Jodie Rudoren and David E. Sanger / The New York Times & The Times of Israel – 2013-10-06 01:25:48
US and Israel Share a Goal in Iran Talks, but Not a Strategy
Jodie Rudoren and David E. Sanger / The New York Times
JERUSALEM (October 3, 2013) — Fearing that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was on the verge of ordering an airstrike on Iran’s nuclear plants, President Obama sent two emissaries here almost exactly a year ago to stop him. Warning that the White House could not abide an attack in the run-up to the November elections, the Americans persuaded the prime minister to give the newest sanctions time to bite, according to Americans and Israelis familiar with the tense exchanges.
During Mr. Obama’s own visit here in March, he made clear, again, that if Iran truly got close to building a bomb, the United States would act, squashing talk of an Israeli strike since.
Now, Mr. Netanyahu sounds like a man who regrets not acting when he had the chance. In his speech this week at the United Nations, followed by a media blitz and a series of private briefings, he has only grudgingly endorsed the negotiations between the West and Iran expected to start Oct. 15 in Geneva. As leaders in Washington and Europe increasingly acknowledge that Iran will most likely retain some nuclear fuel production capability, Mr. Netanyahu set out what most experts see as unrealistic conditions — a complete dismantlement of key nuclear facilities — and has repeatedly warned against relaxing sanctions until a deal is done.
But while his United Nations address included the most explicit warning to date of a unilateral strike — “If Israel is forced to stand alone, Israel will stand alone” — Israeli and other analysts say that Mr. Netanyahu’s hands are now all but tied. Israel could hardly exercise its military option while the United States is negotiating, experts say, and would be hard-pressed to strike if Washington and its other allies reach a deal with Iran.
“He’s cornered — is he going to spoil the international celebration and say, ‘I think it’s not a good enough deal so I’m going to use the military option?’ ” asked Michael Herzog, a retired Israeli brigadier general who is now a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “If there is a good deal, it’s a good deal for him as well. If there is no deal, he can go it alone, but if there is a bad deal, what can he do? He’s trapped. That’s his nightmare.”
While Washington and Jerusalem have the same stated goal of stopping Iran from developing a nuclear weapon, there is a growing chasm over what might be the acceptable terms for an agreement. Mr. Netanyahu’s new mantra is “distrust, dismantle and verify,” and in an interview with NBC News he insisted on “a full dismantling of Iran’s nuclear program,” something Iran’s new president, Hassan Rouhani, has made clear is unacceptable.
Israel, like the Sunni Arab Gulf States, also fears that resolving the nuclear issue would remove the primary instrument for containing Iran as a regional power. Lifting sanctions would not only signal new international legitimacy for Tehran, but it would also allow Iran to rebuild its hobbled economy, giving it the means to intervene all across the region, financing radical groups and promoting its ideology.
The United States, on the other hand, sees broad benefits to a rapprochement. And while its official position is also that Iran must forgo major elements of its existing programs — including its 18,000 centrifuges, which enrich uranium, and a heavy-water reactor that could create another pathway to a bomb — Mr. Obama has not recently used the word “dismantle” in his own public comments. Instead he has simply said that Iran must prove its program is peaceful in nature, as Mr. Rouhani insists it is.
That decision not to declare publicly that Iran must destroy much of what it has built “really riled the Israelis on their trip,” according to one former senior American official who met with some of them.
An American involved in devising the West’s negotiating strategy said, “The Israelis want to go back to where the Iranians were a decade ago.” The American continued: “No one in the US disagrees with that as a goal. The question is whether it’s achievable, and whether it’s better to have a small Iranian capacity that is closely watched, or to insist on eliminating their capacity altogether.”
There is also a continuing divergence on how far Iran is today from developing a bomb.
While American and Israeli intelligence agencies largely agree on their assessments, Mr. Netanyahu has chosen an aggressive interpretation of the evidence, that Iran is a few weeks or months from producing a weapon, while the White House maintains it remains a year or two away.
Amos Yadlin, a former head of Israeli military intelligence who now leads the Institute for National Security Studies in Tel Aviv, said those timetables would also be the main barometer for assessing any future agreement. If the agreement leaves enough of the nuclear facilities in place that “it’s a matter of a few months, then it’s a bad agreement,” Mr. Yadlin said.
