WASHINGTON (JTA) — Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu derided attempts to talk Iran down from 20 percent to 3.5 percent uranium enrichment.
“The Iranians are intentionally focusing the discussion on this issue. It is without importance,” Netanyahu said Sunday at his weekly Cabinet meeting in the wake of last week’s briefing in Rome with U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry.
“Its importance is superfluous as a result of the improvements the Iranians have made in the past year which allow them to jump over the barrier of 20 percent enrichment and proceed directly from 3.5 percent enrichment to 90 percent within weeks, weeks at most.”
The Obama administration has not publicly said it would settle for 3.5 percent uranium enrichment as part of a final status deal with Iran, although reports say the major powers negotiating with Iran are considering such a deal.
However, Netanyahu framed his remarks in the context of the talks he had with Kerry in Rome, suggesting it was a possible outcome raised by Kerry during the meeting.
Experts say that 3.5 percent is the enrichment needed for peaceful nuclear purposes, which Iran claims, while 20 percent – the amount at which Iran is now capable of enriching – has little use except as a step toward weaponization at 90 percent enrichment.
Netanyahu says 3.5 percent is too much because Iran has developed the capacity to turn even low enrichment into weapons-grade fuel within weeks.
“Everyone understands that Iran cannot be allowed to retain the ability to be within reach of nuclear weapons,” he said. “This was the focus of the long and detailed talks that I held with John Kerry.”
Hassan Rouhani, the new Iranian president whose relative moderation sparked this month’s renewal of talks, has expressed a willingness to make Iran’s nuclear project more transparent, but has rejected any absolute end to enrichment, which is Israel’s demand.
Netanyahu has made it clear Israel will strike Iran if it verges on weaponization. He has not said whether he would do so if there were a U.S. deal in place with Iran.
On peace talks, Netanyahu in his remarks to the Cabinet appeared to sound a conciliatory note on Israel’s demand that it be recognized as a Jewish state in any final status deal with the Palestinians.
“We are not looking for the Palestinians to ratify our identity, our heritage and our connection to this land – this is not the problem from our point of view,” he said. “We are demanding from them that at the end of the negotiations, they will renounce all their claims, including national claims, and that they recognize the national rights of the Jewish people in the State of Israel.”
Netanyahu’s attempts to get the Palestinians to ratify recognition of Israel during his first term as prime minister, from 1996 to 1999, dogged U.S.-brokered peace attempts at that time.