Western resolve is key to stopping Iran without force

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Analysis of the wider context of the Obama-Netanyahu meeting, by BICOM Head of Research Toby Greene.

Though there will be some tensions between Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu and US president Barack Obama when they meet on Iran today, they have a shared interest in projecting a common determination to stop Iran getting nuclear weapons. Iran’s assessment of US and wider western resolve could be an important factor in determining whether they halt their drive for nuclear weapons capability. For that reason it is important that the US, backed by Britain and other EU states, continues to build the pressure against Iran, including making clear that it is prepared to use force if necessary against Iranian nuclear facilities.

Today’s meeting is part of an ongoing US-Israel dialogue on Iran which is intensifying due to Israel’s increasing sense of urgency. Understanding why requires viewing this meeting in its wider context.

It is important first of all to remember that Israel, the US and Britain are largely on the same page in terms of key assessments and strategic goals. They agree that Iran wants a nuclear weapons capability and is advancing towards it. This is not a conclusion based on shady intelligence or dodgy dossiers. The evidence was scrutinised for years by the IAEA before they declared in November 2011 that it was ‘credible’.

They also agree that should Iran succeed, in defiance of multiple IAEA board resolutions and UN Security Council resolutions, it would not only shift the regional balance of power in its favour but undermine the non-proliferation regime in the Middle East and elsewhere. That is why a team of FCO officials working on Iran was in Israel for consultations last week, and why its leader, John Davies, described Israel and the UK as working, ‘fantastically closely together’. The sense of common purpose is hardly surprising given that the same regime in Tehran that ships rockets to Hezbollah is supporting armed groups targeting coalition forces in Afghanistan and orchestrated the storming of Britain’s embassy in Tehran last year.

However, while Israel has welcomed the resolve shown by the US, Britain and other EU states in recent months, it is deeply concerned that Iran’s nuclear programme is reaching what Israeli defence minister Ehud Barak calls a ‘zone of immunity’. This somewhat ill-defined concept refers partly to the progress Iran is making with its new enrichment facility in Fordow, which is just big enough to enrich weapons grade uranium and is protected beneath a mountain. But as a senior Israeli official put it to me, the phrase has wider implications. These include the confidence of the Supreme Leader that his regime has the technical means to build a bomb should he give the order, and the political strength to withstand any western retribution.

Two current developments illustrate what this means in practice. In the last few days the Iranian parliamentary election saw supreme leader Ayatollah Khamenei firm up his political position by filling the parliament with hardline conservative loyalists. Having suppressed the opposition that challenged the regime on the streets in 2009, he has now reduced the power of President Ahmadinejad, who challenged his authority. Meanwhile in Vienna, IAEA board members will this week gather to peruse another damning report about Iran’s growing uranium enrichment capacity and more stonewalling of IAEA inspectors.

The progress of Iran’s nuclear programme comes in spite of a sanctions regime which is growing to include a European embargo on Iranian oil and US sanctions on Iran’s Central Bank. Britain, under both the previous and current government, deserves credit for leading the way. We are now seeing the level of sanctions that Israel long called for, and long believed was necessary to force Iran to change course without military action.

Unfortunately the biting sanctions are coming late in the day. The measure of the sanctions’ success is not the extent to which the Iranian economy suffers, but whether they succeed in delaying and ultimately stopping their nuclear weapons programme before it reaches breakout capacity.

The issue of timing is critical in the dialogue between the US and Israel. Israel’s military capacity is less than that of the US, so Iran enters a ‘zone of immunity’ from an Israeli strike sooner than from a US strike. The US, with more time to play with, wants to give sanctions more time to bite. In the context of a presidential election campaign to be decided by the condition of America’s fragile economy, the administration wants to avoid a military confrontation and the consequent spike in oil prices. President Obama told the AIPAC conference yesterday that, ‘now is the time to let our increased pressure sink in, and to sustain the broad international coalition that we have built.’

But Israel is built on a deeply ingrained ideology of self-reliance. It does not want key strategic decisions affecting its security to be in the hands of others, even its closest allies. It is Israel, after all which, Iranian leaders have called to be wiped off the map. That is why Netanyahu will avoid giving any commitments to Obama that will curtail his freedom of action.

This does not mean Israeli military action is inevitable. While Israel considers an Iranian nuclear bomb intolerable, it is not enthusiastic to bomb Iran and would much rather the problem was dealt with through international pressure. It is Israeli civilians that are likely to pay the heaviest price, facing tens of thousands of rockets in retaliation.

The way to avoid this scenario it is to keep building the pressure against Iran to the point that the regime will be unable to maintain itself economically and politically if continues its nuclear programme. The sanctions that have been agreed must be fully enforced. In addition, a clear message must be sent to Tehran that the west is prepared to use military means if the economic sanctions do not work. Iran should feel that, while the west does not want conflict, it does not fear it either.

The diplomatic route should be open to Iran, including the political and economic incentives offered in the past, but it should not be abused. Iran has a history of using talks to relieve diplomatic pressure and divide the international community while continuing to dodge its commitments. The demands are clear, as laid down inmultiple UN resolutions, that Iran must stop uranium enrichment and other activities potentially linked to building a bomb, and cooperate with the IAEA.

Douglas Alexander rightly argued in the House of Commons last month that, ‘Leaving all options on the table actually strengthens the international community’s hand in negotiations and therefore increases the likelihood of achieving a peaceful resolution.’ Given that fact, the alarmist tone taken by some in the media about the consequences of military action is playing into Tehran’s hands. That is why, while Netanyahu and Obama may have differences over the timeline, they have a shared interest in making clear that the military option is very much on the table. When David Cameron answers question on Iran to the House of Commons Liaison Committee on Tuesday, and visits Washington next week, he should take the opportunity to reinforce the line.


Dr Toby Greene is the head of research and analysis for BICOM. He tweets @toby_greene_

This article originally was published by Progress Online on 5/3/2012.