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Are Saudi Arabia, Israel Behind France Scuttling Nuclear Talks?

  • Cecily Hilleary

French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius leaves the Intercontinental hotel on the third day of closed-door nuclear talks with Iran in Geneva November 9, 2013.

French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius leaves the Intercontinental hotel on the third day of closed-door nuclear talks with Iran in Geneva November 9, 2013.

Talks between Iran and a group of six Western nations aimed at freezing Iran’s nuclear program are scheduled to resume on November 20th in Geneva. A first round of talks broke down after the so-called P5+1 and Iran failed to agree on a short-term deal that would have eased sanctions on Iran and allowed it to continue low-level enrichment. The US says any eventual deal struck with Iran will be "failsafe" and will guarantee that Iran has no nuclear weapons capability.

Analysts say two issues scuttled the talks; Iran claims it has the right to enrich uranium and wants this acknowledged in writing, and France demands that Iran stop construction on a heavy water reactor at Arak. Meanwhile, observers say “frenemies” Israel and Saudi Arabia are campaigning behind the scenes to make sure Iran’s nuclear program never goes military.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin has been vocal against what he calls "a very bad deal."

“This is a country that is participating as we speak in the mass slaughter of men, women, children, tens of thousands of them in Syria,” he told America’s CBS News recently.

Israeli television reported that a French lawmaker -- and good friend of Netanyahu -- phoned the French Foreign Minister during the Geneva talks, warning him that Netanyahu would attack Iran’s nuclear facilities if the P5+1 nations didn’t push tougher conditions on Iran.

Josef Olmert

Josef Olmert

“The chief concern is simply the fact that the Israelis believe that the agreement as it is being shaped will not stop the Iranian nuclear program, but will give the Iranians time to recover from the imposition of the sanctions that may have stifled their economy,” Josef Olmert, a Middle East expert and adjunct professor at the University of South Carolina, said.

Olmert believes opposition boils down to the issue of verification.

“You may recall the big celebrations in 1994 when the Clinton Administration claimed to have reached a similar agreement with North Korea,” Olmert said. “And we know what happened later on. The verification wasn’t there, and the North Koreans are either already having the nuclear bomb or very close to it.”

And he added, “The pro-Israel community in the U.S. is mobilized,” believing President Barack Obama will face heavy pressure from lawmakers to impose further sanctions on Iran until Tehran surrenders all nuclear weapons capability.

Olmert says a deal is inevitable and necessary – but it should not be rushed into.

“There is a sense that somehow the American Administration wants to get rid of all of its nagging problems right now," he said.

Saudi, French and Israeli concerns meet

Saudi Arabia may be less vocal than Israel, but the Kingdom is just as angry over the proposed deal with Iran. Relations between Sunni Saudi Arabia and Shiite Iran are among the most bitter in the region and can be measured by how they react to regional crises—in Syria, Iran backs the Assad regime and Saudi Arabia backs the Sunni rebels. Analysts say the Saudi’s fear Iran is working to undermine Sunni Arab governments in the Gulf. And they fear that if Iran builds nuclear bombs, they will be the first target.

“They don’t believe Iranian protestations that their nuclear program is for civilian purposes. And they are uncertain with the position of the US and are very concerned that the US is going to enter into a bad deal,” said analyst Simon Henderson of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

“And so less noticeably, perhaps, than Bibi Netanyahu, but not invisibly, the Saudis have been very active in lobbying in the absence of the US, where they seem to have given up, they’ve certainly been lobbying the French and, one can assume, the British and other significant groups as well,” he said.

Simon Henderson

Simon Henderson

Henderson cites a number of meetings between Saudi and French officials in recent weeks, including a visit to Jeddah by French Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian to discuss a new defense contract.

Last month, France sealed a $1.49 billion deal to overhaul Saudi ships and tankers and is discussing the sale of anti-aircraft missiles to Kingdom and fighter jets to Qatar. Also, last July, France signed a deal to provide the UAE anti-aircraft radar and spy satellites.

Most recently, the BBC reported that Riyadh has invested in Pakistani nuclear weapons projects and could get these bombs “at will” from Islamabad. Saudi Arabia, which signed the nuclear non-proliferation treaty and advocates a nuclear-free Middle East, has often said that if Iran reaches nuclear weapons capability, it will pursue its own nuclear deterrent.

For its part, Iran this week signed a joint statement with the IAEA that will allow nuclear inspectors to visit key nuclear sites such as the Arak nuclear reactor and the country’s main Gchine uranium mine in Bandar Abbas.

And in what is being seen as a boost for both the Iran and U.S. diplomats who need concessions from Iran to move the talks forward, the IAEA Thursday released its quarterly report on Iran, which shows Iran has dramatically slowed enrichment since electing Hassan Rouhani president. It also reports Iran has frozen construction of the contentious Arak reactor.

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