JERUSALEM — As representatives of Western powers and Iran gather in the pretty lakeside city of Geneva, it is difficult to imagine a more tense juncture in the annals of Israeli diplomacy than this.
Israeli nerves are fraying as the nuclear program of its greatest nemesis is discussed in talks to which it is not a party.
"You’ve got to keep in mind what Iran is," Michael Oren, who was Israel's ambassador to the United States until two weeks ago, said in a conversation with GlobalPost. "Iran is the largest state sponsor of terror in the world, it is complicit in the deaths of 100,000 Syrians, it is a country that talks of wiping another off the map."
After years of being considered a pariah state for flouting United Nations resolutions on uranium enrichment, any indication that Iran is now being welcomed into the family of nations sends Israeli anxiety soaring.
So rattled is Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's government that early Tuesday morning, hours before talks began, his security cabinet issued a rare public warning. "Iran has repeatedly deceived the international community about its nuclear program, including its efforts to conceal enrichment facilities at Natanz and Qom," the English-language statement said. "Iran has also systematically defied United Nations Security Council resolutions which call upon it to end its enrichment."
It continued: "An Iran with military nuclear capabilities would threaten world peace and stability as well as the security of countries across the Middle East, including Israel, which it threatens to annihilate."
Ephraim Asculai, a senior research fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies in Tel Aviv, outlined what exactly Israel fears will happen at these latest talks.
"Israel thinks the new Iranian pleasantness is a tactic to cause the US and Europe to believe in Iran's goodwill and achieve an agreement, while retaining its nuclear capacity," he said.
On Monday night, European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton had dinner with Iran's foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, at the Iranian ambassador’s residence in Geneva.
On Tuesday, representatives of the five permanent members of the UN Security Council and Germany — collectively known as the P5+1 — began their first round of negotiations with Iran since President Barack Obama spoke with newly elected president Hassan Rouhani last month.
The call, which ended a 34-year rupture in US-Iranian ties, took place in the final moments of Rouhani’s trip to New York, where he had traveled to take part in the UN General Assembly.
In Jerusalem, Oren underscored that for all the niceties, Rouhani "did not come to New York to stop the nuclear program. He came to New York to lift sanctions."
Iran's goal, says Eldad Pardo, a Hebrew University expert on Iran, is not the complete lifting of sanctions but a partial and progressive loosening that would enable the Iranian economy to grow again — while keeping its nuclear capacities intact.
"They don't want [a] complete removal of sanctions. The loss of the conflict with the United States would threaten the regime's legitimacy. But they need sanctions to revert to their level of about two years ago — 'normal sanctions' with which they can absolutely get along, while not relinquishing their nuclear capabilities," he said.
The weeks leading up to this round of discussions have been a high-stakes game of public positioning.
Iran preempted the talks by announcing its own "red line" in response to a rumored Western proposal whereby Iran would ship its enriched uranium to other countries for safekeeping.
Quoted by Iranian state television, Deputy Foreign Minister Abbas Araqchi said: "Of course we will negotiate regarding the form, amount, and various levels of [uranium] enrichment, but the shipping of materials out of the country is our red line."
According to Pardo, Israel believes that Iran currently has the capacity to build eight nuclear weapons within a roughly six-week timeframe.
Israel has continued unabated in its demands that the West refuse to reduce sanctions on Iran until its nuclear project is completely dismantled.
"Our position is no secret," Oren said. "Now is not the time to let go. If anything, sanctions should be strengthened."
In a speech opening the winter session of Israel's parliament, Netanyahu said: "It would be a historic mistake to relax the pressure on Iran now, a moment before the sanctions achieve their goal.”
In the official English translation of his remarks, he continued: “Easing the pressure will not strengthen moderate trends in Iran. On the contrary, it will strengthen the uncompromising views of the real ruler of Iran, the Ayatollah Khamenei, and will be seen as a significant victory by him.”
Netanyahu enjoys broad public support at home for his forceful attitude toward Iran, but his tone, especially since Iran's rapprochement with Obama, has grated on some ears.
"Netanyahu's behavior puts the onus on [Israel], whereas it should be on Iran," said Meir Javedanfar, an Iran expert at the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya. "They are the ones who have been unwilling to compromise. […] But the way Netanyahu is behaving, he makes Israel look like the biggest obstacle."
A major Israeli concern is the possibility of deceit by the Iranian government. Netanyahu often reminds interlocutors that Iran misled European nuclear negotiators in the early 2000s, when it proceeded with the development of its uranium conversion facility at Isfahan while still in talks with the UK, France and Germany.
In an address to the Supreme Council of Cultural Revolution, Rouhani — who was Iran's lead nuclear negotiator at the time — said of the experience: "When we were negotiating with the Europeans in Tehran we were still installing some of the equipment at the Isfahan site. […] By creating a tame situation, we could finish Isfahan."
On Thursday, the National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI), a dissident group based in Paris, accused Iran of further deception, saying it had information about "a center for nuclear weaponization research" in Tehran that the government was moving to a military base in order to avoid detection by inspectors who may arrive as a result of the new negotiations.
The NCRI gained attention and credibility when it revealed, in 2002, the existence of a previously secret nuclear facility in Nantaz.
From the Israeli point of view, the worst-case scenario emerging from the current round of talks would be Western acquiescence to the Iranian demand to continue low-grade uranium enrichment, while a mollified UN loosens its regimen of inspection at nuclear facilities. Israel believes the uranium could quickly be weaponized.
"The problem is that while the Iranian team is very organized and will speak with one voice, and may offer concessions that sound far-reaching, the various nations represented by the P5+1 group will respond with differing interpretations. That is part of the Iranian tactic, as it was in New York: divide and conquer," said Uzi Rabi, the director of the Moshe Dayan Center for Middle Eastern Studies at Tel Aviv University.
Of course, Rouhani has a domestic agenda to tend to, as well.
"Rouhani has a short period of time in which he has to prove to the Iranian leadership and public that he can deliver. He has to show that he can lift the sanctions," Rabi said.
But according to Asculai, of the Institute for National Security Studies, the talks aren't likely to end on a positive note. "The Iranians are not simple negotiation partners," he said.