Israel to Obama: hold Iran's feet to fire, or else

BEIRUT Fri Feb 6, 2009 10:38am EST

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in Tehran, December 25, 2008. REUTERS/Morteza Nikoubazl

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in Tehran, December 25, 2008.

Credit: Reuters/Morteza Nikoubazl

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BEIRUT (Reuters) - Israel will go along with President Barack Obama's Iran diplomacy, but try to shorten the deadline for results by signaling its willingness to attack Iranian nuclear sites if need be.

Israel votes on Tuesday and its next prime minister -- the front-runner is rightwinger Benjamin Netanyahu -- is likely to go to Washington within a few months and press Obama to stick to his campaign promise not to let Iran develop an atomic bomb.

Aaron David Miller, a former U.S. Middle East negotiator now at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, said the visit would entail a "strategic conversation" with Obama.

"It need not be conclusive or threatening, but it will be very serious and ... scare the daylights out of the president that unless the international community mobilizes to address the situation, the Israelis will," Miller said.

Unlike his predecessor, George W. Bush, Obama has offered direct talks with Tehran. But he has yet to define his policy, which officials say is under review. He has spoken of tougher sanctions if needed and has not excluded military action.

Israelis fret that diplomatic overtures will only give Iran more time to perfect its uranium enrichment program -- which the Iranians say is meant to produce electricity, not bombs.

The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has found no proof of Iranian nuclear bomb-making. But the West sees as sinister Iran's refusal to stop enriching uranium -- an activity it is permitted as a Non-Proliferation Treaty signatory.

Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak called this week for a "strategic agreement" with Washington to ensure that any talks with the Iranians "should be kept short and followed by harsh sanctions and readiness to take action."

ONE-YEAR WINDOW

And an Israeli legislator and weapons expert, Isaac Ben-Israel, said his country had a year or so to attack Iranian nuclear sites pre-emptively and could do so on its own, even if such strikes would only delay, not destroy, Iran's program.

Iranian officials dismiss the chance of a blitz by Israel, assumed to be the Middle East's only nuclear power, but say Iran would retaliate against Israeli and U.S. interests if attacked.

"We are not worried about an Israeli attack," Aliakbar Javanfekr, an aide to Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, told Reuters last week, adding that "wise people" in the United States and Europe would restrain the Israelis.

Any Israeli bombing would unleash more chaos in the Middle East and global oil markets, inevitably entangling the United States and its Gulf Arab allies, and posing ferocious new challenges to U.S. involvements in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Ali Ansari, an Iran scholar at St Andrews University in Scotland, said an Israeli strike would be catastrophic and that discussion of it aimed at sabotaging any U.S.-Iran dialogue.

"It's extraordinarily unlikely. It would completely hamstring the Obama administration," he declared.

Others are less ready to rule it out.

Mark Fitzpatrick, senior fellow for non-proliferation at London's Institute for Strategic Studies, said an Israeli attack was "a significant possibility, but not a probability."

Israel, he said, is focused on a short period before Iran can produce enough low-enriched uranium to store secretly for later enrichment to weapons grade and potential use in a bomb.

"That point will probably be some time toward the end of this year," Fitzpatrick said. Israel would then have to weigh the efficacy of any attack against its negative consequences.

IAEA chief Mohamed ElBaradei said this week Iran would need another two to five years to achieve nuclear weapons capacity, citing CIA and other U.S. intelligence estimates.

GREEN LIGHT

Many analysts argue that Israel could not act without a green light from Washington -- particularly since the direct route to Iran lies through U.S.-managed Iraqi air space.

"My sense is, on something like this the no-surprise rule will apply," said Daniel Levy, a senior fellow at the New America Foundation. "America will have the opportunity to red-light it. Therefore I don't think it's in any way imminent."

Miller concurred. "For the Israelis to be the Lone Ranger on this is almost unimaginable," he said.

Fitzpatrick said Obama stood a better chance than Bush of achieving early diplomatic progress to stay Israel's hand.

"He is probably more likely to be able to persuade other states to take tougher sanctions measures precisely because it would be coupled with an outreach to Iran," he said.

China and Russia, which both wield veto power on the U.N. Security Council, have resisted tighter sanctions, especially after U.S. intelligence agencies said in December 2007 they believed Iran had halted its nuclear arms program in 2003.

But Miller said he doubted Obama's diplomacy would swiftly produce a grand bargain with Iran or prevent it from developing a nuclear weapon "however nice the music sounds."

"It will not be effective enough to retard that point at which the Iranians will be perceived to have gone beyond the point of no return -- even if they have not," he said.

"The Israelis will be pushing us to ensure that Iran never gets to that point and failing that, they will consider a military strike," Miller added.

Israelis are haunted by the Holocaust, alarmed at Iranian rhetoric and enmeshed in the narrow calculus of survival, not the global strategic considerations of their U.S. ally.

And they are determined to maintain the regional military supremacy that a nuclear-armed Iran would threaten.

Israel's recent onslaught on Iranian-backed Hamas militants in the Gaza Strip was a message to Tehran, said an analyst for Janusian, a security and political risk consultancy in London.

"This is the death and destruction they can rain down on anyone who threatens them."

(Additional reporting by Sue Pleming in Washington, Edmund Blair in Tehran, William Maclean in London and Dan Williams in Jerusalem; Editing by Charles Dick1)

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