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Emotional intelligence: 6, bullish obstinacy: 0

Three new reports on the Geneva negotiations with Iran and Lady Ashton’s role are followed by a previous posting (2 articles) on what brought Iran to the negotiating table and Israel’s hostility.

EU and USA – drawn closer by foreign policy; Catherine Ashton, the EU’s High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy and John Kerry, USA Secretary of State, embrace each other at the UN office, Geneva, November 24, 2013

Israel condemns Iran nuclear deal as ‘historic mistake’

Binyamin Netanyahu risks further isolation from key western allies, saying Israel will not bound by Geneva accord

Harriet Sherwood in Jerusalem,
November 24, 2013

Israel swiftly condemned the deal struck in Geneva, with the prime minister, Binyamin Netanyahu, calling it a “historic mistake” and warning that his country would not allow Iran to develop nuclear weapons.

Speaking to ministers at the weekly cabinet meeting on Sunday, Netanyahu said: “Today the world has become a much more dangerous place because the most dangerous regime in the world has taken a significant step toward attaining the most dangerous weapon in the world … Israel is not bound by this agreement.

“The Iranian regime is committed to the destruction of Israel and Israel has the right and the obligation to defend itself, by itself, against any threat. As prime minister of Israel, I would like to make it clear: Israel will not allow Iran to develop a military nuclear capability.”

Netanyahu, who has staked his premiership on the need to defend Israel against the Iranian threat by military action if necessary, faces further isolation from key allies in the west who brokered and endorsed the diplomatic accord with Tehran. The issue has severely strained relations between Israel and the US over recent weeks.

But the prospect of diplomatic alienation did not stop a string of minsters taking to the airwaves to denounce the deal. “If in another five or six years a nuclear suitcase explodes in New York or Madrid, it will be because of the agreement that was signed this morning,” the economy minister, Naftali Bennett, said. “We woke up this morning to a reality in which a bad, a very bad agreement was signed in Geneva.”

The foreign minister, Avigdor Lieberman, said Israel needed to reassess its position in the light of the deal. He said: “A situation assessment is needed. Apparently, we are going to have to make decisions, when all the options are on the table.”

He added: “Obviously when you look at the smiles of the Iranians over there in Geneva, you realise that this is the Iranians’ greatest victory, maybe since the Khomeini revolution, and it doesn’t really change the situation within Iran.”

But some analysts suggested that Israel’s options were limited by the west’s consensus on the need for a diplomatic solution to the Iranian nuclear threat.

“International legitimacy for a unilateral Israeli attack is reduced significantly. The international community endorses this deal, and so Israel will find it really hard to use military power,” said Yoel Guzansky, former head of the Iran desk in the prime minister’s office and now a research fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies in Tel Aviv. The deal, he said, was “not perfect, not the deal we prayed for, but it’s not as bad as some as saying this morning”.

The justice minister, Tzipi Livni, suggested Israel needed to repair its relations with the US and seek tactical alliances elsewhere on Iran.

“After the signing of this agreement, Israel has to look ahead: to act in close co-operation with the United States, to strengthen that strategic alliance, and to create a political front with other countries as well, such as Arab countries that see a nuclear Iran as a threat,” she said

But the prospects of an alliance between Israel and the Gulf states should not be exaggerated, said Guzansky. “The Gulf states don’t like this agreement, but not necessarily for the same reasons [as Israel]. The fact is, Iran will be less isolated – this threatens the Gulf states. So there is a place for co-operation. But any suggestion that Israel could look for other allies is not serious. Israel now needs to repair the damage [with the US],” he said.

Meir Javedanfar, an Iranian-born Israeli analyst, stressed the agreement was interim, but “as an interim deal, it’s a good deal. It halts the more sensitive parts of Iran’s nuclear programme. But we have to see what kind of final deal is reached.”

He added: “The sanctions relief element of the deal is so small it’s almost symbolic. Iran needs far more than that, so it will take the deal seriously and come back to the negotiating table in six months. This is a promising initial step, but there are many challenges ahead.”

Netanyahu: Iran nuclear deal endangers Israel, we will defend ourselves

Most Israeli officials denounce ‘bad’ nuclear deal, Peres says ‘time will tell’; Lieberman: Israel must consider alternative allies; Gal-On gives positive response: Deal slows down fast track to bomb.