He continued, “If whatever they’re left with they need a few years for the bomb, this is a good agreement.”
“I would discuss it privately with the president of the United States, what is the acceptable deal and what is the unacceptable deal,” he added. “I think it’s more effective than an appearance on the U.N. stage that I don’t think is helping the negotiators or the policy makers to make their positions stronger.”
On Thursday, in testimony before the Senate, Wendy Sherman, who is heading the Iran negotiations for the United States, said that, “No deal is better than a bad deal.”
The substance of Mr. Netanyahu’s presentation in New York, debunking Mr. Rouhani’s moderate talk with quotations from his past, was widely praised in Israel.
But many politicians and commentators here also took issue with the prime minister’s tone, saying he made it seem as if Israel was already standing alone, outside a growing international consensus that negotiations hold promise.
“This speech should have been one of mobilization and not a speech of isolation,” said Shelly Yacimovich, the head of Israel’s Labor Party and leader of its opposition in Parliament. “This scare campaign does not benefit us.”
Amram Mitzna, a lawmaker from the Hatnua Party, a centrist part of Mr. Netanyahu’s governing coalition, said the prime minister “missed the point by describing Israel as a country which sees the use of military power as most important.” Mr. Mitzna added, “We must not in any way place ourselves as the spearhead of the fight against Iran.”
But a senior Israeli official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said European diplomats had privately encouraged Israeli leaders “to keep on speaking loudly about the possibility of the military option” as a tactic they believe can only improve their negotiating position.
“Europeans are clearly understanding that we need to restate the military option in order for things to move,” the senior Israeli official said. “When Netanyahu says we will not allow Iran to have a nuclear weapon, that’s exactly what he means. He does not say we will not allow Iran to have such and such a reactor and such and such enriched uranium.”
Indeed, Mr. Netanyahu pointedly refrained from setting a clear red line, as he famously did last year at the United Nations with a cartoon bomb. He argued that Iran could not be left just a few screwdriver-turns from a weapons capability.
Iran has essentially done an end run around that line, converting some of its enriched uranium to a form it says would be used to make medical isotopes, while installing thousands of new, faster centrifuges that sharply cut the time it would take to build a weapon.
This has clearly frustrated the Israelis, though Mr. Netanyahu is seeking to exploit it to underline the danger in Iran maintaining any nuclear facilities: he has included in his four conditions dismantling these advanced centrifuges at the Natanz enrichment plant.
Israeli officials and analysts said it was clear that these were “maximalist” conditions, part of what they described as a Middle East negotiating tactic of setting impossible parameters so concessions seem more significant later.
But the conditions, and the extent of Mr. Netanyahu’s berating of Mr. Rouhani, buttressed the impression that he has already dismissed the diplomatic track, and revived questions about his trust in Mr. Obama’s resolve, many people here said.
“One of the principles in diplomacy,” said Giora Eiland, a former Israeli national security adviser, is “never say no, always say, ‘Yes, but.’ ”
Israel Denies US Persuaded It Not To Strike Iran in 2012
The Times of Israel
TEL AVIV (October 5, 2013) — Israel denied the accuracy of a New York Times report published Thursday that claimed US President Barack Obama dispatched emissaries to Jerusalem in 2012 to stop Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu from launching a strike against Iran.
The prime minister’s spokesperson, Mark Regev, told the New York Times Friday that “the story is completely untrue,” and that “no such emissaries were sent” to tell Netanyahu that Washington wouldn’t abide an attack on Iran ahead of last year’s presidential elections.
“The American position to us is clear and has always been clear, that Israel has the right to defend itself by itself against threats,” the paper quoted Regev saying.
When asked how close Netanyahu came to attacking Iran in 2012, the Israeli spokesperson said that he wouldn’t comment “on what the prime minister was doing or not doing, thinking or not thinking.”
“I can’t tell you what the Americans were thinking. I can tell you what messages were delivered, and it’s not true,” Regev said.
Thursday’s report about an Israeli plan to strike Iran last year came amid increased diplomatic contact between Washington and Tehran following President Hassan Rouhani’s outreach to the West at the UN. The two leaders spoke on the phone last week before Rouhani departed New York for Tehran.
