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Israel's Netanyahu takes case against Iran deal to U.S. TV

U.S. President Barack Obama welcomes Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu inside the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, Marc
U.S. President Barack Obama welcomes Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu inside the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, Marc

By Jeffrey Heller

JERUSALEM (Reuters) - Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu took his case against a nuclear accord with Iran directly to the U.S. public on Sunday, appearing on American TV to decry "a very bad deal" he feared the Obama administration was pursuing.

Negotiators from world powers will resume talks with Iran in 10 days after failing late on Saturday to reach agreement on an initial proposal to ease international sanctions against Tehran in return for some restraints on its nuclear program.

Israel is highly skeptical of any move to reduce sanctions at all without first eliminating what it sees as a danger that Iran could build a nuclear weapon.

On CBS television's Face the Nation on Sunday, Netanyahu said the proposed interim agreement, as "described to us by American sources", would have allowed Iran to maintain its capability to enrich material for nuclear bombs.

A member of Netanyahu's security cabinet, Naftali Bennett, plans to travel to the United States in the coming week, and is expected to voice Israel's concerns to dozens of members of Congress, where support for Israel is traditionally strong.

"All Iran gives is a minor concession of taking 20 percent enriched uranium and bringing it down to a lower enrichment," Netanyahu said. "But that they could cover within a few weeks given the capabilities that they keep for enrichment."

"Zero - not one" uranium-enrichment centrifuge would be dismantled under a deal that would effectively turn Iran into "a threshold nuclear power" able to build an atomic weapon quickly once it decided to do so, Netanyahu said.

"Not a good idea, not a good deal - a very bad deal," he said, adding that the Iranians "get the hole in the tire of the sanctions and the air begins to come out".

The interim deal fell through on Saturday after France hinted that it came short of neutralizing the threat of an Iranian nuclear bomb.

Supporters of the proposed deal say it would have been only a first step designed to lead to a more comprehensive agreement. Most sanctions would be left in place and any easing could be reversed if Iran did not continue to cooperate.

"Nobody has talked about getting rid of the current architecture of sanctions. The pressure will remain," U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry told NBC's Meet the Press.

"We are not blind, and I don't think we're stupid," Kerry said. "I think we have a pretty strong sense of how to measure whether or not we are acting in the interests of our country and of the globe, and particularly of our allies like Israel and Gulf states and others in the region."

TENSE RELATIONS

Netanyahu's relations with President Barack Obama have often been tense. An American-accented speaker of English, he has occasionally used U.S. media to make his case to the public.

Netanyahu told his cabinet on Sunday it was good that the deal had fallen through, but said he recognized there was still "a strong desire" to reach an accord with Iran and pledged an all-out Israeli effort to prevent "a bad agreement".

He said he had spoken by telephone over the weekend with Obama, British Prime Minister David Cameron, French President Francois Hollande, Russian President Vladimir Putin and German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

"I asked all the leaders, 'What's the rush?'," Netanyahu told his cabinet on Sunday. "I requested they wait," he added. "It is good that that was ultimately the decision."

Netanyahu has long issued veiled threats that Israel, widely believed to be the Middle East's only nuclear power, could take unilateral military action against Iran, which says its atomic program has only peaceful purposes.

But many security experts believe Israel does not have the military capability to stop Iran's nuclear drive on its own. Political analysts have said Israel would risk international isolation if it did attack while talks were under way.

U.S. officials said on Friday it was Obama who telephoned the Israeli leader in an apparent bid to calm his anger over a prospective interim deal. Kerry visited Netanyahu before flying to attend the talks in Geneva.

On Sunday, Wendy Sherman, U.S. undersecretary for political affairs, arrived in Jerusalem for consultations with Israeli officials about the Geneva talks and Iran, a U.S. official said.

Nevertheless, on Friday Netanyahu make a blistering public attack against what he said was an agreement-in-the-making.

The West's intensified engagement with Iran has also sparked concern from Arab allies of the United States, including Saudi Arabia, and in Congress, where some Republicans and Democrats have called for even tougher sanctions.

"There are many Arab leaders in the region who are saying this is a very bad deal for the region and for the world," Netanyahu said on Sunday on CBS. "And you know when you have the Arabs and the Israelis speaking in one voice, it doesn't happen very often, I think it's worth paying attention to it."

(Additional reporting by Ari Rabinovitch; Editing by Peter Graff)

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