By Barak Ravid, Ha’aretz
November 24, 2013

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Sunday that the interim agreement reached hours prior between Iran and six world powers in Geneva over the prior’s nuclear program endangered Israel, calling the deal a “historic mistake.”

“What was achieved last night in Geneva is not a historic agreement; it is a historic mistake,” he said. “Today the world has become a much more dangerous place because the most dangerous regime in the world has taken a significant step toward attaining the most dangerous weapon in the world.”

“This agreement and what it means endanger many countries including, of course, Israel,” he said. “Israel is not bound by this agreement. The Iranian regime is committed to the destruction of Israel and Israel has the right and the obligation to defend itself, by itself, against any threat. As Prime Minister of Israel, I would like to make it clear: Israel will not allow Iran to develop a military nuclear capability.”

In an address to the foreign press later Sunday, Netanyahu added that Israel had the right and obligation to tell its allies when it disagreed. “Israel has a lot of friends and allies but when they are mistaken it is my duty and obligation to say so,” he said.

Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon on Sunday also denounced the deal as a Western “capitulation” to Iran.

“The agreement signed in Geneva is not an achievement for the West, but a capitulation to a charm offensive and fraud by Iran, whose goal is to win time without substantive damage to its military nuclear program,” said Ya’alon. “Due to a preference for short-term considerations and the West’s irresoluteness, the Iranian regime has been given the legitimacy to continue its military nuclear project and continue its worldwide terror activities, while it is no longer internationally isolated and its economy has been strengthened.”

President Shimon Peres gave a more measured response, saying time would tell whether the agreement was effective.

“This is a temporary agreement, not a permanent one,” he said. “We will be able to judge its results based only on the outcome, not on words alone.”

By AP. In this Sunday, Nov. 3, 2013 file photo, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, left, is greeted by Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud Al-Faisal bin Abdulaziz al-Saud, after Kerry arrived in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. In an unexpected consequence of the global diplomacy over Iran, Israel and Gulf Arab states led by Saudi Arabia are boosting back-channel contacts and finding increasing common ground over their mutual dismay with Tehran’s drive to mend ties with the West and reach a nuclear deal. The “strange alliance” – in the words of one former diplomat – highlights how the ripples from Iran are driving some allies apart while pushing foes closer. It also highlights the Sunni world’s distress at the possibility of a bomb in the hands of a Shiite power.  Photo by Jason Reed, Pool, AP

Peres added that while Israel would rather resolve the Iranian nuclear issue through diplomacy than through a possible military strike, failure to achieve this would yield a much “tougher” alternative.

“Like every other country, we also prefer a diplomatic solution over any other solution,” he said. “But I want to recall the words of President Obama: a diplomatic solution is preferable, but if it doesn’t succeed, the alternatives will be a lot worse and a lot tougher.”

Peres also urged the Iranian people to “choose true peace, turn Iran into a responsible country that is not involved in terrorism, doesn’t try to create a nuclear threat, that doesn’t speak coarsely and threateningly about other nations. After all, no one is threatening you, and you won’t be threatened if you don’t threaten others.”

In their initial reactions to the agreement signed earlier Sunday between Iran and the powers, most Israel officials termed the deal a “bad” one.

An official in the Prime Minister’s Office said that the deal allows Iran to continue enriching uranium, leaves Iran in control of all its centrifuges and does not require the heavy water reactor in Arak to be dismantled.

“The economic pressure Iran is under could have led to a much better deal that destroys Iran’s nuclear capabilities,” the official said, adding that the deal “gives Iran exactly what it wanted – a serious lessening of sanctions as well as preserving the most significant parts of its nuclear program.”

Though Israeli officials say the agreement reached in Geneva between Iran and United States, France, Germany, Britain, China and Russia does not go far enough, it is meant to curb Tehran’s nuclear program in exchange for limited sanctions relief.

The United States said the agreement halted progress on Iran’s nuclear program, including construction of the Arak research reactor, which is of special concern for the West as it can yield potential bomb material. It said most of the sanctions would remain in place.

Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman said that Israel would act independently of the deal reached with Iran, adding that all options remain on the table.

“We have to be serious enough to take responsibility for our fate,” he told Israel Radio. “As always, all options are on the table.”

Lieberman called the deal a victory for Iran’s religious leaders.

“Obviously when you look at the smiles of the Iranians over there in Geneva, you realize that this is the Iranians’ greatest victory, maybe since the Khomeini revolution, and it doesn’t really change the situation within Iran,” said Lieberman. Referring to Iran’s supreme religious leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, he said “Khamenei and the Revolutionary Guard are the true rulers, not [Iranian President Hassan] Rohani.”

Lieberman also indicated that Israel would be seeking other allies than the U.S. and would have to start “taking responsibility regardless of the American stance.”

“We have no alternative other than the United States, but Israel must look into new directions in addition to the U.S.,” he said. “We must take responsibility regardless of the stance of the Americans, or of others. We must make our own independent decisions.”

Deputy Defense Minister Danny Danon denounced the agreement as an “excellent deal for Iran and a dangerous one for the world, neutralizing the sanctions instead of the centrifuges. The agreement does not dismantle even a single centrifuge or reactor, but is a critical blow to sanctions.”

Deputy Foreign Minister Zeev Elkin told Army Radio that while the Prime Minister’s Office has been informed of the details of the agreement, other Israeli officials who were waiting to find out the specifics still found it to be a bad deal.

“What we know about the agreement doesn’t change our estimation that this is a bad deal, for a simple reason: Iran’s technological capability is not the same technological capability it had two years ago,” said Elkin. “What the Iranians are purportedly promising to stop under the agreement was a great deal two years ago, but today it’s almost nothing. In effect, what they are getting here is an opportunity to continue enriching uranium at low levels. The bottom line is clear: Iran can continue to make progress. When you lessen sanctions, you’re gassing up Iran’s economy and it will be less eager to reach a final agreement.”

Elkin said the deal has “several tactical mistakes.” He also said that while Israel and the United States have some disagreements on the Iran deal, there is no outright clash.

“The agreement doesn’t improve the situation,” said Elkin. “It freezes the situation.”

Strategic and Intelligence Affairs Minister Yuval Steinitz said Sunday that some changes were added at Israel’s request but that “the agreement was and remains a bad deal that will make it difficult to reach a suitable resolution in the future.”

Over the last few days, Israeli officials recognized that the deal was almost certainly going to go through. They tried to change some of the clauses, and some of their suggestions were implemented.

Saying the deal was based on Iranian deception and Western self-deception, Steinitz said that “despite the disappointment, we will continue to insist on our positions and to work with our friends in the United States and the rest of the world to reach a comprehensive solution that will include the true and full dismantlement of Iran’s military nuclear infrastructure.”

Economy Minister Naftali Bennett, meanwhile, said that Israel was not obligated to adhere to the agreement reached with the Iran, “to a deal that endangers its existence.”

The State of Israel has the right to defend itself and is capable of doing so, Bennett said in an interview with Army Radio, warning that if Iran gets a nuclear bomb, it meant that Saudi Arabia and Syria could also, setting in motion the chance of a fully nuclear Middle East.

“The bad deal that was signed gives Iran exactly what it wanted – a serious lessening of sanctions as well as preserving the most significant parts of its nuclear program,” Bennett added. “If in another five years a suitcase nuke explodes in New York or Madrid, it will be because of the deal that was signed this morning. There’s a long path ahead, and we will continue to act on all levels.”

Meretz Chairwoman Zahava Gal-On delivered the only positive Israeli response so far to the nuclear deal, saying her colleagues’ attack on the deal missed the fact that the agreement was intended to slow down Iran’s fast track to a nuclear bomb.

“Israeli government ministers’ attack on the agreement diverts the deliberations from the fact that the clauses of the deal include the most important goal, which is a dismantling and a setting back of the fast and dangerous track to a bom,” Gal-On said.

