The March 5 meeting in Washington between President Barack Obama and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu may be the final attempt on the part of the US to bring Israel around to its position on the global efforts to curb Iran’s nuclear ambitions.
President Obama’s National Security Adviser Tom Donilon concluded three days of talks with the Prime Minister and other Israeli leaders in Jerusalem Monday, in the midst of a brewing Israeli push for a military end to Iran’s nuclear plans. Donilon conducted a caustic, 2-hour conversation with Netanyahu, in which the two disagreed radically on the ways to deal with Iran’s progress in enriching uranium and the relocation of its nuclear production to underground sites.
Monday’s statement from the White House said that Donilon and the U.S. delegation discussed “the full range” of mutual security concerns, and that the visit was “part of the continuous and intensive dialogue between the United States and Israel and reflects our unshakable commitment to Israel’s security.”
Donilon was only the latest American official to meet with Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak, coming on the heels Chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Martin Dempsey’s January visit to Israel. Dempsey said on CNN Sunday that an Israeli attack on Iranian nuclear facilities would be “destabilizing,” and that such a move would not be “prudent at this point.”
According to sources in Israel, Netanyahu bitterly reproached the Obama administration for essentially assuring Iran that it could continue to enrich uranium, as long as it promised not to build a nuclear weapon. In Netanyahu’s view, this was a substantial deviation from the US administration’s previous assurances to Israel, as Tehran is now free to upgrade its uranium enrichment level to weapons grade. Israel will not tolerate this change, stated the enraged Netanyahu, suggesting he will seriously consider the military option.
Washington Post columnist David Ignatius wrote this month that Defense Secretary Leon Panetta “believes there is a strong likelihood that Israel will strike Iran in April, May or June before Iran enters what Israelis described as a ‘zone of immunity’ to commence building a nuclear bomb.”
But the US is apparently convinced that this option will simply not work. In his interview on CNN, Gen. Dempsey said Israel only has the capability to strike Iran and delay the Iranians “probably for a couple of years. But some of the targets are probably beyond their reach.”
Meanwhile, a high-ranking delegation from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) arrived in Tehran early Monday morning. The delegation, headed by Herman Nackaerts, the IAEA deputy director general and the head of the IAEA Department of Safeguards, has come to Tehran to “help resolve disputes over Iran’s nuclear activities.”
The talks in Tehran follow an announcement Sunday by Iran’s oil ministry that it was halting crude exports to French and British companies, an order following a threat that Iran would cut oil exports to some European Union countries in retaliation for sanctions put in place last month by the EU and the United States.
“Iran has no difficulty in selling and exporting its crude oil. … We have our own customers and have designated alternatives for our oil sales. We shall sell to new customers, who will replace French and UK companies,” ministry spokesman Ali Reza Nikzad-Rahbar said in a statement.
But Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi said Monday he expected relations with Europe to improve. The two sides need each other, he said, adding, “I believe that relations will return to their earlier state.”
General Nikolai Makarov, Chief of the General Staff of the Armed Forces of Russia and First Deputy Minister of Defense, said last week that “Iran is a sore spot, I think a decision will be made by the summer.”
Russia is adamantly opposed to any military action against Iran, although it supported UN Security Council sanctions against Tehran.
According to Gideon Rachman at the Financial Times, Israel is not the only factor. Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States are also “obsessed with the need to prevent Iran getting nuclear weapons.” Also, Barack Obama may still be very keen to avoid conflict, but in a presidential election year, it is harder for him to rein in Israel. Rachman suggests Britain and France – the two most important European military powers – are also seriously contemplating the prospect of conflict with Iran. Indeed, in marked contrast to the run-up to the Iraq war, the British and the French seem to be more bellicose than the Americans.
Last week, US Defense Intelligence Agency Director Lieutenant General Ronald Burgess told a Senate Armed Services Committee that Iran will not start the war in the Middle East, unless, of course, the US acts first. However, Burgess added that, despite increased sanctions imposed by the US and a buildup of American military forces surrounding the country, Iran is unlikely to halt its nuclear weapons program.
“Iran can close the Strait of Hormuz at least temporarily, and may launch missiles against United States forces and our allies in the region if it is attacked,” Burgess said at the Senate committee hearing. “Iran could also attempt to employ terrorist surrogates worldwide. However, the agency assesses Iran is unlikely to initiate or intentionally provoke a conflict.”
It appears that Prime Minister Netanyahu is not sharing the Americans’ optimism, and may very well be planning a clash with Iran before the US makes up its mind.
In late January, Israeli and American officials mysteriously sheleved plans for a joint missile exercise, the largest of its kind, in Israel. The exercise, originally slated for this spring, was rescheduled for October of 2012.
The drill will involve a surge of American troops to Israel by the thousands, marking the biggest test of its type for both nations. As tensions worsen between Israel and its unfriendly neighbor, Iranian authorities fear that the exercise will test out more than just the missile capabilities of the two allies.
But at this point it isn’t at all clear whether Netanyahu is prepared to wait until October.Yori Yanover
About the Author: Yori Yanover has been a working journalist since age 17, before he enlisted and worked for Ba'Machane Nachal. Since then he has worked for Israel Shelanu, the US supplement of Yedioth, JCN18.com, USAJewish.com, Lubavitch News Service, Arutz 7 (as DJ on the high seas), and the Grand Street News. He has published Dancing and Crying, a colorful and intimate portrait of the last two years in the life of the late Lubavitch Rebbe, (in Hebrew), and two fun books in English: The Cabalist's Daughter: A Novel of Practical Messianic Redemption, and How Would God REALLY Vote.
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