- The Washington Times - Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Despite being a leading skeptic of the U.S.-led drive to strike a deal with Iran over its disputed nuclear program, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Wednesday suggested that the two sides may actually be “very close” to an agreement that Israel could support.

Meeting with Secretary of State John F. Kerry in Rome, the Israeli leader reiterated earlier warnings about rushing into a “partial” or unverifiable deal with the Islamic republic, which most Western intelligence agencies believe is secretly pursuing nuclear weapons.

But, for the first time publicly, Mr. Netanyahu appeared to acknowledge that the recent momentum in the talks with Iran could produce a diplomatic deal that has eluded negotiators for more than a decade.

While Mr. Netanyahu called it “essential” for Iran to comply with past U.N. Security Council resolutions aimed at containing its nuclear program, he added that, “I think we’re very close to getting that and, I agree with you that the goal is get it peacefully.”

The Israeli prime minister, who has a reputation among world leaders for using calculated and precise language — especially when talking about the Iranian nuclear program — then said that “the best way to get it peacefully is to maintain the pressure on Iran” and “that’s what got them into these renewed negotiations in the first place.”

Following the remarks, an Israeli government source told The Washington Times on condition of anonymity that what Mr. Netanyahu meant was that “Iran negotiates because of sanctions and pressure — and because of its economically disastrous situation, we’re much closer to bringing Iran to accept the terms of an agreement that would imply a real cessation of its military nuclear program.”

While Iranian leaders have long claimed that the program is peaceful, the suspicion that the Islamic republic is actually close to developing a nuclear bomb has driven Western powers to impose harsh sanctions on Tehran — and the U.S. to push over the past two years for a global embargo on Iranian crude oil.

“Easing that pressure could turn out to be a tragic mistake, as we could miss that opportunity, being so close,” said the Israeli government source.

The source cautioned against reading too deeply between the lines of Mr. Netanyahu’s comments.

Doing so, however, may shed light on the gradual shift taking place in Israel’s posture toward the prospects for a deal with Iran, which engaged last week in what many observers have described as the most productive nuclear discussion in decades with Western powers in Geneva.

Eager to convince the West to ease sanctions, Iranian negotiators made headlines by offering a range of concessions.

Specific details were classified, but various sources have suggested the Iranians may have offered to meet the conditions Mr. Netanyahu says are necessary for Israel’s support.

“In the case of Iran,” Mr. Netanyahu said Wednesday, “it’s essential that it be made to live up to Security Council resolutions that demand an end to enrichment and enrichment capability, and an end to plutonium heavy water capability towards fissile material for nuclear weapons.”

That appears to align with what Iran is putting on the table.

A report published Oct. 17 by the Middle East news website Al-Monitor claimed that Iran has offered to freeze its uranium enrichment program.

Citing an “Iranian source who has proven reliable in the past,” the report said the Islamic republic has also offered to convert its existing stockpile of enriched uranium into fuel rods, and to allow the U.N. nuclear watchdog group — the International Atomic Energy Agency — to handle all spent fuel containing plutonium from its heavy water reactor.

With the next round of talks slated to take place on Nov. 7 and 8 in Geneva, U.S. and other negotiators are believed to now be debating how to respond to the offer.

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