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The Israeli case against the Iranian charm offensive

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Charles Dharapak/AP

(Read caption) US President Barack Obama, accompanied by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, makes a statement to reporters in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, Monday, Sept. 30, 2013.

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Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has come to the United States with a mission: to battle newly elected Iranian prime minister Hassan Rouhani's "onslaught of smiles" with "facts" and "the truth."

The United States and Israel are generally at least coordinated in their response to Iran's nuclear program and bellicose rhetoric. But Iran's recent charm offensive, consisting of letters, media interviews, and offers to potentially negotiate away the country's nuclear ambitions has driven a wedge in that alliance as US President Barack Obama has seized the opportunity to negotiate with one of the West's longstanding bugbears.

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The Christian Science Monitor's Scott Peterson wrote about the diplomatic push last week:

President Hassan Rouhani defined a policy of “constructive engagement” in a “changed” world, and urged fellow leaders to “seize the opportunity presented by Iran’s recent election” in today's Washington Post. Days earlier, he vowed that Iran would “never” pursue nuclear weapons and called war “weakness” in an interview with NBC News.

But Mr. Netanyahu is urging the Obama administration not to be naive, and is unapologetic about being the party "spoiler," the Monitor's Jerusalem bureau chief, Christa Case Bryant, reports.

But some say Mr. Netanyahu, who meets with President Obama at the White House today, sees himself as playing a Churchillian role to alert the world to the dangers of appeasement, just as the formidable British leader did when faced by the Nazi regime. For one who sees the Iranian nuclear issue in existential terms, being perceived as a party pooper is a small price to pay.

"I will tell the truth in the face of the sweet talk and the onslaught of smiles," he said yesterday before departing for the US. "One must talk facts and one must tell the truth. Telling the truth today is vital for the security and peace of the world and, of course, it is vital for the security of the State of Israel."

“Israel doesn’t trust anybody, not even the American president,” says Efraim Inbar, director of the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies at Bar-Ilan University. “A word doesn’t mean anything. Not even a signed paper. So it’s a big gap between how liberal Americans think about international relations and how Israelis and Arabs [see it].”

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Talking to Obama Monday, Netanyahu made a case for maintaining, not slackening, global pressure on Iran. FOX News laid out Netanyahu's case:

Visiting the White House on Monday, Netanyahu said Iran's "conciliatory words" have not yet been met by "real action."

Saying that the threat of military action and the pressure of sanctions brought Iran to this point, Netanyahu said: "I also believe that if diplomacy is to work, those pressures must be kept in place. And I think they should not be lessened until there is verifiable success."

Israel punctuated its point by disclosing on Sunday that it had arrested an alleged Iranian spy posing as a businessman earlier in September. Ali Mansouri (or "Alex Mans," as his Belgian passport supposedly identified him), was born in Iran and held Belgian and Iranian citizenship. He reportedly set up a business in Israel as a cover for “intensive intelligence and terror activities," and photographed the United States Embassy building in Tel Aviv, The New York Times reports.

The timing of Israel's disclosure, the day before Netanyahu met with President Obama, may have been intended to prove Israel's point that Iran's promises should be treated with deep skepticism.

The European Union is taking a cautiously positive attitude toward the Iranian outreach effort, with EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton saying that she was "struck by the energy and determination [Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif] expressed to me," according to The Wall Street Journal.

The stakes at this point are are high: estimates of the scope of the Iranian nuclear program vary, but generally suggest that the country has made real strides toward having the "breakout" capability to construct a nuclear weapon within a short period should it be seen as necessary. In a brief updated in January of 2013, The Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation evaluates Iran's need for "highly enriched uranium, a device capable of initiating a nuclear explosion, and a delivery vehicle" and finds:

The IAEA has noted in successive reports since 2010 that Iran has succeeded in enriching uranium to about 20 percent, far above the 3-5 percent necessary to fuel a civilian reactor, but still below the 90 percent needed for a weapon. However, it is far easier to enrich from 20 percent up to 90 percent than from uranium’s natural state of less than 1 percent up to 20 percent.

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If a state pursues uranium enrichment as a path to nuclear weapons, building the actual warhead is generally the easiest piece of the puzzle. However, the U.S. intelligence community believes Iran has not yet made the political decision to build a nuclear weapon.

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Even if Iran decides to develop a nuclear weapon, most evidence suggests that it will not possess a missile capable of reaching all of Europe or the United States – to say nothing about its ability to arm the missile with a nuclear warhead – for years to come.

It's a very real possibility that Iran's charm offensive could be foiled from within. Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei ultimately pulls the levers, not Rouhani, and Iran's hardline elements are watching Rouhani's diplomatic moves warily. As Scott Peterson writes in the Monitor:

Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has repeatedly declared it a duty of every power center in Iran to back Mr. Rouhani’s government, this week invoking a 7th-century peace deal to say Iran was ready to show a "heroic flexibility."

Yet the Revolutionary Guard has carefully pushed back, saying "heroic flexibility" should not be interpreted as "retreat from fundamental rights."

“Our fundamental framework is permanent and it is inflexible and our ideal goals will never be reduced,” the deputy Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) chief Hossein Salami said in recent days on Iranian state TV. He included “the right to have peaceful nuclear energy” which “cannot be modified.

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