Thaw in U.S.-Iran relationship isolates Israel

Published: October 4, 2013

The charm offensive at the United Nations General Assembly by Iran’s new President has isolated Israel and left the government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu with few options against Tehran’s nuclear threat.

Israel has scant ability to scupper looming negotiations with Tehran over its nuclear program, or to steer the international posture to ensure any deals contain strict and verifiable demands.

For Israel, the alternative to diplomatic persuasion – a military strike against Iran’s nuclear facilities – is unlikely in the foreseeable future.

The possibility of the United States joining or aiding Israel in a strike if Iran prevaricates or reneges on agreements disappeared when President Barack Obama shrank from intervening in the Syrian civil war.

In his speech to the UN general assembly on Tuesday, Netanyahu suggested Israel might take unilateral military action against Tehran’s nuclear facilities. “If Israel is forced to stand alone, Israel will stand alone,” he said. “And in standing alone, Israel will know that we are defending many, many others.”

Netanyahu undoubtedly got silent approval for that remark from the Arab nations in the Middle East, who are as appalled by the idea of a nuclear-armed Iran as is Israel.

But the time when Israel might have been able to launch an attack on the Iranian nuclear facilities with minimum political repercussions was about a year ago, while the menacing Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was still President.

Israel was dissuaded from doing so by intense pressure from the Obama administration. A new opportunity is only likely to arise if Iran is clearly seen to be barricading its nuclear weapons program against inspection and demolition.

Iran’s new President Hassan Rouhani, one of his country’s former negotiators with the International Atomic Energy Agency, is far too skilled an operator to make himself vulnerable to such charges.

Rouhani also has the advantage that in the U.S. and Europe there is a sense of relief and willingness to believe he is being genuine in offering to negotiate. There is little appetite for addressing all the reasons for being sceptical.

Rouhani’s 15-minute telephone conversation with Obama, the first such contact between Washington and Tehran in over 34 years, has been widely portrayed as an historic moment approaching the significance of Richard Nixon’s 1972 visit to China.

So Netanyahu came across as an unwelcome doomsayer in his speech to the UN assembly on Tuesday when he attempted to pour cold water on the mood of optimism.

Netanyahu warned the General Assembly not to take Rouhani’s offer to negotiate at face value. While former Iranian President Mahmoud Amadinejad was a wolf in wolf’s clothing, Netanyahu said, Rouhani is “a wolf in sheep’s clothing, a wolf who thinks he can pull the wool over the eyes of the international community.”

Indeed, although often portrayed as a reformer, Rouhani has been at the heart of the Iranian authoritarian Islamic regime for two decades, including in key positions in the malevolent security apparatus.

The Israeli Prime Minister reiterated the absolutist position his government has always taken over dealing with Iran’s nuclear program.

Despite Tehran’s insistence it only wants to develop nuclear technology for electricity generation, Israel believes the real aim is to achieve the capacity to make nuclear weapons.

Netanyahu believes Iran has only decided to offer to negotiate because international sanctions have brought the country’s economy to its knees. His position is that no sanctions should be lifted until Tehran has fully disclosed and shut down its nuclear program.

Now, he has said, is the time to strengthen sanctions, not barter them away.

“If you want to knock out Iran’s nuclear weapons program peacefully, don’t let up the pressure. Keep it up. If Iran advances its nuclear weapons program during negotiations, strengthen the sanctions,” he said on Tuesday.

But the time is long past when the United States or any of the other members of the group designated by the UN to negotiate with Tehran – permanent Security Council members China, Russia, Britain, France plus Germany – are going to demand that Iran hand over its entire nuclear program ahead of sanctions being lifted.

Most important from Israel’s point of view, the so-called P5+1 group is unlikely to demand that Iran dismantle its centrifuge cascades used for enriching uranium, and hand over for safe storage abroad all the uranium it has already processed and which might be used to make a bomb.

Iran has said many times that it refuses absolutely to give up its right under international nuclear law and the Non-Proliferation Treaty to enrich uranium by up to five per cent to make fuel for nuclear reactors. (Material for weapons requires uranium to be enriched by 90 per cent or so.)

While Rouhani returned to Tehran after his visit to New York, Iran’s foreign minister Javad Zarif continues to lobby international opinion-makers ahead of the scheduled meeting on October 15 in Geneva with the P5+1 group.

Netanyahu’s ability to shape events is further diminished by his poor relationship with Obama. That might not matter so much if the substantial pro-Israel lobby in the U.S. was behind Netanyahu, but all the evidence from comments made by significant figures in that lobby is that they, too, are prepared to take Rouhani at his word.

So Israel finds itself in the weakest position over the Iran issue that it has been in for many years. And unless the Netanyahu government plays a far more clever and careful public relations game than was displayed this week, his administration risks wider isolation.

Copyright © 2013 Jonathan Manthorpe