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Israeli spy general: Iran serious about nuclear deal

Brigadier-General Itai Brun, Israeli military intelligence’s chief analyst, says Iran is honoring a November interim agreement

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A senior Israeli intelligence officer described Iran on Monday as negotiating seriously on a deal to curb its disputed nuclear program, in what seems to be a shift in tone by Tel Aviv, Reuters reported.

Brigadier-General Itai Brun, the Israeli military intelligence’s chief analyst, told a strategic forum that Iran was honoring a November interim agreement that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had condemned as an “historic mistake” for easing sanctions on Israel’s arch-enemy.

With the United States, Russia, China, France, Britain and Germany now stepping up contacts with Iran ahead of their self-declared July 20 deadline for a final accord, Brun voiced cautious optimism.

“It is very possible that Iran and the world powers that are negotiating with it are moving toward the signing, sometime during the year, of a permanent nuclear deal,” he told the annual Herzliya Conference at Tel Aviv, Reuters reported.

“In the meantime, Iran is abiding by the interim agreement and the pressures, mainly the economic crisis, are leading it toward a dialogue, which we regard as serious-minded, on a permanent agreement.”

It was a rare sign of high-level divergence from Netanyahu’s dismissive stance towards the Iran talks although not the first. In January, Israeli Air Force Commander Major-General Amir Eshel said that the Iran diplomacy appeared to have “a positive direction” although he added: “I don’t know how it will end.”

The negotiations stumbled in Vienna last month when each side accused the other of posing unrealistic demands.

Iran-U.S. talks

In order to save these talks U.S. and Iranian negotiators met in Geneva on Monday.

After the meeting, a State Department spokeswoman said the direct U.S.-Iranian nuclear talks underway were needed because not enough progress had been made in broader multilateral talks.

The United States wanted to see “some realism put on the table,” Agence France-Presse quoted State Department deputy spokeswoman Marie Harf as saying.

U.S. and Iranian negotiators began two days of direct talks earlier in Geneva to discuss what Harf said were “a range of topics” around the nuclear negotiations involving the five permanent Security Council members plus Germany.

France meanwhile will also hold direct talks with Iran this week, French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said on Monday.

“Bilateral discussions between France and Iran will take place on Wednesday,” Fabius said at a news conference in Algiers after Iranian and U.S. delegations began two days of direct negotiations in Geneva.

“After these discussions, there will also be discussions between the Iranians and the Russians. There may be others. Anyway, the three (countries) that I know about are the Americans, the Russians and the French,” he added.

“The Americans gave us notice about these talks and we also said we would have talks with the Iranians.

“It was agreed that after these talks we would consult with the six before seeing the Iranians again from June 16,” Fabius said, referring to the P5+1 of Britain, China, France, Russia and the United States plus Germany.

Tehran dubs meeting as ‘constructive’

One of Tehran’s main negotiators Abbas Araqchi was quoted as describing the meeting as “constructive.”

“The dialogue with the United States took place in a positive climate and was constructive,” the ISNA news agency quoted Araqchi as saying after several hours of talks with the US delegation.

Those negotiations are facing a July 20 deadline for turning a temporary deal struck over Iran’s nuclear program into a permanent agreement.

Washington and its allies are seeking solid commitments that will ensure Iran’s stated desire for a peaceful atomic power program is not a covert attempt to build a nuclear bomb.

Harf said the direct negotiations were necessary because “we had not seen enough” progress made.

Iran wants talks extended

Meanwhile, Araqchi spoke of a possible extension to the talks in remarks in Geneva to Iranian media on the sidelines of meetings with senior U.S. officials and the European Union’s deputy chief negotiator.

“We hope to reach a final agreement (by July 20) but, if this doesn't happen, then we have no choice but to extend the Geneva deal for six more months while we continue negotiations,” Araqchi was quoted as saying by IRNA.

“It’s still too early to judge whether an extension will be needed. This hope still exists that we will be able to reach a final agreement by the end of the six months on July 20.”

The United States said on Saturday it would send its No. 2 diplomat, Deputy Secretary of State Bill Burns, to Geneva to meet a delegation led by Araqchi.

Other Israelis still skeptical

Addressing the Herzliya Conference separately on Monday, Yuval Steinitz, the Israeli cabinet minister in charge of nuclear affairs and a Netanyahu confidant, reiterated the government’s fear that Iran would be allowed to keep a “threshold” capacity to produce fissile material for a warhead.

“A good agreement with Iran is an agreement in which Iran may get the ability to present a developed civilian nuclear program like other countries have - Sweden or South Korea or Spain - but without the ability to enrich uranium and without the ability to yield plutonium,” Reuters quoted Steinitz as saying.

He said Israel would prefer for the July deadline to go unmet than for world powers to rush into a “bad deal” whereby Iran would retain the means to cobble together a first nuclear weapon within months, should it decide to do so.

“We opposed the interim deal because we saw problems and holes in it. Nor do we like the idea of extending the talks by half a year or a number of months,” Steinitz said.

“But if the alternative that will be raised in the coming weeks, beginning with this imminent week, will be to try to seal an agreement at any price ... it would be preferable - though we are not keen on this - to extend the talks by a number of weeks or months to close up all of the holes on a matter that is so critical to our well-being and that of the world.”

Widely assumed to have the Middle East’s sole nuclear arsenal, Israel feels uniquely threatened by the prospect of an Islamic Republic that calls for its destruction going nuclear.

The Israelis have threatened to attack Iran unilaterally if they deem diplomacy incapable of denying it the bomb. That has given them lobbying leverage in war-wary foreign capitals.

(With Reuters and AFP)