JERUSALEM (AP) — A day before world powers were to renew talks with Iran over its suspect nuclear program, Israel's prime minister urged the international community Monday to maintain firm pressure on the Islamic Republic until it quits enriching uranium that the West fears could eventually be used to produce atomic weapons.
Speaking before parliament, Benjamin Netanyahu said Iran was merely trying to buy time and trick the world into dropping tough sanctions against it without making any significant concessions on its nuclear ambitions.
"Iran is willing to give a little and get a lot, if not everything," he said. "It would be a historic mistake to lift the pressure now, just before the sanctions reach their goal. And particularly now we cannot give in and must keep up the pressure."
Israel, along with much of the international community, suspects that Iran is trying to develop nuclear weapons. Israel considers a nuclear Iran to be an existential threat and has repeatedly threatened to use military power to prevent it from passing that threshold.
Representatives of the U.S., Britain, France, Russia, China and Germany are to meet with Iran in Geneva on Tuesday hoping to end a decade of deadlock on Tehran's nuclear program.
Iran insists it is merely interested in a civilian nuclear program, a claim rejected by the West because of the Iranians' level of uranium enrichment, the type of reactors it operates and its development of long-range missiles capable of carrying nuclear warheads.
Crippled by international sanctions, Iran has recently signaled it may be willing to discuss Western concerns about uranium enrichment to 20 percent — a level that is higher than most reactors use for power and closer to weapons-grade uranium suitable for warheads.
Netanyahu said that was not enough and insisted that just as Syria was forced to disarm its chemical arsenal following a credible American military threat, Iran would only give up if international pressure was maintained.
"Iran can quickly enrich uranium at 3.5 percent to 90 percent — which is necessary for a nuclear weapon. Iran is currently willing to give up on 20 percent — which is no longer important, in exchange for serious easing of sanctions," he said. "International pressure is what led to the internal changes in Iran and brought them to a position of making any concessions."
Israel considers a nuclear-armed Iran a threat to its very survival, given repeated Iranian assertions that the Jewish state should not exist. Israel has a long list of other grievances against Iran, citing its support for hostile Arab militant groups, its development of long-range missiles and alleged Iranian involvement in attacks on Israeli targets around the world.
Addressing the U.N. General Assembly last month, Netanyahu repeated his mantra that Israel is prepared to act alone if it determines diplomacy has failed. He has warned the West not to be fooled by new Iranian President Hassan Rouhani's conciliatory tones. However, global powers appear ready to give the Iranian leader a chance.
In contrast to Netanyahu, his minister responsible for monitoring Iran's nuclear program offered a rare glimpse of optimism on Monday, saying this week's meetings in Geneva offered perhaps the last opportunity for a diplomatic solution.
Yuval Steinitz, Israel's minister for intelligence and strategic affairs, told reporters that if offered a real choice between the well-being of its economy and the continued enrichment of uranium, Iran may ultimately abandon its nuclear ambitions.
"We want the Geneva talks to succeed, on condition that it will be a sufficient and satisfactory solution," he said. "If the dilemma will be crystal clear to them that if they want to save the economy they need to give up their nuclear project and there is no other way — they cannot escape this hard decision at the end of the day they might do it. But it depends on the world."
Steinitz said the Israeli position remained the same and that the nuclear negotiators had to make sure Iran would not fool them.
"What we're saying is a very simple thing: Demand the only rational, logical, satisfactory solution. Nuclear civilian energy: yes. Uranium enrichment: no," he said, before alluding to European appeasement of Hitler before World War II. "We should all do our best to ensure that Geneva 2013 will not become Munich 1938."