U.S. official in Israel to discuss Mideast nuclear arms ban

A senior U.S. official is in Israel to discuss the possibility of a compromise that would keep alive the idea of someday banning nuclear and other weapons of mass destruction in the Middle East, U.S. officials and U.N. diplomats said on Thursday.

Friday is the final day of a month-long review conference on the 1970 nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) at United Nations headquarters in New York. The conference has bogged down on several issues, above all the failure to convene a planned 2012 conference on a Middle East weapons of mass destruction (WMD) ban.

Without agreement on the Middle East issue, diplomats said treaty signatories might fail to agree approve final outcome document at the conference.

Last month, Egypt, backed by other Arab and non-aligned states, proposed that U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon convene a regional conference on banning WMD as called for at the 2010 NPT review meeting, with or without Israel's participation. Washington and Israel oppose the idea.

The United States has been trying to come up with a compromise that satisfies the Arabs but does not alienate Israel, diplomats said.

A State Department official said on condition of anonymity that Assistant Secretary of State Tom Countryman was currently in Israel to discuss the WMD-free zone and other issues.

“Both the United States and Israel support the creation of a WMD-free zone in the Middle East,” said Kurtis Cooper, a spokesman for the U.S. mission to the United Nations. “We are working closely with our Israeli partners to advance our mutual interests, including preserving the NPT.”

Israel neither confirms nor denies the widespread assumption that it controls the Middle East's only nuclear arsenal. Israel, which has never joined the NPT, agreed to take part in the review conference as an observer, ending a 20-year absence.

Diplomats were skeptical about Countryman's prospects for success.

The call for a 2012 conference on a regional WMD ban, approved at the 2010 NPT review meeting, infuriated Israel. But diplomats said Israel eventually agreed to attend planning meetings. The planned 2012 conference never took place, which annoyed Egypt and other Arab states.

Egypt's latest proposals, Western diplomats say, are intended to focus attention on Israel. Washington and Israel say Iran's nuclear program is the real regional threat.

Iran says its program is peaceful. It is currently negotiating with world powers to curb it in exchange for lifting sanctions.

The Jewish state has said it would consider joining the NPT only once at peace with its Arab neighbors and Iran.

Eyeing Arab ties, Israel to observe nuclear pact meeting

Israel will take part as an observer in a major nuclear non-proliferation conference that opens at the United Nations on Monday, ending a 20-year absence in hope of fostering dialogue with Arab states, a senior Israeli official said.

Assumed to have the Middle East's sole nuclear arsenal, and having never joined the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, Israel has stayed away from gatherings of NPT signatories since 1995 in protest at resolutions it regarded as biased against it.

In a position laid out by then Foreign Minister Shimon Peres in 1995, Israel has said it would consider submitting to international nuclear inspections and controls under the NPT only once at peace with the Arabs and Iran. Those countries want Israel curbed first.

With Middle East upheaval and the disputed Iranian nuclear program often pitting Tehran-aligned Shi'ite Muslims against Sunni Arabs, a senior Israeli official saw in the April 27-May 22 NPT review conference a chance to stake out common causes.

Israel deems Iran its top threat. The Islamic Republic has said it seeks only nuclear energy, not bombs, from uranium enrichment. Six global powers are negotiating a comprehensive nuclear deal with Iran – a process Israel has denounced, fearing it will not restrain Tehran's atomic activities sufficiently.

“We think that this is the time for all moderate countries to sit and discuss the problems that everyone is facing in the region,” the Israeli official, who requested anonymity given the sensitivity of the subject, told Reuters on Sunday.

“I see this, coming as an observer to the conference now, as trying to demonstrate our good faith in terms of having such a conversation. We need direct negotiations between the regional parties, a regional security conversation, a conversation based on consensus. This (attendance at the NPT conference) is meant not to change our policy. It's meant to emphasize our policy.”

The question of sequencing – if peace should precede disarmament – has helped mire negotiations on the creation of a Middle East free of weapons of mass destruction. An Egyptian plan for an international meeting laying the groundwork for such a deal was agreed at the last NPT review conference, in 2010.

Western diplomats at the U.N. say that Egypt is unlikely to take as aggressive a stance against Israel now as it has at past NPT meetings, and that Israel and Arab nations worried about the Iran nuclear deal are united for the time being by a common fear that the United States might concede too much to Tehran in the talks.

