Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Politico: Israel granting some time for the US to take Harder line on Iran

(Ben Smith-Politico).Some Israeli officials say the country’s fingers are off the hair-trigger that would launch a strike on the Iranian nuclear program, but that convincing the United States to take a harder line on Iran remains a top national priority.

The apparent willingness of the Israelis to postpone a demand for confrontation by months – at least – represents a success for the Obama administration, which has sought to convince Israel that it should give sanctions a chance to work.

It also, Israelis said, represents the belief on both sides that Iranian technical difficulties – some of them reportedly the result of a computer virus attributed to Israeli intelligence – have slowed the program.

“The Iranians are moving more slowly than they want to – but they are still moving,” said Yossi Kuperwasser, the deputy director general of Israel’s Strategic Affairs Ministry. “Everybody understands that you have to give some time for the sanctions to bear their full fruit.”

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak – the two key decision makers in the possibility that Israel would strike Iran – have both stressed the seriousness of the threat in recent weeks, and the importance of a credible American military threat.

“We have yet to see any signs that the tyrants of Tehran are reconsidering their pursuit of nuclear weapons,” Netanyahu said at a speech in New Orleans earlier this month, where he offered tepid praise for sanctions and called for “a credible threat of military action.”

“If the international community, led by the United States, hopes to stop Iran’s nuclear program without resorting to military action, it will have to convince Iran that it is prepared to take such action,” he said.

But while Israeli leaders continue publicly to stress the immediacy, and urgency, of the Iranian threat, other Israeli officials said more specifically that they are waiting, if without a great deal of optimism, for summer to see whether sanctions and diplomacy have moved the Iranian program.

“We think that people are underestimating the effect of the sanctions,” said an aide to a hawkish Israeli minister. “There are indications that the regime is quite beside itself about them and on the defensive more and more.”

“In mid-2011 you will see a debate about whether the sanctions are working,” said one former senior Israeli military official, who noted with some satisfaction that the Iranians had suffered “technical disappointments

The sanctions, Kuperwasser said, “are very efficient and impressive.”

“But the purpose of the sanctions is not” to cripple the Iranian economy, he said. “The purpose of the sanctions is to stop the project.”

Netanyahu also continues to make the case – into which he has so far failed to direct Obama’s peace-making energies – that the moment is ripe for a broader regional settlement centered on the fear Israel shares with a range of Arab states.

“You never had the strategic stars so lined up between Israel and the Arabs,” said Ron Dermer, a top Netanyahu adviser. “We do have a window of time where the Arabs and Israeli have a common opponent that can create a strategic alliance.

“Any idea of a broader Arab-Israeli [peace] was pollyannish five years ago. But I think with the rise of Iran it’s a different situation today,” he said.

Other Israeli officials have adopted a new argument aimed at persuading Obama to act against Iran: His broad, career-long goal of limiting nuclear proliferation appears to be in danger on a number of fronts, and an Iranian bomb could, in particular, launch a new nuclear arms race in the Middle East.

“Does he want to be the president on whose watch the [nuclear non-proliferation treaty] collapses,” one Israeli official asked.

Israeli officials say the prospect of an Israeli attack on Iran will surface again if sanctions don’t have a dramatic effect, and few were willing to predict what decision the key players – Netanyahu and Barak –would take if presented with intelligence that Iran was on the brink of having the capacity to make a bomb.