Israeli PM says not opposed to ‘good’ nuclear deal with Iran

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Naftali Bennett

Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, rear and wearing a face mask, attends during a cabinet meeting at the prime minister’s office in Jerusalem, Israel, Sunday, Dec. 19, 2021. (Abir Sultan/Pool Photo via AP)

TEL AVIV, Israel (AP) — Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett said Tuesday he is not opposed to a “good” nuclear deal between Iran and world powers, but voiced skepticism that such an outcome would emerge from the current negotiations.

Bennett spoke a day after negotiators from Iran and five world powers resumed talks in Vienna on restoring Tehran’s tattered 2015 nuclear deal. He reiterated that Israel was not bound by any accord, leaving it room to maneuver militarily.

“At the end of the day, of course there can be a good deal,” Bennett told Israeli Army Radio. “Is that, at the moment, under the current dynamic, expected to happen? No, because a much harder stance is needed.”

Meanwhile, negotiators from the three western European countries negotiating with Iran to revive the nuclear deal said they’re not setting any “artificial deadline” for an agreement but stressed anew that there are “weeks, not months” in which to reach one.

Bennett also denied claims by former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that he had agreed to a policy of “no surprises” with Washington, meaning that it would be frank about its military intentions regarding Iran with its prime ally and thus be potentially hobbled.

“Israel will always maintain its right to act and will defend itself by itself,” he said.

Israel has watched with concern as European nations, Russia and China have restarted talks with Iran in recent weeks. Tehran has taken a hard stance in the negotiations, suggesting everything discussed in previous rounds of diplomacy could be renegotiated and demanding sanctions relief even as it ramps up its nuclear program.

Bennett has urged negotiators to tow a firmer line against Iran. Israel is not a party to the talks but has engaged in a blitz of diplomacy on the sidelines in an attempt to sway allies to put more pressure on Iran to rein in its nuclear program.

In Tehran, Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian told state TV that a “quick and proper agreement in the near future” is possible if the other parties to the negotiations demonstrate “seriousness alongside goodwill.”

Tehran’s landmark 2015 accord granted Iran sanctions relief in exchange for curbs on its nuclear program. But in 2018, then-President Donald Trump withdrew America from the deal and imposed sweeping sanctions on Iran. The other signatories have struggled to keep the agreement alive.

The latest round of talks in Vienna, the eighth, opened Monday, 10 days after negotiations were adjourned for the Iranian negotiator to return home for consultations. The previous round, the first after a more than five-month gap caused by the arrival of a new hard-line government in Iran, was marked by tensions over new Iranian demands.

Iran says its nuclear activities are for peaceful purposes. Israel considers Iran to be its greatest enemy and it strongly opposed the 2015 deal.

It says it wants an improved deal that places tighter restrictions on Iran’s nuclear program and addresses Iran’s long-range missile program and its support for hostile proxies along Israel’s borders.

Israel also says that the negotiations must be accompanied by a “credible” military threat to ensure that Iran does not delay indefinitely.

Negotiators from Britain, France and Germany said Tuesday they are not setting an “artificial” deadline for talks but stressed that “this negotiation is urgent.”

“We are clear that we are nearing the point where Iran’s escalation of its nuclear program will have completely hollowed out” the agreement, they added. “That means we have weeks, not months, to conclude a deal before the (deal’s) core non-proliferation benefits are lost.”

The negotiators said they “take note” of comments by the head of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran that the Islamic Republic will not enrich beyond 60% purity.

“However, it is still the case that enrichment at 60% is unprecedented for a state without nuclear weapons,” they said. “Its increasing 60% stockpile is bringing Iran significantly closer to having fissile material which could be used for nuclear weapons.”

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Associated Press writers Geir Moulson in Berlin and Nasser Karimi in Tehran, Iran contributed.

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