JERUSALEM – Israel’s prime minister harshly condemned the international community’s nuclear deal with Iran on Sunday while Western-allied Arab states in the Persian Gulf were conspicuously quiet, reflecting the jitters felt throughout the Middle East over Iran’s acceptance on the global stage.
But elsewhere, many welcomed the agreement as an important first step toward curbing Iran’s suspect nuclear program.
Israel and Gulf countries led by Saudi Arabia have formed an unlikely alliance in their opposition to Sunday’s deal, joined together by shared concerns about a nuclear-armed Iran.
While the Gulf countries remained silent in the first hours after the deal was reached in Geneva, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu wasted little time in criticizing it, calling it a “historic mistake” and saying he was not bound by the agreement.
Speaking to his Cabinet, Netanyahu said the world had become a “more dangerous place” as a result of the deal and reiterated a long-standing threat to use military action against Iran if needed, declaring that Israel “has the right and the duty to defend itself by itself.”
Sunday’s agreement is just the first stage of what is hoped to bring about a final deal ensuring that Iran does not develop a nuclear weapon.
Under the deal, Iran will curb many of its nuclear activities for six months in exchange for limited and gradual relief from painful economic sanctions. The six-month period will give diplomats time to negotiate a more sweeping agreement.
The package includes freezing Iran’s ability to enrich uranium at a maximum 5 per cent level, which is well below the threshold for weapons-grade material and is aimed at easing Western concerns that Tehran could one day seek nuclear arms. International monitors will oversee Iran’s compliance.
For Iran, keeping the enrichment program active was a critical goal. Iran’s leaders view the country’s ability to make nuclear fuel as a source of national pride and an essential part of nuclear self-sufficiency.
But for Israel any enrichment is unacceptable. Israel says the process of upgrading low-level enriched uranium to weapons grade is relatively simple.
It had demanded that all enrichment be halted, and that Iran’s abilities to produced uranium be rolled back.
Netanyahu also called for economic sanctions to be increased, saying that any relief would make Iran less willing to compromise in the next round of talks. Israel also fears that Iran will trick the international community, much the way North Korea did in its march toward building a nuclear bomb.
“Today the world became a much more dangerous place because the most dangerous regime in the world made a significant step in obtaining the most dangerous weapons in the world,” he told his Cabinet.
Israeli officials acknowledged they would have to turn their focus toward affecting the outcome of the final negotiations. Israel is not part of the Geneva talks but remains in close touch with the U.S. and other participants.
Israel feels especially threatened by Iran, given Tehran’s repeated references to destroying Israel, its support for hostile militant groups on Israel’s borders and its development of long-range missiles. It dismisses Iranian claims that the nuclear program is for peaceful purposes.
Israeli President Shimon Peres, a Nobel Peace laureate, expressed cautious optimism that Sunday’s deal could change the region.
“I would like to say to the Iranian people: You are not our enemies and we are not yours. There is a possibility to solve this issue diplomatically. It is in your hands. Reject terrorism. Stop the nuclear program. Stop the development of long-range missiles,” he said.
Another Nobel peace laureate, Mohammed ElBaradei, Egypt’s pro-democracy leader and former director of the U.N. Nuclear watchdog agency, welcomed the deal.
In a tweet on his official account, he wrote: “After decade of failed policies, world better off w/ Iran deal. Equity, trust building, respect & dialogue R key to any conflict resolution.”
The muted response in the Gulf came after the rulers of Qatar and Kuwait met Saudi King Abdullah over the weekend to discuss regional issues, foremost Iran.
Saudi Arabia and Iran’s regional enmity has increasingly played out as a proxy war in Syria with both countries providing lethal support for the warring sides. Iran and Saudi Arabia also back opposing political blocs in neighbouring Lebanon.
Saudi Arabia’s Sunni rulers have accused Iran of funding Shiite rebellions in the Gulf countries of Yemen and Bahrain, and of whipping up fervour among the kingdom’s Shiite minority.
U.S. allies in the Gulf have spent billions of dollars on beefing up their militaries with the purchase of U.S. weapons aimed at countering Iran’s rising military might.
Outside of the region, countries welcomed the deal.
Herman Van Rompuy, president of the European Council, called it an important step toward “providing assurances that guarantee the peaceful nature of the Iranian nuclear program.” He said it was crucial to ensure the deal is properly implemented.
Britain, one of the parties in the talks, said the U.K. and its partners will implement the deal in good faith and will look for Iran to do the same.
“This is a very important change, that it is possible to agree with Iran about these matters, that the political will from all sides has been there,” Foreign Secretary William Hague told Sky News.
French President Francois Hollande, whose government was also in the negotiations, said he was committed to seeing the deal succeed.
“France will stay engaged to reach a final deal in this subject. The intermediary deal adopted overnight is a step in the right direction,” he said.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said “everyone came out a winner.”
He said the agreement would help to build trust and the international inspections it calls for should remove questions about whether Iran intends to develop nuclear weapons. Lavrov said that Russia fully expects Iran to co-operate with the U.N. nuclear monitor, the International Atomic Energy Agency.
Iran’s eastern neighbour Pakistan, a declared nuclear power, said the deal “should augur well for peace and security in our region and the world at large,” it said.
Iran’s allies, meanwhile, lined up behind the deal.
Iraqi government spokesman Ali al-Moussawi called it a “step forward in order to solve other regional problems.”
The Syrian government, which relies on Iran’s support in its battle against rebels fighting to topple President Bashar Assad, also said it was proof that negotiations were the best way to resolve a conflict.