The Israeli official doubted the deadlock would be resolved at the pending NPT conference – anticipating, instead, an “Arab proposal that would not adopt the position of direct engagement” with Israel.

Still, the official described the NPT conference as a chance to build on opposition Israel shared with some Arab countries to the April 2 outline nuclear deal between world powers and Iran.

The conference “doesn't contradict a broader possible outreach,” the official said. Without naming specific countries, the official said some Arabs appeared less attentive to Israel's non-NPT status as they were “too busy with bigger problems”.

Among these might be Egypt, which had long been vocally opposed to Israel's nuclear opacity but has recently closed ranks with its neighbor against common Islamist adversaries.

“Our initiative for a Middle East free of non-conventional weapons is a principle. It will not change. But nothing is against Israel itself. It's for everyone – Iran, Israel, everyone,” an Egyptian official said on condition on anonymity.

“Will we go and pressure Israel (at the conference)? I don't think so. I don't think the pressure will be intolerable.”

The Iranian deal: Accept an imperfect deal, then make it better

In “King Lear,” William Shakespeare cautioned against “striving to better, oft we mar what’s well.” French philosopher Voltaire wrote that “perfect is the enemy of the good.” What each of these maxims tells us is that efficiency is a worthy objective. In striving to reach 100 percent perfection, though, we become less efficient than if we were to tolerate a lesser, imperfect threshold that gives us most of what we seek. Nowhere does this lesson deserve more consideration than in the negotiations between the P5+1 and Iran over the latter’s nuclear program. The framework agreed upon by the Islamic Republic of Iran and the United States last week affords a great opportunity to question if we should strive for that “perfect” deal. But before we do, let’s make several facts clear.

[ANOTHER TAKE: Cause for skepticism, concern and disappointment]

First, the deal that was proposed is far from perfect. Not only does it contain ambiguities that compromise its likelihood of success, but that very success also hinges upon trusting a regime that has failed to demonstrate it deserves to be trusted. The leaders of the Islamic Republic, from those we can identify to those whose machinations take place in the shadows, have not acted in good faith from the moment the world first learned of Iran’s secret nuclear development program, one that was operating in violation of the safeguards of Articles II and III of the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT).

Second, for as much as Iran has offered assurances that it seeks to comply with international laws pertaining to its nuclear program, and that it is eager to rejoin the international community upon the lifting of sanctions against it, the Islamic Republic remains the major state sponsor of terrorism in the Middle East, if not beyond. And it has pledged to continue this support irrespective of any nuclear deal.

Third, Iran’s leadership throughout the negotiations has maintained its apocalyptic anti-Israel rhetoric, threatening to back its words with deeds against the Jewish state it refuses to even identify by name, let alone recognize.

Any deal that would address two of the three issues above would be worth considering; to satisfy all three would be perfect; what we were presented with last week, at best, pays lip service to only one. Nevertheless, it remains a deal that can be made to work and must be given a chance to do so. 

Despite Ali Khamenei’s public pronouncements that Iran is not seeking to build a nuclear weapon, the regime under his leadership operated a nuclear program in secret, even though Iran has the “inalienable right” to dabble in nuclear energy for “peaceful purposes” under the NPT. If nothing else, this reveals that Iran is committed to continuing its nuclear program no matter what. The question remains whether that program is in pursuit of a weapon or to reach the threshold of being able to produce a weapon. Whatever its purpose, absent any framework for intrusive inspections and strict monitoring, we will not know. Without this deal, Iran can continue to develop in secret, as it has for many years; with this deal, it becomes materially more difficult to do so.

Can Iran conduct a covert development program even with the strict inspections stipulated in the deal? Indeed, that is a possibility. Yet any such program would be extremely difficult not because nuclear inspectors will be everywhere and anywhere, but because the nuclear “supply chain,” as President Barack Obama describes it, will be disrupted. We cannot guarantee that the Iranians won’t open a secret underground facility somewhere in the desert, but we can guarantee that the resources they will need to do so — raw materials, industrial parts, machinery, workers — will not be readily available without detection. This is not perfect, but it is good enough for now.

