Iranian President Hassan Rouhani sought Friday to sell hard-liners on the merits of a preliminary deal that would eventually lift crippling economic sanctions in exchange for placing limits on his country’s controversial nuclear program.
“Some think we have to fight the world or surrender. We think there is a third way: cooperation,” he said in a speech on Iranian TV, even as there were stirrings of suspicion among mullahs who were gathering at the mosques for Friday prayers.
In Israel, meanwhile, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was describing the nuclear framework as a naive sellout by the six foreign powers that brokered it. He predicted it would pave the way for Iran to build a nuclear weapon.
“Israel will not accept an agreement which allows a country that vows to annihilate us to develop nuclear weapons,” he declared. “Period.”
The stark contrast in the leadership of the two countries, which are sworn enemies, might in fact prove a valuable asset to Iranian pragmatists who are now trying to sell a prospective nuclear deal and see it through to a binding agreement.
In the labyrinthine world of Middle East politics, the harder Israel opposes the plan announced Thursday in the Swiss city of Lausanne, the better it looks in Iran.
Tehran’s broad endorsement of an agreement aimed at deterring nuclear weapons development while leaving Iran’s civilian atomic infrastructure in place also marked a dramatic change in Iran’s political posture that dates back decades, epitomized by grainy images of helpless American hostages in the hands of Islamic revolutionaries who seized the U.S. Embassy in 1979.
In a country where chants of “Death to Israel!” can seem as commonplace as a salutation, the Israeli leader’s staunch denunciations of the deal may help overcome the reservations of Iranian hard-liners who believe Tehran is conceding too much under Western pressure.
Netanyahu on Friday reiterated his strident opposition to the prospective accord, saying it would “threaten the very survival of the state of Israel.”
By attacking the terms of the preliminary pact after a hasty gathering of his security cabinet, Netanyahu has given ammunition to figures such as Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, who was a key figure in hammering out the deal.
Zarif, who returned to Tehran on Friday from the Lausanne talks, sought to calm any hard-line opposition, declaring in a post on Twitter that “the solutions are good for all, as they stand.”
The Iranian people as a whole needed little prodding to get on board. In Tehran, those who had celebrated Nowruz, the Persian new year, Thursday night flowed into the streets to cheer the late-night word that an accord had been reached, — offering the thrilling prospect of relief from harsh economic sanctions that have touched the lives of virtually everyone here.
In a stunning symbol of melting hostility between Iran and the West, President Obama’s unfiltered words poured forth from Iranian TV screens, carried by state broadcasters, urging that the contentious talks continue toward the June 30 deadline.
Domestically, it would be hard to overstate how much is riding on this accord. President Rouhani “has effectively staked ... his political future on this nuclear deal and the attendant political and economic bonanza,” analyst Mahan Abdein wrote in the regional independent online publication Middle East Eye.
Rouhani said in a live address that Iran would honor pledges made in the nuclear talks, provided the other side does too.
Asked whether the negative reaction in Israel might help persuade Iran’s clerics that the agreement is good for them, Rand Corp. senior policy analyst Alireza Nader said he didn’t think Iranian mullahs put much stock in what Israeli hard-liners think about the accord.
“There’s a perception that Israel isn’t only against a nuclear deal for Iran but against Iran as a regional power. So naturally Israel is going to oppose this,” Nader said.
“If you look at the conservatives’ reactions in Iran, they have been largely supportive of the deal. Several Iranian officials and Friday prayer leaders have come out and supported it and are trying to portray it as a positive for Iran, because Iran retains most of its nuclear infrastructure. Iran does make a lot of concessions, and I think the government is trying to portray it in the best light possible, which is natural as they don’t want to admit they had to retreat on the nuclear program.”
Given the across-the-board support among Persian Gulf Arab states and the international community as a whole, Israeli leaders may find themselves further isolated in the Middle East if they persist in denouncing the Iran nuclear deal or take unilateral action against it, he said.
In Israel, commentators and politicians on Friday debated the ramifications, with some arguing that the deal as outlined is better than expected, and others declaring that all potential scenarios — including the possibility of a military strike — must remain on the table.
Debate was somewhat muted by the timing of the news, which came only hours before sundown Friday, the start of the Jewish holiday of Passover. More robust argument is likely in the coming week.
Netanyahu showed no sign of softening his stance, but some Israeli commentators described the preliminary nuclear terms as surprisingly favorable.
“If the framework presented becomes the final agreement … even Israel could learn to live with it,” commentator Ron Ben-Yishai wrote on the Ynet website. But he cautioned that “we must be wary of appearances — too many key issues still remain unresolved.”
Even before the outlines of the deal were announced, however, Israel refused to rule out a unilateral strike to quell Iran’s nuclear ambitions. Intelligence Minister Yuval Steinitz said, “If we have no choice, we have no choice. The military option is on the table.”
The prospective deal revived argument over Israel’s crucial friendship with Washington. Obama’s decision to call Netanyahu to discuss the accord was seen by some as signaling a potential thaw in icy relations between prime minister and the White House, a rift that has been greatly exacerbated by the Iran nuclear issue. The Haaretz daily, however, characterized the two leaders’ conversation as “difficult.”
The prime minister infuriated the U.S. administration last month when he defied White House wishes and delivered a speech to a joint meeting of Congress lobbying against the president’s plan to try to strike a deal with Iran. Some urged Netanyahu to take advantage of an opportunity to get back in good graces with the U.S., saying such a course would allow Israel to wield more influence over the final shape of the accord.
Amos Yadlin, a former head of Israeli military intelligence, told Israel’s Channel 10 that Netanyahu should pursue a “grand strategy” of cooperating with the U.S. on the Palestinian issue and curtailing settlement activity outside established blocs, or risk further alienating Washington.
“The danger is that the disconnect with the U.S. will lead to a poor agreement with Iran, all for the sake of building in remote settlements that Israel will never keep in a future agreement,” Yadlin said.
He and others pointed out that there were options short of military action — for which there is some precedent, in the form of Israel’s surprise aerial bombardment in 1981 of an Iraqi nuclear reactor under construction.
“There’s a range of alternatives between a bad agreement and a military strike, and these are worth exploring because they exist,” Yadlin said before the pact was announced, citing steps such as tighter sanctions or clandestine actions.
Others said it would be difficult now for Netanyahu to climb down from his fierce opposition to any deal — particularly while he seeks to keep right-wing allies happy as he sets about forming a government after his party’s electoral success last month.
The conservative Jerusalem Post described the framework agreement with Iran as “terrifying.”
Special correspondent Mostaghim reported from Tehran and Times staff writer King from Cairo. Times staff writer Carol J. Williams in Los Angeles and special correspondent Batsheva Sobelman in Jerusalem contributed to this report.