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Netanyahu's Suggestions Could Drive Iran In The Opposite Direction


So while the Israeli prime minister was criticizing the U.S. talks with Iran, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry was negotiating with the Iranians. These talks are aimed at placing limits on Iran's nuclear program to keep it from building nuclear weapons in return for easing economic sanctions on Iran. Negotiators hope to have the outlines of a deal this month. NPR's Peter Kenyon is covering the talks in Switzerland, and we go to him now to see how Netanyahu's comments figure in the mix there. Hi, Peter.


SIEGEL: The Israeli prime minister talked about what he says is a key issue - Iran's so-called breakout time to build a nuclear bomb if it wants to. What does that mean, and how does Netanyahu's view of it square with what negotiators are working on?

KENYON: Well, breakout time is shorthand for the amount of time it would take Iran to make enough nuclear fuel for one bomb. The U.S. says breakout time should be a year. In other words, U.N. inspectors should have that amount of time to detect a violation and alert the rest of the world. Mr. Netanyahu says that's not long enough, and, in fact, it's one of many criticisms he has of this deal.

SIEGEL: Netanyahu stated some terms that he'd like to see put in any nuclear deal. And they went far beyond the nuclear issue itself. Terms, by the way, that National Security Adviser Susan Rice has said are completely unachievable. What are those terms, and could they be achievable?

KENYON: Well, he generally criticized any deal that leaves Iran any capacity to make its own nuclear fuel, as we've just been discussing. That battle was basically fought in 2013. It was resolved in the interim deal, and experts say if you try to take that back now, it will just collapse the talks. Netanyahu also suggested that the entire nonproliferation framework of inspectors verifying the peaceful nature of a country's program - that just won't work with Iran. They can't be trusted. It couldn't possibly be tough enough. And even if it were tough enough, after 10 years or so when the restrictions are eased, Iran could still race to a bomb. And then he moved on - and this is where the non-nuclear issues come in - and instead of offering an alternative, Netanyahu proposed a massive precondition - that Iran change its foreign-policy, stop supporting proxies like Hezbollah, Hamas and others, and stop threatening Israel. He basically sought to tie almost every Western complaint about Iran to these talks. Now, there's many people who would love to see Iran make those changes, including many Iranians. But loading them onto the nuclear talks at this sensitive moment, people here say, would just about surely collapse them, and that, supporters of a deal argue, would drive Tehran in exactly the opposite direction, putting the hardliners even more in charge.

SIEGEL: Well, Netanyahu got a lot of applause from members of Congress. Could his opposition actually impede a deal?

KENYON: Probably not at this point. What's going on is an attempt to hammer out a framework. And that means an agreement in principle on the major issues without the tricky details. Where it might have an impact is later on if they reach the final deal with all those details in it. That's due by the end of June. And a Republican-led Congress could certainly obstruct sanctions relief for one thing. If they impose new sanctions, Iran might walk away from the table. Something it's very loath to do, by the way, but if it looks like it's the Americans wrecking the talks then, politically, they would walk away. Economically, of course, they'd have terrible problems. Now, there's one other political aspect to this. I was talking to an analyst just after the speech - an Iranian analyst. He said, you know, just about everything Mr. Netanyahu said helps Foreign Minister Zarif back home in Iran because, for many Iranians, it's a very simple equation. If Israel hates the deal, it couldn't be that bad.

SIEGEL: So what's the latest from the actual negotiations today, Peter?

KENYON: Well, as usual, the details are confidential, but we are hearing some optimism. The German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier says there's been more progress on this issue in the past year than in the previous decade. That hardly means it's a done deal. But at least the negotiators see a reason to keep at it and see if they can get there.

SIEGEL: OK, Peter, thank you very much.

KENYON: You're welcome, Robert.

SIEGEL: That's NPR's Peter Kenyon, who's following the nuclear talks that are going on in Montreux in Switzerland. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Peter Kenyon is NPR's international correspondent based in Istanbul, Turkey.
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