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Kerry reassures Israel on Iran, but divisions remain

John Kerry is on a visit to Europe focused on Middle East diplomacy, most notably US efforts toward a peace conference on the Syrian conflict.

John Kerry is on a visit to Europe focused on Middle East diplomacy, most notably US efforts toward a peace conference on the Syrian conflict.

ROME — Secretary of State John Kerry, facing new frictions with America’s most important Middle East allies over its policies in the region, sought to assure Israel on Wednesday that the United States would insist on strict constraints on Iran’s nuclear program in its reinvigorated negotiations with Tehran.

Before meeting with the Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, at the residence of the US ambassador here, Kerry said the Obama administration welcomed the change of tone by Iran but “words are no substitute for action.”

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Kerry is on the final leg of a three-day visit to European capitals focused on Middle East diplomacy, most notably US efforts to help start a peace conference on the Syrian conflict. But the trip has been punctuated by criticism directed at the United States from its main strategic allies, Saudi Arabia and Israel, and Kerry has been making an effort to assuage them both.

The Saudis, who are strong supporters of the Syrian insurgency, have been particularly upset over what they view as the Obama administration’s lack of resolve in acting against the Syrian president, Bashar Assad, who is now in some ways stronger politically than he was a year ago. Last week the Saudis rejected taking a seat on the UN Security Council in part to express their displeasure.

They have also voiced alarm over the Obama administration’s steps toward rapprochement with Iran, Saudi Arabia’s main rival in the Middle East, and are fearful that the United States could make compromises in negotiations for a deal over Iran’s disputed nuclear program.

The Israelis are even more alarmed at the possibility that the United States might be too pliant in trying to pursue a compromise with Iran. Netanyahu has called Iran’s nuclear program a guise for weapons development and the most serious security threat facing his country.

Kerry’s public statements before his meeting with Netanyahu were focused largely on reassuring the Israelis.

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“No deal is better than a bad deal,” Kerry said, a phrase that US officials have frequently used in recent weeks to try to reassure lawmakers in the United States as well as Israel and Persian Gulf states that the White House will not make risky concessions.

But Netanyahu listed a range of steps that Israel says Iran needs to take to demonstrate that it is not developing nuclear weapons, steps that appeared to go well beyond a compromise that the United States and other world powers are prepared to explore with Tehran, which insists its nuclear program is for civilian use only. The United States and other world powers are scheduled to resume talks with Iran in Geneva on Nov. 7.

Netanyahu, in a joint appearance with Kerry, said Iran must get rid of all of its fissile material and should not be allowed to have any centrifuges to enrich uranium. Iran should also close its underground nuclear facilities and abandon its construction of a heavy-water plant that would produce plutonium, Netanyahu added.

Having staked out broad demands on the Iranian nuclear program, Netanyahu argued that the international sanctions should not be eased in return for a “partial deal.”

Negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians were also a major subject on Kerry and Netanyahu’s agenda, though not one they were prepared to discuss publicly in detail.

Trying to convey the impression that there is momentum in those talks, Kerry said Israeli and Palestinian negotiators had met 13 times and “are meeting even now.” Martin S. Indyk, Kerry’s special envoy for those talks, is in Jerusalem to facilitate the discussions, the secretary of state emphasized.

Despite the multiple meetings, it is not apparent what, if any, headway has been made. When the talks began in July, Kerry said the goal was to complete a comprehensive Middle East peace agreement in nine months, and a third of that time has elapsed.

Kerry has been trying to move the talks along; he met recently in London with Mahmoud Abbas, the president of the Palestinian Authority, and has had frequent conversations with Netanyahu. Kerry has set aside the entire afternoon and evening for his discussions here with Netanyahu.

On Monday in Paris, Kerry met with senior diplomats from the Arab League to maintain Arab support for the talks.

In an apparent effort to influence Israeli public opinion, Kerry noted on Monday that Prince Saud al-Faisal of Saudi Arabia had endorsed the concept of Middle East peace, one in which Israel would have normal relations with all Arab and Muslim nations.

But Qatar’s foreign minister, Khalid bin Mohamed al-Attiyah, suggested in a joint appearance with Kerry on Monday that the United States needed to put more pressure on Israel and play more of an active role in suggesting compromises. Attiyah said “actual” US participation in the negotiations was needed.

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