What about the concessions offered by the P5+1, namely the lifting of sanctions and the unfreezing of assets? It’s time we face the truth about these sanctions: Their point of efficacy has been reached. The regime has demonstrated that it is willing to take down the entire country if need be, and drive its people into social ruin and economic collapse, in order to preserve its “nuclear rights.” You cannot seek a perfect deal in the face of an opponent that is willing to harm itself in order to protect its position; the regime’s pride will be the last thing to go. “You want to ‘sanction’ us to death,” they say, “then go ahead. But we will still continue uranium enrichment.” How does that make the United States or its allies any more secure?

Nothing at this point is guaranteed. Much can change between now and the extended June deadline, and additional steps can be taken to address the legitimate concerns of the deal’s most vociferous critics, namely Saudi Arabia and Israel. For starters, the agreement must include a degree of international oversight of Iran’s ballistic missile program. The Revolutionary Guard is known to be working on the development of a longer-range, surface-to-surface missile (one that can reach to the borders of Europe); such a weapon has only one intended use in the modern age: to deliver a nuclear payload. Iran’s missile program must be scaled back and monitored, and should be treated as an inseparable part of its nuclear program. Additionally, NATO should expand its existing Mediterranean Dialogue program to include the Gulf States along with Israel, and offer an ironclad guarantee of assistance in case of an Iranian attack. It is not enough for Obama to make verbal commitments to the security of its allies in the region: Put it in writing, and oblige the Europeans to do it as well. If Britain, France and Germany are confident in the deal, then they should have no reservations about offering a security guarantee.

But to discard what has been agreed upon sets back the prospects of regional security more than it may set back Iran’s nuclear program. If what we require from any deal is perfection — the complete and uncompromising compliance with all terms and conditions — we are only affording Iran more time to reach its own nuclear objectives until that perfection we seek is achieved. Let us take what we have now, not just because it is good enough, but because it can be improved as we move forward. A better deal most certainly exists, but it might not come until it is too late.

Benjamin Radd was born in Shiraz, Iran, and came to the United States as a refugee fleeing the 1979 revolution. He is a teaching associate at UCLA and a graduate fellow at the Center for Middle East Development at UCLA’s International Institute. He is a doctoral candidate in the department of political science and also holds a law degree from Stanford.

U.S., Israel differ over how to resolve Iran nuclear issue

U.S. and Israeli officials differed over Iran's nuclear program on Wednesday as Israel called for its effective dismantlement and the United States suggested safeguards could show that it is peaceful rather than military.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu spoke as they began talks ostensibly about Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations but which appeared likely to be overshadowed by Iran.

“Iran must not have a nuclear weapons capability, which means that they shouldn't have centrifuges (for) enrichment, they shouldn't have a plutonium heavy-water plant, which is used only for nuclear weapons,” Netanyahu told reporters.

“They should get rid of (their amassed) fissile material, and they shouldn't have underground nuclear facilities, (which are) underground for one reason – for military purposes.” He called Iran's program the region's foremost security problem.

Iran says it is enriching uranium solely for electricity and medical treatments, not nuclear weapons.

Kerry, whose aides are exploring a diplomatic solution to rein in Iranian nuclear activity, took a tack different from Netanyahu by suggesting Iran could show its program was peaceful by adhering to international standards followed by other nations.

“We will pursue a diplomatic initiative but with eyes wide open, aware that it will be vital for Iran to live up to the standards that other nations that have nuclear programs live up to as they prove that those programs are indeed peaceful,” Kerry said as he and Netanyahu began a meeting at the U.S. ambassador's residence in Rome.


“We will need to know that actions are being taken which make it crystal clear, undeniably clear, fail-safe to the world that whatever program is pursued is indeed a peaceful program,” he told reporters.

Six global powers held talks with Iran last week in Geneva to test whether a diplomatic resolution might be reached, their first such negotiations since moderate Iranian President Hassan Rouhani's election in June opened up possibilities for a deal after years of increasing confrontation.

A second round of these talks, which include Britain, China, France, Germany, Russia and the United States, is scheduled for early November, also in Geneva.

Iran cites a right to refine uranium for peaceful purposes under the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), a 1970 global pact to prevent the spread of nuclear arms.