“The main sanctions which will be continued to be imposed on Iran, and the IAEA’s continued tightening of supervision, including inspectors’ daily – and not weekly – visits prove that this is not just an American achievement, but also an Israeli achievement,” Gal-On added. ”

“The deal that was reached earlier this morning proves that Iran’s nuclear progran is not just an Israeli problem, as Netanyahu has been trying to sell us, but a problem of the whole Western world. Netanyahu should be focusing on Israel’s urgent problem, and that is to reach a deal with the Palestinians.”

The deal would neutralize Iran’s stockpile of uranium refined to a fissile concentration of 20 percent, which is a close step away from the level needed for weapons, and calls for intrusive UN nuclear inspections, a senior U.S. official said.

Iran has also committed to stop uranium enrichment above a fissile purity of 5 percent, a U.S. fact sheet said.

Refined uranium can be used to fuel nuclear power plants – Iran’s stated goal – but also provide the fissile core of an atomic bomb if refined much further.

Iran nuclear talks: Lady Ashton’s Geneva triumph takes centre stage

Former CND activist brokers diplomatic breakthrough of the decade as years of dogged on-off negotiations finally pay off

By Ian Traynor, Europe editor,
November 24, 2013

When Catherine Ashton started on the daunting task of building the European Union’s first diplomatic machine in late 2009, the Labour peer was met by guffaws of derision.

“Lady Qui?” they sniffed in Paris. In Berlin, they complained that Germany was getting short shrift. Besides, none of her people spoke German. In London, the attitude was “Britain does not want a European foreign policy and she’ll never deliver one. So fine.”

Amid this general climate of contempt, disappointment, and surprise, a senior EU official who went on to play a central role in her diplomacy offered a dissenting voice: “In four years’ time Ashton will be a major figure.”

As dawn broke over Geneva on Sunday, that remark from November 2009, almost four years to the day, looked rather prescient. The former Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament activist had brokered what looks like the biggest nuclear de-escalation of an era, the diplomatic breakthrough of the decade, a problem and a dispute so intractable it could have led to a devastating war engulfing the entire Middle East and beyond.

The partial but significant defusing of the Iranian nuclear question is no doubt fundamentally due to the change of regime in Tehran this summer and the Obama administration’s decision to get serious about talking to Iran for the first time in a generation.

But Ashton’s dogged nurturing of years of on-off negotiations, what is described in Brussels as her “emotional intelligence” in steering and mediating the highly complex talks, paid off handsomely. On Sunday, she found herself in the unaccustomed position of being deluged with compliments.

“I would like to congratulate in particular Catherine Ashton, the high representative/vice-president of the European commission, for this accomplishment, which is a result of her tireless engagement and dedication to the issue over the last four years,” said her boss, Jose Manuel Barroso, president of the European commission.

Herman Van Rompuy, who chairs European summits of national leaders, said: “I commend Ashton for her crucial role – as negotiator and co-chair of the talks. Her dedication and perseverance have been key in brokering this first agreement.”

John Kerry, the US secretary of state, hugged Ashton tightly and paid tribute to her mediation skills as “a persistent and dogged negotiator”. He added: “I’m grateful for her stewardship of the talks.”

Van Rompuy and Ashton got their jobs at the same time as a result of the Lisbon treaty, which created the posts of president of the European council and high representative for foreign and security policy.

Both were obscure figures, seemingly quite unsuited to leadership, strategic vision and policy formation. Which was precisely what Europe’s main national leaders wanted. They did not want a Tony Blair or a David Miliband or forceful German or French politicians strutting the international stage, setting the policy agenda and outshining them.

What they opted for and what they got were two quiet, methodical, effective fixers and mediators wrestling with some of the biggest issues of the age. It fell to Van Rompuy to deal with quarrelling national leaders over the EU’s worst ever crisis – the euro, the sovereign debt and financial turmoil.

Ashton had to build an EU diplomatic service from scratch, creating the EU’s first new institution in a decade, amid some of the most vicious infighting within Brussels and between Brussels and the 28 member states.

Much of the criticism levelled at her was veiled sexism and it hurt. She retreated into low-profile workaholism, crisscrossing the globe, avoiding the media, assiduously and slowly building personal rapports with players such as the Iranians, Hillary Clinton and her Chinese counterpart. In the Balkans, she inaugurated highly personalised diplomacy with the Serbian and Kosovo prime ministers that has also produced a little-noticed, but major breakthrough.