Despite the thaw in relations, however, protesters in Tehran burned American and Israeli flags on Friday and criticized Obama “for following the warmongering rhetoric of Netanyahu,” Iranian news outlet Press TV reported. [See clip below.]
Addressing the crowd, who chanted “Death to America” and “Death to Israel,” former nuclear negotiator Saeed Jalili charged that US organized terror attacks against Iran “as an illegitimate means to further its goals across the globe,” Ynet reported.
Last month, a former head of Israel’s National Security Council said that an Israeli plan to attack Iran in 2012 was canceled due to US objections.
“[Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu seriously considered a preemptive strike on Iran, and the Americans were not excited about the idea,” Maj. Gen. (res) Giora Eiland said.
According to a report on the Israeli conservative website Mida, Eiland discussed the Israeli plan and Washington’s objections during a closed conference in August, saying that Netanyahu had originally intended to order a strike on Iran sometime between September and October of 2012, at the height of the US presidential campaign and around the same time as Netanyahu’s speech at the United Nations.
‘US Pressure Nixed Israeli Strike on Iran Last Year’
Adiv Sterman and Mitch Ginsburg / The Times of Israel
(September 3, 2013) — An Israeli plan to attack Iran in 2012 was canceled due to US objections, a former head of Israel’s National Security Council confirmed Tuesday.
“[Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu seriously considered a preemptive strike on Iran, and the Americans were not excited about the idea,” Maj. Gen. (res) Giora Eiland told The Times of Israel.
The conservative Israeli political website Mida on Tuesday quoted Eiland (Hebrew link) to the effect that Israel possesses the military capacity to destroy Iran’s nuclear program at will.
According to the report, Eiland discussed the Israeli plan and Washington’s objections during a closed conference two weeks ago, saying that Netanyahu had originally intended to order a strike on Iran sometime between September and October of 2012, at the height of the US presidential campaign and around the same time as Netanyahu’s famous speech at the United Nations.
The report claimed that Netanyahu was requested by the Obama administration to call off the attack, possibly so as not to interfere with the American electoral process.
The former general was quoted as saying that although Israel is not controlled by the US, it does take American considerations into account with regard to issues of global significance.
“On many subjects Israel can perform independently,” Eiland was quoted as saying. “The construction in Jerusalem, the attack on Gaza as well as other regional issues — we don’t need to ask the Americans before we take action, even if they don’t like it. But, when an issue involves something of American interest, we cannot act against their will.”
However, “changing times” could allow for an Israeli strike in the future, Eiland reportedly said, also noting that in light of Washington’s apparent lack of appetite for military action in Syria, the chances of an American strike in Iran were slim.
Speaking with The Times of Israel, Eiland distanced himself from the statements attributed to him by Mida.
“The quotes are rife with inaccuracies,” Eiland said, although he didn’t specify further. However, he did confirm that an attack had been mulled by the Israeli prime minister.
“At any rate, I don’t feel like getting into this discussion; there’s nothing new here,” he concluded.
According to reports, Israel’s security chiefs vetoed a plan by Netanyahu and then-defense minister Ehud Barak to attack Iran in late 2010.
In August, Amos Yadlin, who served as chief of the IDF’s Intelligence Directorate from 2006 to 2010, claimed US opposition to an Israeli strike on Iran’s nuclear program may be abating.
“The American stance on an Israeli strike against Iran has changed dramatically recently,” Yadlin said.
“In 2012 the [Americans’] red light was as red as it can get, the brightest red,” Yadlin said in an interview with Army Radio. “But the music I’m hearing lately from Washington says, ‘If this is truly an overriding Israeli security interest, and you think you want to strike,’ then the light hasn’t changed to green, I think, but it’s definitely yellow.”
Yadlin is thought to be close to parts of the US defense establishment. He served as Israel’s military attache in Washington from 2004 to 2006, and was a Kay Fellow in Israeli national security at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy in 2011.
The US and its allies fear Iran is trying to develop a nuclear weapon, a charge Tehran denies, saying its atomic program is meant for peaceful purposes only.
In efforts to get Iran to account for its nuclear ambitions, Obama and other Western leaders remain publicly committed to diplomacy though they stress military options against Iranian nuclear sites are not off the table.
Haviv Rettig Gur contributed to this report
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