ISTANBUL, Turkey -- Israel’s prime minister complained Sunday that six big world powers had given Iran "a freebie" in a new agreement that permits Tehran to enter negotiations about its disputed nuclear program May 23 without first halting enrichment of uranium that could be used in a nuclear bomb.
Airing the first important public criticism of the deal, reached Saturday in Istanbul, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said in Jerusalem that "my initial impression is that Iran has been given a freebie. It’s got five weeks to continue enrichment without any limitation, any inhibition."
The deal was worked out by a group that includes the United States, France, Britain, Germany, Russia and China. The world powers have been seeking for years to persuade Iran to negotiate limits on its program, which the group fears could be aimed at gaining bomb-making know-how.
The group decided that its best chance to coax Iran into a negotiation was to forgo any requirement that Tehran first halt enrichment. But the Israeli government fears that Iran is close to gaining all the knowledge it needs to build a bomb, and has threatened to bomb Iran’s nuclear installations if world powers cannot halt the program.
Netanyahu’s criticism may be followed by charges from supporters of Israel, Republican candidates and others that the Obama administration in particular needs to move forcefully and quickly to prevent Iran from gaining nuclear capability. It could be hard for Obama to continue his current approach on the Iran diplomacy if he is unable to build adequate support for it at home.
Republican presidential candidates have already begun trying to make Obama’s handling of the Iran issue a focus of their attacks on his foreign policy.
Netanyahu's criticism could also signal new tension in his relationship with Obama, which has at times been difficult.
A senior administration official, asked Saturday night if the new deal with Iran might face criticism, insisted that the White House is determined to get "concrete results" from the upcoming negotiations. The official, who requested anonymity, noted that Iran is facing powerful pressure to satisfy world powers because it wants relief from sanctions that have staggered its economy.
Netanyahu, in his comments, said Iran "should take immediate steps: First stop all enrichment, take out all the enriched material and dismantle the nuclear facility in Qom. I believe that the world's greatest practitioner of terrorism must not have the opportunity to develop atomic bombs."
His comments were recorded during a visit to his office by U.S. Sen. Joseph Lieberman (I-Conn.).
-- Paul Richter
Photo: U.S. Sen. Joseph Lieberman (I-Conn.), left, meets Sunday with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Jerusalem. Credit: Moshe Milner / Israeli Government Press Office