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Israel wary of second round of nuclear talks

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The widely anticipated second round of talks on Iran’s controversial nuclear program, set to take place in Baghdad on May 23, will be watched by Israel with a mixture of skepticism and wariness.

Israel, having threatened to launch a pre-emptive attack on Iranian nuclear sites in the face of international opposition, is profoundly concerned that the negotiations will not yield satisfactory results and let Iran off the hook.

Israel’s objectives are clear: Iran must transfer its stock of 20 per cent enriched uranium to a third-party nation and ship most its low-enriched uranium out of the country. To Israel, enrichment is the key issue: uranium refined to 20 per cent purity is only a few steps away from bomb-grade uranium.

Iran’s ambition to become a member of the exclusive nuclear club, to which Israel belongs, might never have been a burning issue had Iran been willing to coexist with the Jewish state. But since Iran’s leaders do not accept Israel’s existence, have repeatedly called for its destruction and engage in Holocaust denial to boot, Israel is understandably worried by the spectre of an Iranian atomic bomb.

Iran claims that its nuclear program is peaceful in nature, designed to generate electricity and produce medical isotopes. To Israel, this claim is preposterous. The six world powers – the United States, Russia, China, Britain, France and Germany – that will engage Iran next week in Iraq are, to say the least, skeptical about its intentions.

The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) is wary, too.

Last November, the IAEA released an ominous report expressing “serious concerns regarding the possible military dimensions” of Iran’s nuclear program and noting that Iran “has carried out activities relevant to the development of a nuclear explosive device.”

Meanwhile, the director of the U.S. National Intelligence office, James Clapper, has warned that Iran’s advances in uranium enrichment “strengthens our assessment that Iran has the scientific, technical and industrial capacity to eventually produce nuclear weapons.”

The big unanswered question, he added, is whether Iran has the political will to manufacture such weapons.

Both sides, Iran and the six powers, were satisfied with the first round of talks, held in Istanbul on April 14 and hosted by Turkey.

But Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who has likened Iran to Nazi Germany, disagreed with the upbeat assessment, saying Iran had been given a “freebie,” or yet more time to enrich its stockpile of uranium.

Israel’s defence minister, Ehud Barak, has sounded a similar theme. Having  asserted that the six-power talks “do not fill me with confidence,” he has dismissed the likelihood that Iran will succumb to diplomatic pressure and end its suspected militarized nuclear program.

“We’re not playing games here,” Barak declared, suggesting that Israel’s threat to destroy Iran’s nuclear facilities by military means is not merely rhetorical. “Israel cannot afford to be duped.”

Netanyahu, rightly or wrongly, is concerned that the six powers may suspend or ease sanctions against Iran in exchange for an Iranian promise to partially freeze uranium enrichment.

In an attempt to soothe Israel’s fears, Catherine Ashton, the foreign minister of the European Union and the co-ordinator of the talks, visited Israel last week and told Netanyahu about the Istanbul talks and preparations for the second round.

Ashton’s visit was arranged by Netanyahu’s national security adviser, Yaakov Amidror, who conferred recently with her deputy, Helga Schmid, in Brussels.

With the talks in Baghdad just a week away, both sides appear fairly optimistic that a breakthrough is possible.

In Tehran, Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi voiced optimism that the impasse can be settled. As he put it late in April, “If one step ahead was taken in Istanbul, we will certainly take several steps ahead in Baghdad.”

In Vienna, the headquarters of the IAEA, the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council – the United States, Russia, China, Britain and France – expressed hope that “a sustained process of serious dialogue” can be launched and that the Baghdad talks can lead to “concrete steps toward a comprehensive negotiated solution which restores international confidence in the exclusively peaceful nature of the Iranian nuclear program.”

Given Iran’s spotty track record in previous negotiations, skeptics have yet to be convinced that the Iranian leadership is sincerely interested in resolving this problem. Indeed, critics argue that Iran has used talks only to buy time and improve its technical capabilities.

Nonetheless, as U.S. President Barack Obama has observed, “there is still time to pursue a diplomatic solution.”

According to a recent report in the Times of Israel website, the vast majority of Israel’s political, military and intelligence leadership believes that Israel should not act hastily and give sanctions and diplomacy a chance to work.

American officials who dread the prospect of U.S. involvement in a war between Israel and Iran share this belief, saying that biting sanctions, the assassination of Iranian nuclear scientists and cyber warfare have induced Iran to adopt a more conciliatory approach.

Iran’s sanguine portrayal of the Istanbul talks and its positive spin of the forthcoming negotiations in Baghdad may be significant. Iran, perhaps, is preparing Iranian public opinion for a historic deal on the nuclear file.

True or not, the Iranian issue has unleashed deep-seated passions in Israel.

Meir Dagan, the former director of the Mossad, has warned that an Israeli attack on Iran, even if successful, would be stupid and reckless, touching off a devastating regional war. Yuval Diskin, the former head of Shin Bet, has accused the government of misleading the public” about the effectiveness of an Israeli strike and has questioned the motives of Netanyahu and Barak.

Gen. Benny Gantz, the chief of staff, has said that Iran has not yet decided whether to build a nuclear arsenal. Israel’s president, Shimon Peres, has reservations about a unilateral Israeli strike. Ehud Olmert, Netanyahu’s predecessor, has counselled caution and called on the United States to take the lead.

Barak has condemned Dagan, Diskin and Olmert, archly suggesting that they are serving Iran’s interests. Barak’s analysis is questionable at best, but Israel’s strident denunciation of Iran’s nuclear ambitions has already paid dividends, having emboldened western powers, Russia and China to impose credible economic sanctions on the Iranian regime.

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