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As Iran deal emerges, so do divisions between US, Israel

Leaders clash on nuclear program

Benjamin Netanyahu sets a  high bar of preventing Iran from gaining the capability to build a nuclear weapon.

Debbie Hill/Reuters Pool

Benjamin Netanyahu sets a high bar of preventing Iran from gaining the capability to build a nuclear weapon.

WASHINGTON — To the Israeli government, the preliminary deal with Iran that the Obama administration is trying to seal this week is a giveaway to a government that has spent two decades building a vast nuclear program. It enshrines the status quo — at a time when the Iranians are within reach of the technical capability to build a bomb — and rewards some unproven leaders with cash and sanctions relief.

President Obama and his top aides see the same draft deal in sharply different terms. To them, it is a first effort to freeze the Iranian program, to buy some time to negotiate a more ambitious deal, and to stop two separate methods of developing a bomb, one involving uranium, the other plutonium. In return, the Iranians get modest relief from sanctions but not what they desperately desire: the ability to again sell oil around the world. That would come only later, as part of a final agreement that would require the Iranians to dismantle much of their nuclear infrastructure.

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Those two divergent views have deeply politicized the question of whether the accord that the United States and its European allies are considering should be termed a good deal or a bad one. It is a fundamental disagreement that has left in tatters whatever halfhearted efforts Obama and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel have made over the past five years to argue that they are on the same page when it comes to Iran.

Every time Obama and his secretary of state, John Kerry, ask for a little time and space to test the new Iranian leadership’s claims that it is ready for a new approach, and for compromise, Netanyahu responds that the proposed agreement is “a very bad deal,” “extremely dangerous,” “a mistake of historic proportions” or, as he said in a CNN interview Sunday, “an exceedingly bad deal.”

And he has often raised the specter of an Israeli strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities even if a deal is signed, something the Obama administration believes would split apart the global coalition it has built to squeeze Iran.

Yet the disagreement is about far more than negotiating tactics. In interviews, both US and Israeli officials concede that the terms of the preliminary accord reflect a difference in fundamental goals. Obama speaks often of his determination to prevent Iran from ever obtaining a nuclear weapon; Netanyahu sets a far higher bar of preventing Iran from gaining the capability to ever build one.

Netanyahu “will be satisfied with nothing less than the dismantlement of every scrap of the Iranian nuclear infrastructure,” one administration strategist said the other day. “We’d love that, too — but there’s no way that’s going to happen at this point in the negotiation. And for us, the goal is to make sure that we are putting limits and constraints on the program and ensuring that if the Iranians decided to race for a bomb, we would know in time to react.”

The White House, alarmed by Netanyahu’s outspoken opposition and by an effort in Congress to enact a new round of sanctions on Iran that is supported by Israel, is trying to shore up its own arguments. Obama is bringing the leaders and ranking members of the Senate foreign relations, intelligence, armed services, and banking committees to the White House on Tuesday to make the case that if Iran is going to be coaxed into a deal, the country’s new leaders must go home with some modest appetizer of sanctions relief — as an indication that the United States is ready to deal.

Netanyahu’s camp and some Israeli analysts say the Israeli leader’s unstinting opposition is both substantive and political. He truly believes that a deal lifting sanctions without fully halting enrichment and dismantling centrifuges is a terrible mistake. But he has also staked his premiership on fighting the Iranian nuclear threat, and the change in approach by his closest allies leaves him a bit rudderless.

“The situation has changed and everybody else except Israel understands that a deal means to be more flexible,” said Giora Eiland, a senior research fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies in Tel Aviv.

For his part, Kerry has questioned publicly whether Netanyahu is aware of all the details in the agreement. And in some cases, Israeli officials appear to have distorted what Iran would get in return.

At a briefing with international journalists on Wednesday, Yuval Steinitz, Israel’s minister of strategic affairs, said the deal would directly erase $15 billion to $20 billion of what he estimated was the $100 billion the current sanctions are costing Iran annually and lead to relief of up to $40 billion because of indirect effects.

The State Department immediately debunked those numbers, noting the sanctions relief would be for only six months, not a year. And the United States put the figure at less than $10 billion.

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