A couple of weeks ago, Serbs, who refuse to recognise a breakaway, independent Kosovo, took part in local Kosovo elections for the first time, tacitly if grudgingly coming to terms with the legitimacy of Kosovo government.

It is quite certain that this would not have happened without Ashton’s endless engagement and mediation between the two sides through dozens of meetings and late-night dinners.

Describing Ashton’s approach to the Iranian negotiations, a former senior EU official said: “You can achieve all sorts of things if you let others take the credit.”

The Balkans required a different tack: “Where she deserves enormous credit is on Serbia/Kosovo where her personal contribution cannot be overestimated.”

By contrast though, EU foreign policy suffered a big blow last week when President Viktor Yanukovych of Ukraine abruptly ditched a strategic pact with Europe to have been sealed with Ashton at an EU summit in Lithuania this week.

In Geneva at the weekend and a fortnight ago, the format was a dizzying array of “bilaterals”, separate meetings between the Iranians and each of the six other countries as well as countless sessions between any two of the six countries. Then there was the odd plenary session with everyone present.

In this complex multi-dimensional diplomacy, the only person almost always present with an overview of everything was Ashton. It fell to her to summarise, cajole, narrow differences, take messages back and forth.

Much of the spadework in earlier negotiations was done by Robert Cooper, the retired British and EU foreign policy strategist and diplomat. These days that role is filled by Helga Schmidt, the German EU diplomat who once headed the office of Joschka Fischer, the former German foreign minister and Greens leader.

The weekend breakthrough is but the first stage, lasting six months, towards a “comprehensive’ settlement of the dispute with Iran. Whether that can be achieved in the 11 months that remain to Ashton in her post is arguable. But she can take a large part of the credit already for operating within the limits of the possible and facilitating a deal that defied all sides for more than a decade, since revelations of Iran’s clandestine 20-year-old nuclear programme exploded in 2002.

In Europe they are queuing up, mainly men, to replace her next year – Radek Sikorski in Warsaw, Carl Bildt in Stockholm, while at the weekend there was talk of Frans Timmermans, the Dutch foreign minister.

Ashton, then with zero foreign policy experience and a politician who has never held elected office, did not know she was getting the job, becoming the highest paid diplomat in the west, until two days before she was named in 2009.

She was surprised. In Geneva at the weekend, it was her turn to surprise.

Iran’s overtures to the West – whether to lure it into easing sanctions (Israel’s view) or to break with its tradition of rhetorical hostility (Iran’s view) – are producing relief, suspicion and uncertainty in various measures. The French government has broken EU ranks by supporting (rhetorically) Israel’s unshifting position – that Iran is seeking to destroy Israel. Two reports.

President Hollande of France meets President Rouhani, Iran at the UN,  September 24th, 2013. He said on November 19th that sanctions on Iran will remain in place as long as France is not convinced that Tehran has “definitively renounced” its alleged nuclear weapons programme – AFP, November 19th. Photo by Craig Ruttle / AP.

It was not sanctions that brought Iran to the table

Tehran suggested strong measures similar to recent proposals in 2005

By Hossein Mousavian, Opinion, Financial Times
November 19, 2013

As Iran meets world powers in Geneva on Wednesday for this month’s second round of talks on its nuclear programme, there is much self-congratulation about the supposed effectiveness of the sanctions after decades of intransigence.

But the idea that it is sanctions that have brought Tehran to the table is wrong. The real cause is the desire of new President Hassan Rouhani to reach a rapprochement with the US, the EU, its neighbours and other world powers, alongside the fact that the US red line has changed from “no enrichment of uranium” to “no nuclear bomb”.

In fact, Tehran has not left the table since the start of talks in 2003, even under Mahmoud Ahmadi-Nejad. While I was a member of the Iranian nuclear negotiating team from 2003 to 2005, the country was not under crippling sanctions. Yet in March 2005 it suggested strong measures similar to recent proposals: first, to ensure transparency at its nuclear sites; and second, on objective guarantees not to divert its nuclear programme towards weaponisation.

