Israel Urges Hard Line Against Iran at Nuclear Talks

TEL AVIV, Israel (AP) -- Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett on Sunday urged world powers to take a hard line against Iran in negotiations aimed at reviving an international nuclear deal, as his top defense and intelligence officials headed to Washington to discuss the flailing talks.

Israel has been watching with concern as world powers sit down with Iran in Vienna in hopes of restoring the tattered 2015 deal. Iran last week struck a hard line as talks resumed, suggesting everything discussed in previous rounds of diplomacy could be renegotiated. Continued Iranian advances in its atomic program have further raised the stakes.

The original deal, spearheaded by then-President Barack Obama, gave Iran much-needed relief from crippling economic sanctions in exchange for curbs on its nuclear activities. But then-President Donald Trump, with strong encouragement from Israel, withdrew from the deal in 2018, causing it to unravel.

Last week's talks in Vienna resumed after a more than five-month hiatus and were the first in which Iran's new hard-line government participated.

European and American negotiators expressed disappointment with Iran's positions and questioned whether the talks would succeed.

Israel has long opposed the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran, known as the JCPOA, saying it didn't go far enough to halt the country's nuclear program and doesn't address what it sees as hostile Iranian military activity across the region.

Prominent voices in Israel are now indicating the U.S. withdrawal, especially without a contingency plan for Iran's continuously developing nuclear plan, was a blunder. But Israel's new government has maintained a similar position to that of former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu -- rejecting a return to the original deal and calling for diplomacy to be accompanied by military pressure on Iran.

"I call on every country negotiating with Iran in Vienna to take a strong line and make it clear to Iran that they cannot enrich uranium and negotiate at the same time," Bennett told his Cabinet on Sunday. "Iran must begin to pay a price for its violations."

After the deal's collapse, Iran stepped up its nuclear activities. Iran now enriches small amounts of uranium up to 60% purity -- a short step from weapons-grade levels of 90%. Iran also spins advanced centrifuges barred by the accord, and its uranium stockpile now far exceeds the accord's limits.

For now, Iran is showing no signs of backing down. Its chief negotiator, Deputy Foreign Minister Ali Bagheri Kani, suggested over the weekend that Iran plans to give a third list of demands to his counterparts. These would include proposed reparations after two pages worth of demands last week.

"Any sanctions in violation and not consistent with the (deal) should be removed immediately," Bagheri Kani told Al-Jazeera. "All the sanctions which have been imposed or re-imposed under the so-called maximum pressure campaign of the United States should be removed immediately."

While Iran's new hard-line President Ebrahim Raisi campaigned on getting sanctions lifted, there's a sense that his negotiators now are waging their own maximum-pressure campaign.

Last week, the U.N.'s nuclear watchdog confirmed that Iran has begun enriching uranium up to 20% purity at its underground facility at Fordo – a site the deal banned from conducting any enrichment.

And over the weekend, Iran said it had tested a surface-to-air missile defense system near its Natanz nuclear facility. Late Saturday, people leaving nearby saw a light in the sky and heard a loud explosion.

"Any threat from the enemies will be met with a decisive and firm response," state TV quoted Lt. Cmdr. Ali Moazeni as saying.

President Joe Biden has said America is willing to re-enter the deal, though the U.S. is not a direct participant in the latest round of talks due to Washington's withdrawal. Instead, U.S. negotiators were in a nearby location and briefed by the other participants -- including three European powers, China and Russia.

Although Israel is not a party to the negotiations, it has made a point of keeping up lines of communication with its American and European allies during the talks, which are set to resume this week.

Israeli spy chief David Barnea headed to Washington late Saturday on a previously unannounced trip and Defense Minister Benny Gantz leaves Wednesday for meetings with his U.S. counterpart Lloyd Austin and Secretary of State Antony Blinken. Foreign Minister Yair Lapid was in London and Paris last week to discuss the talks with Israel's European allies.

Bennett said Israel was using the time between rounds to convince the Americans to "use a different toolkit" against Iran's nuclear program, without elaborating. Israel and the U.S. are widely believed to have carried out covert operations against Iranian nuclear personnel and infrastructure in a bid to sabotage the program.

The current Israeli government objects to a return to the 2015 deal, urging instead an accord that addresses other Iranian military behavior, such as its missile program and support for anti-Israel militant groups like Lebanon's Hezbollah. Israel also supports a "credible" military threat against Iran as leverage.

A senior State Department official said negotiators expected Iran to "show seriousness" at the talks. He said that even Russia and China, important trading outlets for Iran which have traditionally taken a softer line in their relations with the country, left the talks last week concerned about the prospects for a deal.

"Every day that goes by is a day where we come closer to the conclusion that they don't have in mind a return to the JCPOA in short order," said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity to brief reporters on the U.S. assessment. He said Iran could be using the talks as a cover for continuing to build up the nuclear program, which it could then use as leverage.

European negotiators also expressed frustration with the Iranians. Senior diplomats from Germany, Britain and France said Iran has "fast-forwarded its nuclear program" and "backtracked on diplomatic progress."

"Unclear how these new gaps can be closed in a realistic timeframe on the basis of Iranian drafts," they said.

Iran maintains its atomic program is peaceful. However, U.S. intelligence agencies and international inspectors say Iran had an organized nuclear weapons program up until 2003. Nonproliferation experts fear any brinkmanship could push Iran toward even more extreme measures to try to force the West to lift sanctions.