But the United States has said Iran does not automatically have this right under international law because, it argues, Tehran is in violation of its obligations under counter-proliferation safeguards.

A series of U.N. Security Council resolutions since 2006 has demanded that Iran suspend all enrichment and heavy water related activities.

But Western experts say, and some diplomats privately acknowledge, that it is no longer realistic to expect Iran to halt all its enrichment, as the Islamic state has sharply expanded this work in the last seven years and it is seen as a source of national pride and prestige.

Instead, they say, any deal should set strict, verifiable limits on the number of centrifuges that Iran can have and on the production of low-enriched uranium.

Writing by Philip Pullella, editing by Mark Heinrich

Rohani or no Rohani, we must increase the pressure on Iran

Before the election of President Hassan Rouhani , Iran’s centrifuges were spinning at an unprecedented pace.  After his election, they continue to not only spin, but multiply.  In response, the United States must once again deliver a firm message to Tehran: Halt your illicit nuclear program or face isolation and financial ruin.  Although international sanctions over its illicit nuclear program have sent its economy into a tailspin, the ruling elite — from President Rouhani to Supreme Leader Khameni — remain undeterred

The May report of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) showcases Iran’s failure to abide by its obligations as a signatory of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). Iran continues to grow its stockpiles of near-20 percent enriched uranium, approaching levels where it could rapidly seek a military breakout, developing a nuclear weapon.  It is now installing advanced centrifuges that could quadruple the pace of nuclear enrichment.  Moreover, a heavy water reactor facility at Arak, which could provide an easier alternative to a plutonium-based nuclear weapon, is nearing completion. And Iran has taken great pains to sanitize the Parchin military site where suspected nuclear testing took place, stonewalling IAEA efforts to gain access along the way.  Action-by-action, Iran is becoming a greater-and-greater threat to the United States and our allies, including Israel. 

[More on Iran: House overwhelmingly votes to add new sanctions]

In Rouhani, we find a man who is intimately familiar with the secret construction of Iran's illicit nuclear facilities in Arak, Natanz and Isfahan, which weren't publicly exposed until 2002.  In 2003, Rouhani took charge as Iran's lead nuclear negotiator — negotiations which gave Iran time to complete its uranium conversion plant and to rapidly increase its number of centrifuges.  During his presidential campaign, Rouhani boasted that during his tenure as negotiator, Iran didn't suspend enrichment — on the contrary, he said, “we completed the program.”

As the Chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, I have worked closely with Ranking Member Eliot Engel of New York in securing House of Representatives passage this week of bipartisan legislation that will significantly strengthen the impact of existing sanctions on Iran for its continued resistance.  The objective is to prevent Iran from “completing the program.” 

The Iranian mullahs have consistently demonstrated that they place a higher premium on their nuclear quest than the economic well-being of their people. Enactment of our legislation, the Nuclear Iran Prevention Act of 2013, along with robust implementation and enforcement, is needed to greatly increase the costs to Iran for its ongoing nuclear pursuits.  We have no time to spare.  An Iranian nuclear weapon would trigger a regional arms race in the Middle East and beyond, jeopardizing American security and economic interests. Iran already engages in heavy-handed repression at home and exports terror abroad.  Imagine its behavior if emboldened by nuclear weapons.  It is clear that preventing an Iranian bomb, not containing it, is the only viable option.

Our legislation  is intended to strike a crippling economic blow to the Iranian regime, eliminating sources of foreign funding, restricting access to international commerce, and reducing oil exports by an additional million barrels per day. The bill will apply stiffer penalties to Iranian human rights violators and weapons proliferators; it also targets those who support their wrongdoing.  By bringing the full weight of U.S. pressure to bear, Congress can both deny the regime the ability to continue its destructive polices, and compel the Iranians to abandon their nuclear goals. 

However, the window for a solution is rapidly shrinking.  We cannot afford to let the Iranian regime stall the international community with open-ended negotiations.  Regardless of who is president in Iran, enactment of the Nuclear Iran Prevention Act is a necessary step in compelling Iran to abandon its nuclear ambitions and reducing the threat to the U.S. and our allies. 

Royce is the Chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee.  He represents California’s 39th congressional district, consisting of Orange County, Los Angeles County, and San Bernardino County.