Proposals included implementing the International Atomic Energy Agency Additional Protocol enabling on-site inspections; limiting the expansion of the enrichment programme; capping enrichment at 5 per cent, enabling its use for fuel but not weapons; and converting all enriched uranium to fuel rods, ensuring there would be no reprocessing and plutonium separation at the heavy water reactor southwest of Tehran – a process that could facilitate weaponisation. Tehran also suggested rules to guarantee the permanent ban on developing, stockpiling and using nuclear weapons in return for respect for its right to enrich uranium under the nuclear non-proliferation treaty. The proposals are similar to demands François Hollande, the French president, made of Iran on his trip to Israel on November 17.

The talks failed in 2005 as a result of US insistence on preventing Iran from exercising its legitimate rights to enrichment. The west missed the chance to resolve the disagreement and instead imposed sanctions. Contrary to the claims of some US lawmakers and Israeli officials, sanctions only caused a dramatic rise in nuclear capability, as Tehran sought to show it would not respond to pressure. Before, Iran was enriching uranium to below 5 per cent at one site with 3,000 centrifuges and possessed a minute stockpile of enriched uranium. Today, it is enriching to 20 per cent at two sites with 19,000 centrifuges. It has a stockpile of 8,000kg of enriched uranium and more sophisticated centrifuges.

Ha’aretz, November 18th, 2013: An Israeli strike on Iranian nuclear installations would halt Iran’s ability to produce nuclear weapons “for a very long time,” said Yaakov Amidror [above] who stepped down as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s national security adviser last week, in a rare interview with British newspaper the Financial Times.

Amidror said Netanyahu “is ready to take such decisions” but “the situation will be the determining factor for any prime minister. The situation will dictate actions.” He also said the Israeli air force has conducted in recent years “very long-range flights . . . all around the world” as part of preparations for a possible military confrontation with Iran. “From here to Iran, it is 2,000km, and you have to be familiar with such destinations,” Amidror said. “All those who have radar cover of the Middle East know what we are doing.” He added: “We are not the United States of America, of course, and believe it or not they have more capabilities than us. But we have enough to stop the Iranians for a very long time.”

A draft agreement reached between Iran and the six powers (except France) in the first round of the Geneva talks covers all the world powers’ big concerns. France blocked that deal because it was drafted primarily by Iran and the US, to the exclusion of other nations. Furthermore, Israel succeeded in pressing France not to compromise. Israel also campaigned for the US Congress to block the draft and to impose more aggressive sanctions on the grounds that this would force Iran into making more concessions.

The Obama administration is seeking to avoid a war in the region that would jeopardise American lives; Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister, wants to take military action because it is in line with his vision of eliminating the Islamic Republic as a regional power. Mr Obama and Congress should prioritise American lives as the supreme national interest. Detente with Tehran is the short and long-term US interest in the region.

Like Russia, other European countries and China, the Obama administration is optimistic that the world powers and Iran can reach a deal.

Overstressing sanctions and undervaluing the opportunities offered by the Iranians could lead once more to unintended consequences – this time potentially disastrous. Instead, the world powers should grab this opportunity, bring an end to years of negotiations and end up with a realistic, face-saving and peaceful resolution to the nuclear dilemma, opening the door for co-operation on peaceful crisis management in the Middle East.

The writer is a research scholar at Princeton, a former spokesman for Iran’s nuclear negotiators and author of ‘The Iranian Nuclear Crisis’

Israel has much to lose if Iran talks fail

Netanyahu flies in face of international consensus for diplomacy

By Roula Khalaf in Washington, Financial Times
November 19, 2013

It is risky business to try to wreck your closest ally’s diplomatic plans. But Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel’s prime minister, is undaunted, lobbying fast and furiously against a US drive for an interim nuclear deal with Iran.

Over the past week, Israeli officials have been encouraging an all too receptive Congress to turn against the White House and push ahead with proposed new sanctions against the Islamic republic. Circulating what US officials deem wildly exaggerated estimates of the incentives on offer to Iran, Israel argues the Obama administration is about to strike a terrible deal.

One US senator was so enthused with Israeli claims that he accused John Kerry, the US secretary of state who briefed lawmakers, of following a “fairly anti-Israeli” line. The suggestion was that the administration is less reliable than the Jewish state when it comes to information about the agreement – never mind that the deal has not been sealed yet, nor its final details revealed.

EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton with Iran’s foreign minister,  Javad Zarif, arrive at a news conference at the end of the first stage of P5+1 talks with Iran in Geneva, November 10th, 2013. New talks start on November 20th. Phooto by Jason Reed / Reuters.

That Israel should make its voice heard when it comes to a nuclear programme it considers an existential threat is not surprising. A dose of scepticism about the Obama administration’s handling of Middle Eastern matters, which has ranged from inconsistent to shambolic, might also be warranted.

But a concerted attempt to derail an initial agreement to put the brakes on Iran’s rapid nuclear progress, while the fate of the programme is being negotiated, leaves the impression of an Israeli state itching for war and demanding that the US put Israeli interests above those of Americans.

Despite the hawkish sentiment on Iran on Capitol Hill, the American public, like the president, is no mood for war. Neither is there a better alternative to the diplomatic route, which, if it is to succeed, requires holding realistic expectations. This means recognising that concessions by Tehran will have to be met with incentives by the so-called P5-+-1 – the coalition of the five permanent members of the UN Security Council and Germany – which are involved in the negotiations.

Military strikes would no doubt delay Iran’s progress but also drag the Middle East into another war. The knowledge and experience that Iranian scientists have mastered cannot be bombed away and, as President Barack Obama put it last week, Iran might “go out and pursue even more vigorously nuclear weapons in the future”.

The administration appears undeterred, going into a new round of talks beginning in Geneva on Wednesday with the hope of striking the six-month interim deal. If the talks go well, Iran would dispose of its 20-per-cent-enriched uranium and constrain work on the Arak heavy water reactor that could produce weapons-grade plutonium for a bomb. In return, it would receive a modest easing of sanctions, including access to a small portion of its frozen assets.

Israel’s protestations have obscured the point of this agreement – to prevent Iran from using what will be tortuous and lengthy negotiations to buy time while its centrifuges keep spinning. An accord also tests the intentions of the new centrist government in Tehran, and the extent to which it has been given leeway by the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, to find a permanent solution to the nuclear programme.

Jerusalem (AFP) – France will never tolerate nuclear proliferation, President Francois Hollande vowed on Sunday as Israel expressed “grave concern” about a looming deal between world powers and Iran. As the French leader arrived in Israel on his first state visit, the question of how to curb Iran’s nuclear ambitions loomed large over his talks with Israeli President Shimon Peres and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Pres. Hollande also made clear that the peace process was high on his agenda, saying Paris expected “gestures” from Israel over its construction of settlements in order to advance talks with the Palestinians. Photo from joint press conference 17th November.

But as he sought to reassure Israel of France’s absolute determination to disarm Iran, he also made clear that the peace process was high on his agenda, saying Paris expected “gestures” from Israel over its construction of settlements in order to advance talks with the Palestinians. The visit comes three days before the P5+1 group of world powers are to resume talks with Iran in Geneva to eke out a deal for scaling back Tehran’s nuclear programme in exchange for sanctions relief. A previous round of talks ended on November 10 without agreement, with France taking a tougher stance than its Western partners in a move which won glowing praise in Israel.

Even more crucial is the wider political context – and the prospect of a thaw in the US-Iran relations after more than 30 years of enmity. Taboos have been shattered already. Iranian and American officials can meet for hours without so much as a protest from hardliners in Tehran. For the first time, Iranian politicians are debating whether to continue referring to the US as the great Satan.

What is missing from the nuclear debate is that, ultimately, engineering a change in the Islamic regime’s behaviour – and therefore in its perceptions of the threats it faces – is the best guarantee of a nuclear-free Iran.

Israel sees things differently, of course. But its interventions are not only damaging a testy relationship with the White House but also flying in the face of an international consensus that overwhelmingly favours diplomacy. One of its main arguments against a deal is that an easing of pressure on Iran will pave the way for the collapse of the punishing sanctions regime that has forced Iran back to the negotiating table. Yet, the sanctions could be at greater risk if Israel scuttles a nuclear deal. As the blame falls on the US more than Iran, the international support that has been crucial to the sanctions’ effectiveness is likely to be eroded.

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