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Written by Ramy Srour

The second round of nuclear talks between Iran and the six world powers also known as the P5+1 (China, France, Germany, Russia, UK, and U.S.) came to an end last weekend amid a mixture of optimism and careful skepticism. Scheduled to last only two days, the talks protracted to a third and unscheduled day, demonstrating the strong willingness of the parties to finally reach a deal. But at the end of Saturday, the powers fell short of a deal, primarily because of misunderstandings over construction at the heavy-water reactor at Arak and its plutonium stockpile.

According to several sources, the proposed deal was opposed at the last moment by the French delegation, which raised concerns as to the plutonium stockpile at the Arak facility. France would have liked to see a construction freeze at Arak during the negotiations, something that had not come up earlier and which apparently the Iranian delegation was not willing to concede.

But more importantly, French concerns were grounded in the belief that the spent plutonium produced by the reactor could be used for plutonium bombs. According to the French, the Iranians had failed to reassure them that this stockpile would not be used for military purposes.

“[There were] several points that … we [were] not satisfied with compared to the initial text,” French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius noted at the end of the meetings. More strikingly, the French delegation warned that the current deal did not ensure that the security concerns of Israel were being heeded.

arak water reactor

The heavy-water reactor at Arak was at the center of the disagreements that halted a deal during the second round of talks in Geneva Nov. 7-9 [Photo credit: ISNA/Arash Khamooshi]

A ‘bad deal, a very bad deal’

Now, this is important. On the Friday of the negotiations, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had warned, rather vehemently, that “Iran got the deal of the century, while the international community got a bad deal, a very bad deal.” He also emphasized that “Israel is not obliged by this agreement and will do anything that it needs to do to defend itself and to defend the security of its people.”

And again on Sunday, Netanyahu said that “the deal does not include the dismantling of even one centrifuge. I asked all the leaders, why the haste?”

Whether or not the Israeli statement had an influence on the French delegation and pushed it to block the negotiations, the implications are clear. The concerns of Israel are real and hard to ignore, and obviously President Obama’s calls to reassure Prime Minister Netanyahu have not sufficed.

Nor did Secretary Kerry’s visit to Israel last week. Somehow, it seems that the U.S. is engaged in a very risky strategy: It has a clear interest in reassuring Israel of the seriousness of the negotiations, but at the same time it takes actions that are likely to result in Israeli frustration.

Take, for instance, Kerry’s trip to Jerusalem last week.

During the visit, the U.S. secretary spoke on Israeli television and labelled the settlements in the West Bank as “illegitimate” and warned that if the peace talks failed, Israel would be isolated. He also poignantly asked: “Does Israel want a third intifada?”

kerry third intifada

On Nov. 6, U.S. Secretary of State Kerry spoke with journalists from Israel’s Channel 2 and the Palestinian Broadcasting Corporation. During the interview, he warned of a third intifada, or uprising [Photo credit: U.S. Department of State] 

Disentangling Iran talks from Palestine peace talks

This is a very risky and difficult diplomatic strategy. Trying to push an Iranian deal despite strong Israeli opposition, while simultaneously looking for a solution to the Israel/Palestine conflict are two processes that do not necessarily sustain each other.

But perhaps, the U.S. should find ways to disentangle the two issues from one another. Using the Arabic word “intifada” to describe the Palestinian uprisings was probably not a successful public diplomacy effort. State Department officials should try to communicate their support for a two-state solution, without unnecessarily threatening Israel’s patience, which is unfortunately already quite low.

That, of course, implies that the Obama Administration should use all the tools at its disposal to clarify that the two issues are not related in any meaningful way. Obviously, it will take a lot of effort to convince the Israeli leadership to adopt this view.

‘We are not stupid’

On Monday, Secretary Kerry returned to the United States in order to testify in front of the U.S. Congress and convince U.S. legislators that the deal the powers were about to reach was a good deal. More importantly, Kerry is looking to join the rest of the administration in urging Congress not to pass a new set of sanctions, which will undoubtedly eliminate any prospect of a future Iranian agreement.

Quite interestingly, Kerry said on an interview with NBC’s “Meet the Press” on Sunday that Israel would be far safer if Iran did not continue the program, which is what the negotiations are designed to achieve.

“We are not blind, and I don’t think we’re stupid. I think we have a pretty strong sense of how to measure whether or not we are acting in the interests of our country and of the globe,” he added. “And particularly [in the interests] of our allies and friends, like Israel.”

Let us hope that Israel will agree with this characterization. More importantly, let us hope that the U.S. administration will be able to disentangle the Iranian negotiations from the Palestinian peace efforts.

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