Iran hopes to covertly advance its nuclear programme, says Israel

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<span>Photograph: Hannah McKay/Reuters</span>
Photograph: Hannah McKay/Reuters

Israeli foreign minister claims Tehran only agreed to restart talks to get sanctions removed

Israel’s foreign minister, Yair Lapid, has claimed his country’s arch-enemy, Iran, had only agreed to restart nuclear negotiations to remove sanctions and covertly advance its weapons programme.

Talks restarted in Vienna on Monday between Iran and the world’s leading powers including Germany, France, the UK, China and Russia after a pause of five months.

Speaking in London before the talks, Lapid suggested Iran’s nuclear ambitions could be halted with “tighter sanctions, tighter supervision and conducting talks from a position of strength”.

Standing alongside the British foreign secretary, Liz Truss, he said Iran was “at the talks for only one reason, to get sanctions lifted because it needed money for its global terrorist network and for their continued race towards a nuclear weapon”.

He predicted Tehran would “play for time, earn billions from lifting sanctions, deceive the world and covertly advance their nuclear programme”.

“The intelligence is clear and leaves no doubt. If Iran obtained a nuclear weapon, it would lead to a nuclear arms race across the Middle East,” Lapid said, adding: “The world can prevent this and it can prevent this through tighter sanctions, tighter supervision and conducting any talks through a position of strength.”

The British decision to host the Israeli foreign minister on the day the talks started was condemned by Iran’s foreign ministry. In a statement, it said: “The UK issues anti-Iran statements with the Israeli regime – a nuclear-holder and enemy of the 2015 nuclear agreement. Utter lack of goodwill and an evident sign that London doesn’t seek to preserve the deal. You can’t have lunch with the foe of a deal and for dinner sit at another table to claim support for the same deal.”

Lapid is due to deliver a similar tough message to the French president, Emmanuel Macron, on Tuesday, but both France and the UK remain at present committed to seeing most US sanctions lifted if Iran takes consequent verifiable steps to return to compliance with the deal, including allowing UN nuclear inspectors acceptable access to Iran’s nuclear sites.

Israel is isolated in the Middle East to the extent that the Gulf states now follow the US lead in accepting that a revival of the nuclear deal would be good for stability in the region. But that isolation may prove temporary if the talks do not manage to make any progress.

In a worrying sign for western diplomats, the makeup of Iran negotiating team was heavily weighted towards the removal of economic sanctions rather than restoring Tehran’s compliance with the terms of the nuclear programme.

The team was led by chief negotiator Ali Bagheri, two deputy foreign ministers for economic affairs and legal affairs, the deputy governor of the Iran Central Bank, the deputy economy minister, the deputy oil minister, an economic adviser to the Iranian vice-president, and former central bank governor.

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