After years of working hard to stay on the same page on the Iranian nuclear issue, the United States and Israel could be nearing their moment of truth with each other.
While a deal is not yet in hand, American officials are cautiously optimistic that Iran may have turned an important corner and is now willing to seriously discuss a nuclear agreement. The possibility of this deal coming to fruition looks likely to increase frictions between the two allies as talks continue between Iran and its international interlocutors.
Iranian officials’ most recent talks were held on May 21 in Tehran with the head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, and in Baghdad on May 23 with delegates from six nations, including the United States, that are charged with negotiating a nuclear agreement with Iran. In Baghdad, for the first time since negotiations began, the two sides exchanged suggestions dealing directly with Iran’s nuclear program and agreed to discuss measures aimed at building confidence between the parties.
Israel’s harsh reaction, just prior to these talks, to the prospect of a deal based on the compromise offers being discussed made clear the Netanyahu government’s dissatisfaction with these offers. In particular, the Israeli stance highlighted differences between Jerusalem and Washington on the key issue of allowing Iran to continue to enrich uranium on its own soil under any future agreement.
“Israel still demands a complete stop to enrichment activities in Iran,” Defense Minister Ehud Barak said in remarks made May 22 at the Defense Ministry in Tel Aviv. He argued that Iran was trying to fool the international community by appearing to be willing to compromise without actually stopping all enrichment activity.
The Obama administration has avoided stating its own specific positions. America’s broad view remains that a stringently enforced deal could allow Iran to pursue civilian nuclear capabilities as long as there is a verifiable way to ensure that it does not serve as a stepping stone to a military program. Under the 1970 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, to which Iran is a signatory, countries party to the treaty are allowed, under appropriate safeguards, to enrich uranium for civilian nuclear power use.
“The administration deliberately has not sought to be too definitive when it comes to red lines,” said Dennis Ross, a former top White House adviser on Iran and now counselor at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. Ross described this U.S. position as “wise,” explaining that avoiding explicit red lines allows more flexibility in negotiations with Iran.
Still, press reports and leaks from officials involved in the negotiations have outlined the contours of an American-supported offer that would assist Iran in building its civilian nuclear program in return for halting enrichment in its Fordow facility, where uranium is currently being enriched to a level of 20%. From that level, experts consider it a small leap technically to enrich uranium to the level required for nuclear bombs.
The press reports have indicated that the United States and its partners in the group of six nations conducting the negotiation (Russia, China, Britain, France and Germany) will allow Iran to enrich uranium to a lower level of 3.5%. The agreement they envision would include strict monitoring by the International Atomic Energy Agency and IAEA access to all nuclear facilities.