The president acknowledged that Israel is far more vulnerable to Tehran, and he sought to offer assurances that the United States would maintain Israel’s qualitative military edge and come to its aid in the event of attack. The United States, Obama said, “is sending a very clear message to the Iranians and to the entire region that if anybody messes with Israel, America will be there.”
Yet on April 6, Obama indicated there were limits to how far he would go with respect to Israel, rejecting a demand issued by Netanyahu that a final deal require Iran to recognize Israel’s right to exist, calling the notion a “fundamental misjudgment.”
Obama pointed out that that there are “a whole host” of countries in the Middle East that do not recognize Israel.
“The most important thing for Israelis is to know that they can defend themselves, and that they have America — the world’s most powerful country — there to protect them alongside their military and their intelligence operations,” Obama said.
Obama still faces an uphill climb in Congress. Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, has proposed a bill that would grant Congress the right to review the deal. The committee is due to vote on the bill April 14. Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), who is expected to become Senate minority leader when Harry Reid (D-Nev.) retires at the end of the year, said this week that he would support Corker’s legislation.
“I strongly believe Congress should have the right to disapprove any agreement, and I support the Corker bill, which would allow that to occur,” Schumer told Politico on April 6.
American Jewish groups are also skeptical of the accord. The Anti-Defamation League, the American Jewish Committee and the Jewish Council for Public Affairs issued statements following the conclusion of the agreement last week expressing hope for a peaceful diplomatic resolution to the standoff. But the groups also expressed doubt that Iran could be trusted to faithfully execute its end of the bargain.
“Given the nature of the Iranian regime, its pattern of seeking to deceive the international community on its nuclear program, its support for global terror and its regional hegemonic ambitions, its repeated calls for a world without Israel, and its clandestine weapons efforts, AJC is deeply concerned about whether Iran will abide by any undertaking it makes, and if any inspections regime will be sufficient to monitor Iran’s full compliance,” the American Jewish Committee said.
In his April 5 appearance on NBC’s “Meet the Press,” Netanyahu compared the agreement to the 1994 deal between the United States and North Korea. That deal, too, Netanyahu said, was “deemed to be a great breakthrough,” but it did not prevent the country from acquiring a nuclear weapon. Iran, the prime minister said, “is a great deal more dangerous than North Korea.”
California’s Sen. Dianne Feinstein told CNN’s “State of the Union” on April 5 that the agreement does not threaten Israel’s survival and that Netanyahu should “contain himself because he has put out no real alternative.”

Ben Harris

Ben Harris is a JTA correspondent.