Heightened U.S.-Israel Focus on the Biggest Issue

It is hard to recall a marathon week such as the one we just had in Israel. Visits by Secretary of Defense Gates and National Security Advisor Jones—with large delegations of senior staff, including White House advisor Dennis Ross—followed close on that by Senator Mitchell. Senior Israeli government officials are keeping uncharacteristically mum, but it appears that behind this intense activity lies mounting concern over Iran.

In order to focus there, Washington and Jerusalem moved beyond their bilateral tensions without resolving them, as both have lost ground. The forceful American demand for a total settlement freeze (coupled with the denial of the Bush-Sharon era understandings) and the demand for matching Arab confidence-building steps were met by Palestinian obstinacy, outright Saudi rejection, and significant cost to the Administration’s standing with the Israeli people. Nor has the Israeli government come out ahead. Good relations with America are a cornerstone of Israeli foreign policy, since the U.S. is the country's key ally and home to two-thirds of Diaspora Jewry. No Israeli government can last if it is perceived as irremediably in conflict with the U.S. administration. Most important, the consequences of an Iranian atom bomb for Israel dwarf the settlement issues, important though they are.

The respective positions of the two countries on Iran appeared to converge. The Israelis see the wisdom of (or at least resign themselves to) the American approach of genuine, if time-limited, attempts to arrive at a resolution by reaching out to the Iranians. And following the harsh repression of reform in Iran, the Americans appear to be moving closer to the Israeli assessment that even with the best diplomatic efforts, this Iranian regime is unlikely to forgo the nuclear option.

The Israeli press reports that stiffened sanctions may come earlier than previously thought. This raises three important questions:

The first is who will impose the sanctions. Obviously, sanctions will require Russian and Chinese cooperation, to close off escape routes from the consequences of international action. Less remarked is that sanctions create an opportunity for Europe to exercise serious non-military power. AJC's Transatlantic Institute Director, Dr. Emanuele Ottolenghi, has written a comprehensive book about this, Under a Mushroom Cloud: Europe, Iran and the Bomb. In it he notes that European leadership is indispensable and that Europe is Iran's largest trading partner. As the EU economy is already wrestling with the consequences of the global economic downturn, it will take courage on the part of European political leaders to push for sanctions. But successful sanctions will strengthen the EU and its ideology of "smart" power internationally by showing that it can get results without violence.

The second question is what kind of sanctions to impose. After all, sanctions are not a panacea: In Iraq, for example, they failed, while in Serbia they ultimately succeeded. Ottolenghi notes four characteristics of successful sanctions:
  • Careful targeting to parts of the economy that hurt the regime but minimize harm to the general population;
  • Powerful incentives to show the regime that it stands to lose power if it does not change its ways;
  • Effective enforcement; and
  • Long-term commitment, since sanctions can take a long time to work.
And finally, is there enough time for sanctions to work before Iran goes nuclear? Clearly, smarter sanctions imposed sooner have a better chance of success. But we have waited a long time – and key European states, with economic interests perhaps trumping long-range security concerns, have been committed to time-consuming, ultimately fruitless negotiations with Iran. No wonder that the Iranians feel they can safely call the international community's bluff.

In a recent editorial (translated and published by the indispensable MEMRI website), the Iranian newspaper Kayhan, which often reflects the official government view, suggests the game is over and Iran has won: "[Secretary of State Clinton said] if Iran goes nuclear, then America will spread its nuclear umbrella across the entire region … [This] must be understood on a deeper level than merely as proof of America's acceptance of a nuclear Iran. Currently, the widespread perception in Tehran is that the U.S. is in a situation where it is sending a worldwide message that its 'strategic need' for Iran has become so critical that it does not want to lose the option of dialogue with it—even at the price of a nuclear Iran."

If the Iranians believe their own propaganda, they could make a disastrous decision. The best way for Israel and the U.S. to avoid either of two grim options – a nuclear Iran, or military action to prevent it – is to work together, in concert with a far-more-focused international community. That appears to be what this past week was about.
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