“Iran is carrying out nuclear blackmail as a negotiating tactic, and this should be answered by the immediate halt to negotiations and the implementation of tough steps by the world powers,” prime minister Naftali Bennett told US secretary of state Antony Blinken in a phone call on Thursday.
On Wednesday, the International Atomic Energy Agency reported that Iran has started the process of enriching uranium to 20 per cent purity with advanced centrifuges at its Fordow facility, which is buried inside a mountain.
Mr Bennett told Mr Blinken that instead of a return to the 2015 nuclear deal, “concrete steps” against Iran should be “taken by the major powers”.
An Israeli political source described the conversation as “lengthy and difficult”.
The 2015 deal saw Iran agree to curbs on its nuclear activities in exchange for an easing of sanctions. But it has stalled since the US withdrew from the agreement in 2018.
The US is participating indirectly in the negotiations with Tehran in Vienna, which restarted on Monday.
The administration of president Joe Biden has repeatedly reiterated its desire to return to the 2015 agreement, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), which former president Donald Trump exited. Following its exit, Washington began reinstating sanctions on Tehran while Iran began to openly breach the deal’s terms.
An Israeli official said Mr Bennett reiterated his objections to any lifting of sanctions against Iran, particularly under an interim deal, which would effectively mean “the massive flow of funds to the Iranian regime”.
Iran, which has always denied it is seeking to acquire a nuclear bomb, responded to Mr Bennett’s comments by saying the delegates in Vienna wouldn’t take orders from Israel.
Iranian foreign ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh said Israel was showing its “true colour” by opposing the Vienna negotiations.
“Not surprising. Dialogue is always despised by the regime whose genesis is based on war, tension and terror,” Mr Khatibzadeh said.
Israeli officials in recent weeks have expressed concern that the US is considering an agreement, which some diplomats have called “less for less”, to have the US lift some sanctions in exchange for Iran freezing its nuclear programme, which has advanced far beyond the JCPOA’s restrictions.
Israeli defence minister Benny Gantz, who travels to Washington next week to meet his US counterpart Lloyd Austin, on Thursday voiced confidence that Mr Biden would make good on a promise not to let Iran obtain nuclear weapons.
“I believe that the United States as a world leader will stand behind its promise and responsibility . . . I don’t think we are alone,” he said.
But he made clear that if a nuclear deal was not reached, “we must prepare ourselves for the alternatives”.