JERUSALEM (AP) – The long-delayed resumption of nuclear talks with Iran got off to a rocky start with Iran sinking and its negotiating partners openly expressing frustration and pessimism.
After five days of discussions in Vienna ended last week, the United States said Iran did not appear serious. European diplomats accused Iran of reneging on previous promises. Even Russia, which has a stronger relationship with Iran, questioned Iran’s commitment to the process. Israel, an outside observer with an interest in the outcome of the talks, has stepped up its rhetoric and is sending two senior security officials to Washington for consultations.
“I call on all countries negotiating with Iran in Vienna to take a firm stand and make Iran understand that they cannot enrich uranium and negotiate at the same time,” the Prime Minister said on Sunday. Minister Naftali Bennett. “Iran must start paying the price for its violations. “
Perhaps the most encouraging outcome of the talks last week was an agreement to keep talking. When negotiators meet again in the next few days, it might become clearer whether the wide spreads visible last week were a sign of serious posture or crisis.
The negotiations aim to revive the 2015 nuclear deal between Iran and six world powers. The deal, led by President Barack Obama, gave Iran crippling sanctions relief in exchange for restrictions on its nuclear program.
But three years later, President Donald Trump, heavily encouraged by then Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, withdrew from the deal, causing it to fail. Since then, Iran has stepped up its nuclear activities – building up a stockpile of highly enriched uranium that goes well beyond the limits of the agreement.
Iran last week took a tough stance, suggesting that anything discussed in previous diplomacy rounds could be renegotiated. Amid negotiations, UN nuclear watchdog confirmed Iran has started enriching uranium to 20% purity at its Fordo underground facility – a site where enrichment is not authorized under the agreement.
Despite Iran’s claims that its nuclear activities are for peaceful purposes only, continued advances in its atomic program have raised the stakes further.
Last week’s talks in Vienna came after a hiatus of more than five months and were the first in which Iran’s new hard-line government has participated. The United States, no longer a party to the deal, was not in the room and negotiated from a distance through mediators.
A senior US State Department official said over the weekend that negotiators expected Iran to “get serious” in the talks. He said even Russia and China, important trade outlets for Iran that have traditionally taken a softer line, were concerned about the prospects for a deal.
“Each day that passes is a day when we come closer to the conclusion that they don’t have a return in mind” of the agreement, said the official, who requested anonymity to inform reporters of the American assessment.
European negotiators have also expressed their frustration. In a joint statement, senior German, British and French diplomats said Iran had “stepped up its nuclear program” and “backed down on diplomatic progress”.
“It is not known how these new gaps can be filled in a realistic timeframe on the basis of Iranian plans,” they said.
Mikhail Ulyanov, a senior Russian diplomat in Vienna, said Iran had proposed a “radical overhaul” of previous agreements.
“Technically, amendments are always possible,” he said. “However, it is desirable that such amendments (…) do not turn into an obstacle to progress. “
Iran’s foreign ministry on Sunday released a nine-page document that appeared to step back from its tough positions.
“The other parties need only show political determination and express their willingness to take the necessary practical measures,” the document said. “Then, avenues will be opened for the conclusion of an agreement and the settlement of disputes. “
But the document gives few details of what Iran might have in mind.
This is unlikely to satisfy Israel, which has reverted to its role as a possible spoiler.
Israel views Iran as its greatest enemy and has strongly opposed the 2015 deal.
He says he 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 the negotiations must be accompanied by a “credible” military threat to ensure Iran does not delay indefinitely.
Bennett said Israel was using the time between rounds to persuade the Americans to “use a different toolbox” against Iran’s nuclear program, without giving details.
Mossad’s head of Israeli intelligence, David Barnea, was in Washington on Sunday, and Israeli Defense Minister Benny Gantz, a former military chief, was there later this week.
Leading Israeli President Isaac Herzog delivered an unusually direct message on Sunday as he welcomed new US Ambassador to Israel Thomas Nides.
“If the international community does not take a strong stand on this issue, Israel will. Israel will protect itself, ”Herzog said.
Despite Israel’s support for Trump’s 2018 withdrawal, important voices in the country now say in retrospect that this decision was a mistake.
Former Prime Minister Ehud Barak wrote in the Yediot Ahronot daily on Sunday that the withdrawal “was an illusory decision that allowed the Iranians to move quickly in the direction of becoming a nuclear-threshold state.”
Barak, who allegedly favored a military strike when he was Netanyahu’s defense minister at the start of the last decade, said Netanyahu, who is now Israel’s opposition leader, had not worked out with the States- United a “plan B in the form of military surgery.” ”
Over the past decade, Iran has greatly complicated any military operation by dispersing its nuclear sites and hiding certain deep basements. Israeli officials insist that military action is still possible.
Yoel Guzansky, senior researcher and Iranian expert at the Israel Institute for National Security Studies, said Israeli threats should be taken seriously, especially in light of questions about the willingness of the United States to use strength in the region.
“I think the United States does not understand our red lines,” he said. “They think we’re bluffing, but we’re not. “
Over the weekend, Iran said it tested a surface-to-air missile defense system near its Natanz nuclear facility. Late on Saturday, people leaving nearby saw a light in the sky and heard a loud explosion.
“Any threat from the enemies will receive a decisive and firm response,” state television said, quoting Lt. Cmdr. Ali Moazeni as saying.
Associated Press editors Jon Gambrell in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, and Nasser Karimi in Tehran, Iran, contributed reporting.