by P. David Hornik
The open-to-the-public U.S.-Israeli war of words on Iran continued this week.
Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said he didn’t believe Israel had “made a decision as to whether or not they will go in and attack Iran at this time” and added: “With regards to the issue of where we’re at from a diplomatic point of view, the reality is that we still think there is room to continue to negotiate.”
Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and other top Israeli officials, for their part, have been saying the negotiations with Iran have failed and demanding that Washington announce an end to them.
With Panetta at the same Pentagon briefing, Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, cast doubt on the efficacy of an Israeli strike on Iran, saying: “I may not know about all of their capabilities but I think that it’s a fair characterization to say that they could delay but not destroy Iran’s nuclear capabilities.”
Michael Oren, Israel’s ambassador to the U.S., responded: “Diplomacy hasn’t succeeded. We’ve come to a very critical juncture where important decisions do have to be made.”
As for Dempsey’s statement that an Israeli strike could only delay Iran, Oren said: “That, on the basis of our previous experience, is not an argument against [a strike]. In the past, we have operated on the assumption that we can only gain a delay.”
And he added: “An Iranian nuclear weapon is an existential threat to Israel. We don’t just say it. They say it as well. They confirm it.”
Indeed, “they” have been saying it more than ever lately. On Wednesday an Iranian defense official said that “there is no other way but to stand firm and resist until Israel is destroyed.” On Thursday Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, said that Israel “will disappear” from the map.
All this at a time when Israel’s domestic discourse has been abuzz with talk of a possible strike on Iran, with citizens lining up to upgrade or replace gas masks and rushing to renovate air-raid shelters.
To understand better how things came to such a pass, it will help to go back.
Last February 14, European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton received a proposal to hold talks from Iran’s nuclear negotiator Saeed Jalili. She sat on it; as far as is known, she made no reply.
On March 5, Netanyahu met with President Barack Obama at the White House; by all accounts, their talk focused heavily on the Iranian issue. The next day, in his speech to AIPAC, Netanyahu again put great emphasis on the need to stop Iran from going nuclear.
That same day, March 6, the New York Times trumpeted: “World Powers Agree to Resume Nuclear Talks With Iran.” The Times quoted Ashton saying: “I have offered to resume talks with Iran on the nuclear issue” and noted: “Ms. Ashton’s positive response to an Iranian offer made last month to resume the talks…came one day after…Obama urged…Netanyahu…to give diplomacy and economic sanctions a chance to work before taking military action.”
It was hard, in other words, not to infer that Obama, worried about a sense of urgency and resolve that he heard from Netanyahu, called up the EU foreign policy chief in a last-ditch move to box Israel in by quickly setting up talks with Iran, after all.On March 8, Charles Krauthammer published a Washington Post column called “Obama vs. Israel,” worth quoting at length:
After ostensibly tough talk about preventing Iran from going nuclear, the Obama administration acquiesced this week to yet another round of talks with the mullahs….
These negotiations don’t just gain time for a nuclear program about whose military intent the International Atomic Energy Agency is issuing alarming warnings. They make it extremely difficult for Israel to do anything about it (while it still can), lest Israel be universally condemned for having aborted a diplomatic solution….
Obama garnered much AIPAC applause by saying that his is not a containment policy but a prevention policy. But what has he prevented?…Holding talks is not prevention. Imposing sanctions is not prevention.
Prevention is halting and reversing the program. Yet Iran is tripling its uranium output, moving enrichment facilities deep under a mountain near Qom and impeding IAEA inspections of weaponization facilities.
So what is Obama’s real objective? “We’re trying to make the decision to attack as hard as possible for Israel,” an administration official told the Post in the most revealing White House admission since “leading from behind.”
Revealing and shocking.…
Almost half a year later, where are we?
The U.S. and its allies have boosted sanctions on Iran—while, at the same time, Obama has handed Iran loopholes and Iran has boosted its ability to evade and circumvent the sanctions.
The renewed P5+1 talks with Iran have essentially broken down, the last two rounds having been demoted to the level of technical experts instead of diplomats—yet are still being cynically strung along. Ashton and Jalili are set to meet yet again at the end of this month in a transparent, mutual effort to keep the pretense of talks going and keep Israel boxed in.
And what has Iran been doing while the talks have been maintained on life support?
The latest U.S. National Intelligence Estimate “contends that Iran has made surprising, notable progress in the research and development of key components of its military nuclear program.”
A senior Israeli official “has said Iran has made significant progress in assembling a nuclear warhead.”
The new NIE further states, it was reported this week, that Iran has “boosted its efforts to attach a nuclear warhead to ballistic missiles.”
In other words, just as those—like Krauthammer and others—who opposed the talks predicted, Iran has exploited the gift of several months’ more time to keep surging ahead toward the bomb and the ability to deliver it.
Israel sees Iran rapidly reaching a point where its nuclear facilities will be sufficiently dispersed and shielded underground to be immune to an Israeli strike. Jerusalem’s “time is running out” talk is not a bluff. Obama wants to avoid a war, and rising gas prices, before the elections; Israel wants to survive—possibly irreconcilable goals.
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