Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Israel and the United States in Disagreement over Iran

Israel and the United States in Disagreement over Iran
INSS Insight No. 340, June 6, 2012
Shalom, Zaki
No one who attended the May 29-30, 2012 INSS conference "Security Challenges
of the 21st Century: Israel's Search for Opportunities in a Turbulent
Region" could have failed to come away with the impression that Israel is
nearing the point at which it will have to make a decision on the Iranian
nuclear question. The statements made by the Prime Minister, the Defense
Minister, and Deputy Prime Minister Ya’alon left no room for doubt that time
is quickly running out. Their remarks offered a clear glimpse at the
fundamental considerations that inform the Israeli government's perception
of the current state of affairs.
First, all the efforts made in recent years and especially over the last
months to dissuade Iran from continuing to develop nuclear capabilities have
failed to bear fruit. These efforts have included lengthy dialogues with
Iran in a host of different settings and forums, economic sanctions, actions
designed to isolate it internationally, and even extensive covert activities
attributed to Israel and the United States. Israel welcomes the expansion of
the sanctions that are scheduled to be imposed against Iran in the coming
weeks, yet it does not pin great hopes on the ability of the sanctions to
stop Iran’s nuclear activity. It seems that for Iran, the nuclear project is
a supreme national interest, for which the regime of ayatollahs is prepared
to pay a steep price.
Second, there is little hope that the negotiations of recent weeks, in
Istanbul and Baghdad, as well as those scheduled for Moscow, can cause a
transformation. Iran can assume that an international forum that includes
Russia and China will find it hard to take far-reaching decisions against
it. Likewise, President Obama’s timeframe, influenced especially by the
upcoming US elections, present the President with a set of serious
constraints in terms of making far-reaching decisions on the Iranian nuclear
issue. Given these circumstances, it is little wonder that under the guise
of the talks, Iran continues its nuclear program, and according to Minister
Ya’alon, “is laughing all the way to the bomb.” Iran’s attitude to the
negotiations with the P5+1 does not indicate that Iran feels deterred in any
way or senses any urgency. Rather, it projects complacency, self-confidence,
and even disregard for anyone’s capacity to harm it.
Third, Israel is fairly disappointed by the conduct of President Obama’s
administration in the talks with Iran. From the Israeli perspective, there
is a conspicuous gap between the resolute tone of the Obama administration’s
statements on Iran and their translation into tough stances in the dialogue.
Prime Minister Netanyahu stated explicitly that the threshold of demands
presented to Iran in the recent talks is far from satisfactory to Israel:
“Iran must stop all enrichment of nuclear material; it must remove all
materials enriched to date from its territory; and it must dismantle its
underground nuclear enrichment plant at Qom. Only a specific Iranian
commitment during negotiations to meet all three demands and a clear
confirmation that they have been executed can stop Iran's nuclear plan. This
should be the goal of the negotiations. But I must say regretfully this is
not what is asked of Iran today.”
Fourth, the time that is elapsing presents Israel with serious dangers in
terms of its ability to take military action against Iran. Defense Minister
Barak and other speakers repeatedly stressed the risk that in the
not-so-distant future Iran will have reached the zone of immunity and that
will make it hard for Israel to take military action against Iran’s nuclear
facilities, or perhaps prevent it from doing so altogether. Moreover, the
circumstances and heavy pressures may lead Iran to show certain tactical
flexibility to make their position more acceptable to the P-5+1. If this
happens and an agreement is signed, Israel’s legitimacy to act against Iran
will be severely impaired.
The American administration is well aware of the considerations and
constraints facing Israel with regard to making a decision on the Iranian
issue. In an effort to allay Israel's concerns the administration has
labored to keep Israel well informed regarding the dialogue with Iran. Ms.
Michele Flournoy, former Undersecretary of Defense under President Obama,
and other American representatives who participated in the INSS conference,
expressed the administration’s positions, stressing the resolve of the
United States to thwart a nuclear Iran, and in any case the futility of an
Israeli military operation against Iran. Among the points made in this
context were the following:
President Obama has a reliable record in meeting his commitments. His
declarations about preventing Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons are
unambiguous and not open to interpretation. The President has repeatedly
said that the American policy on Iran is prevention, not containment.
During his term in office, President Obama has strengthened strategic
relations between the United States and Israel in an unprecedented manner,
thereby manifesting his determination to safeguard Israel’s security.
The demands currently made of Iran are not final; they are merely the first
stage of demands in the dialogue. Later, further demands will be made of
Iran, and those will presumably satisfy Israel’s concerns.
An Israeli military operation will not solve the Iranian nuclear problem,
though it may perhaps postpone it. Only the United States can come up with a
complete solution to the problem.
United States Ambassador to Israel Dan Shapiro also worked to allay Israeli
concerns. In his closing remarks, he stressed (in Hebrew) that “we do not
intend to continue talking just for the sake of talking. The window of
opportunity is closing. The clock is ticking and Iran must change its ways.”
Against the backdrop of the dialogue between the P-5+1 and Iran in recent
weeks, two major issues have emerged that display clear differences between
Israel and the United States. First, Israel’s timetable vis-à-vis Iran
differs vastly from America's. While Israel operates out of a sense that it
has very little time left, the United States seems to be in no hurry because
it has a much longer timeframe. Second, Israel is making very specific and
concrete demands of Iran, much more far-reaching than those being made by
the United States, at least for now.
It seems that in the current circumstances, the bottom line is that Israel
will find it hard to respond favorably to the suggestion/demand by President
Obama’s administration to place its trust in America’s resolve to prevent a
nuclear Iran and not act on its own. It seems that only a presentation of a
tough American stance in the talks with Iran, accompanied by concrete steps
against it, may perhaps persuade the Netanyahu government to respond
positively to the administration’s demands on the Iranian issue.

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