Israel Intel Minister: Not pessimistic about Iran deal

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Israeli Intelligence Minister Yuval Steinitz said Tuesday that he believes Iran is “serious” about wanting to make a nuclear deal to save its economy. But he pressed for no let-up in economic pressure unless Iran agrees to terms for a deal that many US national security experts believe could preclude a diplomatic compromise.

“I think they are serious,” Steinitz, speaking to al-Monitor in an interview Tuesday, said of the Iranians. “They want an agreement.”

But the deal they are aiming for, he said, is a “North Korea-type,” under which Iran would freeze, rather than dismantle, major elements of its nuclear program, and offer “better inspections procedures.”

“Nuclear energy without enrichment is the only reasonable compromise,” he said.

Steinitz was in Washington leading an Israeli delegation attending two days of high-level talks with US counterparts as part of the US-Israel Strategic Dialogue. US Deputy Secretary of State Bill Burns and Under Secretary of State Wendy Sherman addressed the gathering Wednesday, the State Department said.

Sherman led the US delegation to P5+1 talks with Iran in Geneva last week in which the Iranians “were saying they are ready to discuss” various elements of a potential nuclear compromise, Steinitz said. Though their proposal was not very detailed, Steinitz said he understood, he said he did not interpret that necessarily as a sign of lack of seriousness.

“I am not pessimistic,” Steinitz said. Iran's economic problems have brought Iranian leaders to realize they have a “dilemma,” he said. “If it’s put to them, ‘Look, the time to maneuver… is over. After ten years of negotiations… enough is enough. You have to make a decision. You want to save the Iranian economy? You have to give up your military nuclear project on all its components. You choose to continue with your military nuclear program? You will destroy the Iranian economy,” or face possible military action.

Steinitz, in the interview, argued against any sort of interim deal that might offer Iran an easing of sanctions in exchange for nuclear concessions. The concern, he said, is that once any sanctions are eased, the entire sanctions regime will crumble, and won’t be able to be ramped back up if Iran backslides on the agreement.

Iran, like other countries, should be allowed to have “civilian nuclear energy,” Steinitz said. “The only request, is that they buy nuclear fuel from [abroad, such as from] Holland. Why should they reject such [a request]?”

[One reason Iran demands access to the full fuel cycle is because it purchased a 10 percent stake in a European uranium enrichment joint venture called Eurodif under the Shah but never received anything from it. Iran says it needs to be self-sufficient in fuel now.]

Iranian claims that “they need to preserve enrichment capacity because it has become already part of their identity…that it would be humiliating…[ are] un-serious,” he said. “That’s the most ridiculous reason someone can offer.”

Asked what legitimacy Israel–a non-signatory to the nuclear Non Proliferation Treaty [NPT], and alleged to have an arsenal of some 200 nuclear weapons–has to dictate the terms of a potential nuclear compromise with Iran, Steinitz, while declining to acknowledge the alleged arsenal, responded obliquely.

“Let’s speak honestly,” he said. “Israel is a very responsible democracy that never threatened to destroy or eliminate any nation or state. Iran speaks about wiping Israel off the map. They really speak about exporting the revolution, and have the real ambition to change the balance of power,” not just regionally, he said, but globally.

Steinitz, 54, was not always a man of the right. A PhD in philosophy, Steinitz was a lecturer at the University of Haifa and a member of Peace Now in the 1980s. He joined the Likud party in 1999, reportedly amid disillusion over the Oslo accords, and was that year elected a member of the Knesset.

Appointed Israel’s Minister of Intelligence and Strategic Affairs earlier this year, Steinitz has frequently served as Israel’s public face on the world stage, warning against international capitulation or naivete about the new, more moderate Iranian administration of President Hassan Rouhani. But sometimes the messaging has sounded a bit shrill, at least to some western ears.

Last week, for instance, as diplomats from the P5+1 met with Iranian negotiators in Geneva, Steinitz went on Israeli radio to warn of potential calamity. “We view the nuclear talks in Geneva with hope and with concern,” Steinitz reportedly told Israel Army Radio Oct. 15. “We see the worrying signs and we don't want Geneva 2013 to turn into Munich 1938.”

Asked Tuesday if he thought such comments were a bit over the top, and could unduly alarm the Israeli public, Steinitz demurred, and said the message had been intended to educate the Israeli audience and not–as it might have sounded–as a warning to diplomats in Geneva.

Calibrating the degree of urgency to bring to such public messaging is “complicated,” he said.

“I don’t close the door on a diplomatic solution,” Steinitz said. “We will endorse a good diplomatic solution. What we are against is a deal under which a few years later, Iran, like North Korea,” could develop a nuclear weapon.

The West has “the upper hand” in the negotiations, he said. “It would be unwise to ease the pressure.”

(Photo: Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (R) and Minister of Intelligence and Strategic Affairs Yuval Steinitz at the Prime Minister's Office in Jerusalem, on October 13, 2013. Credit: Marc Israel Sellem/POOL/Flash90.)zp8497586rq