Avi Bram reviews how the situation with Iran and Israel has develped over the past two months
In ‘Iran and Israel – is the end nigh? Part 1‘, posted two months ago, I commented on the spate of assassination attempts on Israeli diplomatic targets which were widely attributed to Iran. The world’s attention became focussed on Iran’s nuclear enrichment activity, and the possibility of a pre-emptive Israeli strike against its atomic facilities. In my post, I argued that Israel should only use the military option in the event of an imminent, existential threat, because the prospect of an aggressive nuclear attack by Iran is remote, whereas the consequences of an Israeli pre-emptive strike would almost certainly be a high-casualty conflict.
Since then, developments have taken both positive and negative directions. A notable trend is the public rift between the United States and Israel on the best response to the proliferation issue. Fissures have already been evident for a while – at the start of February the Washington Post published reports from anonymous sources that US Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta “believes there is a strong likelihood that Israel will strike Iran in April, May or June”. Panetta refused to comment on the article, which prompted some in Israel to speculate that he had deliberately leaked the report in order to undermine preparations for an Israeli Air Force bombing sortie.
However, matters came to a head two weeks ago in an acerbic exchange between Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu and US President Obama. On Saturday 14th April, talks were held in Istanbul between Iran and the ‘P5+1′ (the permanent five members of the UN Security Council plus Germany), where it was agreed that further talks would be held in Baghdad on the 23rd May. Netanyahu immediately criticised this development, saying “my initial impression is that Iran has been given a freebie”. Obama responded directly to these comments, insisting there had been no ‘freebie’: “in fact, they’ve got some of the toughest sanctions that they’re going to be facing coming up in just a few months if they don’t take advantage of these talks”. This was not sufficient for Israeli deputy foreign minister Ayalon, who called for sanctions against Iran (slated to begin in July) to be brought forwards to the present.
These calls by Israeli leaders for faster action against Iran have lead analysts to worry that the Israeli government is growing impatient with the international community and will soon take matters into its own hands (perhaps even in the next two months, as Panetta allegedly believes). However, David Ignatius – the Washington Post columnist who published the Panetta story – last week wrote that it seems a deal with Iran is in the offing. This would see Iran stop enriching uranium beyond the 3.5% level. In return, a foreign country would enrich the uranium up to 20% (the level needed for fueling power stations, but insufficient for constructing warheads). The war of words between Obama and Netanyahu was ‘choreographed’ in order to impress upon the Iranians that the proposed deal is the last chance to avert unilateral Israeli actions. Ignatius pointed to sudden jumps in the Tehran stock index as corroboration for his belief that an agreement is likely.
“Following multi-party talks in Istanbul,
Iranian chief negotiator Saeed Jalili said there was an opportunity
for ‘for concrete steps toward disarmament and nonproliferation.’”
Anshel Pfeffer, writing in Ha’aretz, agrees that such a deal may well be the unspoken goal for many of the American and Iranian state officials involved in the negotiations. But he warns that there are many pitfalls on the road to such a resolution. These include Iran’s work to develop long-range ballistic missiles, the difficulty for the IAEA in verifying that Iran has stopped enriching to 20% (or beyond), and the ongoing violence in Syria that threatens to draw in Iran and the P5+1 (particularly France) on opposite sides.
In my previous post I suggested that political change from within Iran would provide the best chance for a peaceful agreement. While this is still true, statements by the current regime indicate a real willingness to compromise, giving hope that the threat of sanctions is actually working. If Syria’s President Assad was to be ousted or enter a power-sharing agreement with rebels this would further isolate the Iranian regime, giving them added impetus to reach out to the P5+1. But an Israeli strike against Iran – even if it was limited to remote nuclear facilities – would be sure to unite the Iranian population around the leadership and stiffen its resolve to protect its nuclear ‘rights’.