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New Iran Moves Fuel Fresh Debate

New Iran Moves Fuel Fresh Debate

As ‘drums of war’ beat, can talks gain traction?

Just a day after Monday’s inconclusive U.S.-Israeli summit meeting aimed at forging a unified stance on Iran, the Islamic republic decided to open for inspection a secret military site believed key to its nuclear weapons program and the world powers agreed to restart talks with Iran aimed at ending that disputed program.

But the actions appeared to do little to salve those who fear Iran is determined to develop a nuclear bomb at all costs.

“It’s a mistake,” Ephraim Sneh, Israel’s former deputy defense minister, said of the decision to renew talks with Iran. “What are they going to talk about? How many years were wasted with the previous dialogue? Now they are going to do it again. What for? To be cheated again?”

But Bruno Tertrais, a senior research fellow at the Fondaton Pour La Recherche Strategique in Paris, said that although the previous round of talks ended in a complete failure in January 2011, he viewed as a “positive sign” that Iran offered to resume talks and the global powers agreed. The six world powers are Britain, the United States, Russia, China, France and Germany.

“There is an agreement in principle to resume talks and whether they lead to negotiations and a formal resumption of negotiations is uncertain,” he said in a conference call with reporters organized by Realite-Eu, which describes itself as a nonprofit website for journalists that focuses on the Middle East. “What is clear is that they have agreed to meet. … They are feeling the pressure, but we have to be cautious because they are masters in the art of playing for time.”

Aaron David Miller, a Middle East analyst and adviser to six U.S. secretaries of state, said the Iranian decision to renew talks is a “proposition that needs to be tested, along with the tightening of sanctions and keeping the threat of military action.”

“If you don’t test it,” he continued, “you drift inexorably towards military action.”

But Miller noted that even if a military attack were launched, it would not permanently end Iran’s quest for nuclear weapons. They only way to achieve that, he said, is through “regime change, and that is beyond our capacity.”

Although Sneh said he believes Israel could attack Iran militarily without involving the United States, Gerald Steinberg, a political science professor at Bar-Ilan University, said few in the Middle East would believe it.

“In 1967, the Egyptians believed America had a major role” in Israel’s Six-Day War against its Arab neighbors, he said. “That is the standard response in the Middle East and those kind of myths are strongly held. If the Iranians pushed that argument, it would be believed because that is the view in this region.”

As a result of that perception, Steinberg said, “the argument is that since the U.S. will be blamed anyway, make sure that whatever Israel does is done right, including mid-air refueling [of Israeli war planes] and clearance to fly over U.S.-controlled airspace.”

He said he hears what he called “the anti-Semitic diatribe” that “the Jews would be dragging the U.S. into a war” if Israel were to launch a military strike. But he said President Barack Obama in speeches and interviews in recent days has made clear that “Israel has legitimate concerns in preventing Iran from becoming nuclear. … If the U.S. is the guarantor of [Israel’s] security and freedom, it is not about being dragged into a war but about America’s principles and vital interests.”

Asked about reports that Israeli leaders have already decided that sanctions and talks won’t work and that a military strike is the only alternative, Steinberg stressed that “Israel is not in a hurry” to attack.

“No one wants to go into a conflict,” he said. “The goal is to force Iran to stop without a military attack. To prevent a war, threaten a war. That is the best deterrence.”

As evidence that might work, Steinberg noted that in 2003 Iran temporarily froze its nuclear program after the U.S. invasion of Iraq and an Iranian fear that Iran would be “next in line.” But work resumed when the “fear diminished as America got bogged down in Iraq.”

Obama stressed at a press conference Tuesday that he believes there is still time for diplomacy to end Iran’s nuclear arms ambitions, and that his Republican opponents should stop “beating the drums of war.” He said there is a “cost of war” that he wanted to avoid and that the “crippling sanctions” the international community has started to apply on Iran may yet work.

But Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu made clear in his comments to Obama and to an American Israel Public Affairs Committee conference in Washington that he believes sanctions have been exhausted. Thus, instead of acknowledging Obama’s plea for diplomacy to be given a chance to play itself out, Netanyahu noted instead Obama’s recognition of Israel’s right to self-defense.

“I think … [there are] longstanding principles of American policy that you reiterated yesterday in your speech — that Israel must have the ability always to defend itself by itself against any threat; and that when it comes to Israel’s security, Israel has the right, the sovereign right to make its own decisions,” Netanyahu said.

“I believe that’s why you appreciate, Mr. President, that Israel must reserve the right to defend itself. And after all, that’s the very purpose of the Jewish state — to restore to the Jewish people control over our destiny,” he continued. “And that’s why my supreme responsibility as prime minister of Israel is to ensure that Israel remains the master of its fate.”

That acknowledgement — that Israel has the right to strike in its own perceived self-defense — was the element that AIPAC’s leaders were seeking, and Obama earned the most extended standing ovation of the day when he told the conference Sunday: “Israel must always have the ability to defend itself, by itself, against any threat.”

How to deal with Iran dominated much of the Monday meeting between the two leaders. As if to underscore Netanyahu’s message of his determination to confront the Iranian regime, his gift to Obama was a copy of the Megillah, the tale of the Persian Jews’ bloody triumph over Haman.

An Israeli source said the meeting underscored agreement between the Netanyahu and Obama governments in four areas: a determination to prevent an Iranian nuclear weapon; that all options are on the table; that containment is not an option; that Israel is a sovereign state that has a right to defend itself by itself.

In his own address to the conference on Monday morning — delivered as Obama and Netanyahu were meeting — Howard Kohr, AIPAC’s executive director, made it clear that the fourth message was the one AIPAC had been seeking.

“This is the context in which Israel must decide her course of action,” he said. “If she can put her fate in the hands of anyone — even her closest ally, America — or if she must conduct a strike to postpone Iran from acquiring a nuclear bomb. Israel was created to ensure that the Jewish people would never have to put their fate in the hands of others.”

Kohr also pushed back strongly against those who say that Obama has not done enough to confront Iran.

“President Obama and his administration are to be commended,” he said. “They have — more than any other administration, more than any other country — brought unprecedented pressure to bear on Tehran through the use of biting economic sanctions. They have built a broad coalition to isolate the Iranian regime and they have brought the necessary military assets to the gulf and to Iran’s neighbors in order to signal that America has the power to act.”

Kohr echoed Democrats in their pleas not to make Iran policy a partisan issue. Republican salvos against Obama have frustrated his supporters, who say that the criticisms fail to take into account the strides he has made in isolating Iran.

While campaigning in Georgia on Sunday, GOP presidential hopeful Mitt Romney said that Obama had “failed to communicate that military options are on the table.”

And Rick Santorum, another GOP presidential candidate, told AIPAC bluntly: “[The president] says he has Israel’s back. From everything I’ve seen from the conduct of this administration, he has turned his back on the people of Israel.” And Santorum termed as “appeasement” Obama’s insistence that sanctions be given time to work.

Tertraise in his conference call with reporters, said there is another factor affecting the Iranians that should not be overlooked: the power struggle going on inside Iran.

“In the last two years, a new political dynamic emerged,” he said. “Those who support negotiations and a deal with the international community on the nuclear program are those who support [Iranian President Mahmoud] Ahmadinejad. Five years ago, he was the hardliner on nuclear issues, but for his own political stance he is supporting a deal on the nuclear program. But he is weak domestically and is getting weaker by the month. … There is talk of the president being forced out of office. This is not good for the prospect of [successful negotiations].”

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