Netanyahu Complicates Obama’s Iran Effort

Netanyahu warns that Tehran is playing Obama for a fool

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Charles Dharapak / Associated Press

President Barack Obama shakes hands with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during their meeting in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington on Sept. 30, 2013

As the international community nears a possible interim nuclear deal with Iran that would lay the groundwork for a larger breakthrough agreement, Barack Obama’s biggest diplomatic challenge may come not from the Iranians, but from the Israelis, whose prime minister is warning that Tehran is about to make a sucker out of America.

Details of a possible “first-step” deal were sketchy as John Kerry arrived in Geneva to join international talks with Iran Friday, but Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanhayu issued an angry protest against any agreement that would merely slow Iran’s nuclear program in return for an easing of international sanctions. Netanyahu believes Iran should halt or even reverse its program for any sanctions relief.

“Israel totally opposes these proposals,” Netanyahu told an audience of Jewish leaders in Israel Thursday, shortly after a two-hour meeting with Secretary of State John Kerry. “I believe that adopting them is a mistake of historic proportions. They must be rejected outright.”

“I call on Secretary Kerry not to be in a hurry to sign, to wait and reconsider,” he added.

Netanyahu fears—as do some influential members of Congress—that any so-called “first step” agreement without major Iranian concessions is dangerous. One of his concerns, says Blaise Misztal, an Iran expert with the Bipartisan Policy Center, is that an interim deal “will become the final deal. If the US lifts enough sanctions now to give Iran some breathing room, will it still be motivated to negotiate a final deal? And if, six months from now, no final deal has been reached what happens? Will there still be appetite for tougher sanctions or even military action?”

To Netanyahu, Iran should receive no reward until it has halted or even dismantled its nuclear program—particularly given that the international sanctions took arduous effort to impose and, in his view, could unravel like a knit sweater once the first thread is tugged.

“[D]on’t agree to a partial deal,” Netanyahu warned in his October address to the United Nations general assembly . “A partial deal would lift international sanctions that have taken years to put in place in exchange for cosmetic concessions that will take only weeks for Iran to reverse.”

Netanyahu also severely doubts whether Iran can be trusted over the long run. Iran’s new president, Hassan Rouhani, is “a wolf in sheep’s clothing,” he said in October, adding: “This is a ruse, this is a ploy…. Rouhani thinks he can have his yellowcake and eat it too.”

He’s not the only one with those concerns. “The danger is that [a relaxation] of sanctions would be hard to reverse,” says James Jeffrey, a former ambassador and deputy national security advisor in the Bush White House. “Iran could cheat at least on the margins despite any agreement, and even if truly it ‘freezes’ [its nuclear program] it still will be close to a breakout mode,” enabling it to sprint to the production of a bomb before the international community can respond.

It’s not clear whether Netanyahu’s angry response might be giving Obama administration pause about advancing towards a deal it appears eager to strike. “Any critique of the deal is premature,” a White House spokesman said Thursday. But as a larger, long-term deal between the U.S. and Iran comes into clearer focus, it seems that Netanyahu is just getting started.