Kerry Seeks to Reassure Israel on Iran

26 October 2013 | 16:12 Code : 1923455 Latest Headlines

Secretary of State John Kerry, facing new frictions with America’s most important Middle East allies over its policies in the region, sought to assure Israel on Wednesday that the United States would insist on strict constraints on Iran’s nuclear program in its newly reinvigorated negotiations with Tehran.

Before meeting with the Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, at the residence of the American ambassador here, Mr. Kerry said the Obama administration welcomed the change of tone by Iran but “words are no substitute for action.”

Mr. Kerry is on the final leg of a three-day visit to European capitals themed around Middle East diplomacy, most notably American efforts to help start a peace conference on the Syrian conflict. But the trip has been punctuated by criticism directed at the United States from its main strategic allies, Saudi Arabia and Israel, and Mr. Kerry has been making an effort to assuage them both.

The Saudis, who are strong supporters of the Syrian insurgency, have been particularly upset over what they view as the Obama administration’s lack of resolve in pressuring the Syrian president, Bashar al-Assad, who is now in some ways stronger politically than he was a year ago. Last week the Saudis rejected taking a seat on the United Nations Security Council in part to express their displeasure.

They have also voiced alarm over the Obama administration’s steps toward rapprochement with Iran, Saudi Arabia’s main rival in the Middle East, and are fearful that the United States could make compromises in negotiations for a deal over Iran’s disputed nuclear program.

The Israelis are even more alarmed at the possibility that the United States might be too pliant in trying to pursue a compromise with Iran. Mr. Netanyahu has called Iran’s nuclear program a guise for weapons development and the most serious security threat facing his country.

Mr. Kerry’s public statements before his meeting with Mr. Netanyahu were focused largely on reassuring the Israelis.

“No deal is better than a bad deal,” Mr. Kerry said, a phrase that American officials have frequently used in recent weeks to try to reassure lawmakers in the United States as well as Israel and Persian Gulf states that the White House will not make risky concessions.

But Mr. Netanyahu listed a range of steps that Israel says Iran needs to take to demonstrate that it is not developing nuclear weapons, steps that appeared to go well beyond a compromise that the United States and other world powers are prepared to explore with Tehran, which insists its nuclear program is for civilian use only. The United States and other world powers are scheduled to resume talks with Iran in Geneva on Nov. 7.

Mr. Netanyahu, in a joint appearance with Mr. Kerry, said Iran must get rid of all of its fissile material and should not be allowed to have any centrifuges to enrich uranium. Iran should also close its underground nuclear facilities and abandon its construction of a heavy-water plant that would produce plutonium, Mr. Netanyahu added.

Having staked out broad demands on the Iranian nuclear program, Mr. Netanyahu argued that the international sanctions against Iran should not be eased in return for a “partial deal.”

The negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians were also a major subject on Mr. Kerry and Mr. Netanyahu’s agenda, though not one they were prepared to discuss publicly in detail.

Trying to convey the impression that there is momentum in those talks, Mr. Kerry said Israeli and Palestinian negotiators had met 13 times and “are meeting even now.” Martin S. Indyk, Mr. Kerry’s special envoy for those talks, is in Jerusalem to facilitate the discussions, the secretary of state emphasized.

Despite the multiple meetings, it is not apparent what, if any, headway has been made. When the talks begin in July, Mr. Kerry said the goal was to complete a comprehensive Middle East peace agreement in nine months, and a third of that time has elapsed.

Mr. Kerry has been trying to move the talks along; he met recently in London with Mahmoud Abbas, the president of the Palestinian Authority, and has had frequent conversations with Mr. Netanyahu. The Israeli leader told reporters on Wednesday that he and Mr. Kerry talk virtually every other day. And Mr. Kerry has set side the entire afternoon and evening for his discussions here with Mr. Netanyahu.

On Monday in Paris, Mr. Kerry met with senior diplomats from the Arab League to maintain Arab support for the talks.

In an apparent effort to influence Israeli public opinion, Mr. Kerry noted on Monday that Prince Saud al-Faisal of Saudi Arabia had endorsed the concept of Middle East peace, one in which Israel would have normal relations with all Arab and Muslim nations.

“That’s a vision, and it’s a vision worth fighting for,” Mr. Kerry said.

But Qatar’s foreign minister, Khalid bin Mohamed al-Attiyah, suggested in a joint appearance with Mr. Kerry on Monday that the United States needed to put more pressure on Israel and play more of an active role in suggesting compromises. Mr. Attiyah said “actual” American participation in the negotiations was needed.

“I would like to thank my friend John for the serious effort that is expended, but we would like him to be fully engaged in this process,” Mr. Attiyah said.

Iran has insisted that the West acknowledge its “right” to enrich uranium as part of a negotiated compromise that puts limits on its nuclear program, a step the United States has not publicly taken.

Specific limits on Iran’s program have yet to be agreed upon. Another major issue for the next round is how fast to ease economic sanctions that have battered the Iranian economy.

The Iranians have pushed for a quick easing of the sanctions. The White House has been weighing a move to ease the effect by offering Iran access to billions of dollars in frozen funds.

But the United States has signaled that it does not want to remove major sanctions until its top demands are met, a position Israel has been urging be strengthened.

tags: kerry the united states iran israel netanyahu middle east