WASHINGTON - Less than a week after Republicans made major gains in the United
States mid-term elections, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has called
on President Barack Obama to "create a credible threat of military action"
Initial official reaction was negative, with Defense Secretary Robert Gates
insisting that Obama's preferred strategy of enhanced multilateral sanctions
and negotiations, which may resume after a year's hiatus later this month, was
working better than expected.
"I disagree that only a credible military threat can get Iran to take the
actions that it needs, to end its nuclear weapons program,"
Gates said when asked about Netanyahu's remarks during a visit in Australia.
"We are prepared to do what is necessary, but at this point, we continue to
believe that the political, economic approach that we are taking is, in fact,
having an impact in Iran."
According to diplomatic sources quoted in the Israeli and US press, Netanyahu's
appeal came during a meeting with Vice President Joseph Biden in New Orleans on
Sunday. It suggests that his right-wing government and its allies here,
including hawkish Republicans who will take control of the House of
Representatives in January, are preparing to escalate pressure on Obama to
adopt a more confrontational stance with Tehran.
Indeed, even as Netanyahu was telling Biden, according to the anonymous
sources, that "only a real military threat against Iran can prevent the need to
activate a real military force", Republican Senator Lindsay Graham, a leading
national-security spokesman for his party, told an international conference in
Halifax, Canada, that Obama would help his own re-election chances in 2012 if
he made "abundantly clear that all options [to Iran] are on the table" - a
phrase that is associated with taking military action.
And if Tehran actually developed a nuclear weapon, he said, Obama should act
"not to just neutralize their nuclear program, but to sink their navy, destroy
their air force and deliver a decisive blow to the [Islamic Revolutionary]
Guards [Corps]. In other words, neuter that regime. Destroy their ability to
The rhetorical escalation by both Netanyahu and his supporters here comes amid
diplomatic jockeying between Iran and the so-called "Iran Six" - the five
permanent members of the UN Security Council and Germany - over the site and
agenda of a meeting that both sides have said they hope will take place later
The "Iran Six", which is represented by the European Union's foreign policy
chief, Catherine Ashton, have proposed a mid-month meeting in Vienna. But
Tehran on Monday called for Turkey to host the talks.
Along with Brazil, Turkey had secured Iran's agreement last spring to a
proposal, originally put forward as a confidence-building measure by the "Iran
Six" a year ago, to ship a substantial amount of its growing stockpile of
low-enriched uranium (LEU) outside the country for enrichment to the 20% level
needed to fuel a nuclear plant in Tehran that produces medical isotopes.
The Turkey-Brazil deal, however, was summarily rejected by the Obama
administration and its European allies on the grounds that Tehran had added
significantly to its stockpile in the previous six months.
In recent weeks, however, they have hinted they may go along with a similar
transfer scheme if Iran agrees to send a larger proportion of its total
stockpile out of the country, stops enriching uranium to the higher level and
agrees to address the future of its nuclear program.
In another conciliatory gesture, the Obama administration last week named
Jundallah, a radical Sunni group that has repeatedly attacked government
security forces in Balochistan in recent years, a terrorist organization.
While Netanyahu and his supporters here are dismissing as insufficient Obama's
strategy of sanctions and talks, two centrist think-tanks on Monday urged the
administration to place more emphasis on engaging the Islamic Republic.
Previewing a more-comprehensive report to be released on November 16, Barry
Blechman and Daniel Brumberg of the non-partisan Stimson Center urged Obama to
offer Tehran a "set of robust economic, political and strategic incentives that
give Iran's leaders reason to cooperate" as part of a "recalibration" of US
strategy that would reduce its reliance on "coercive measures".
Writing in USA Today, the two non-proliferation specialists argued that
Washington should explicitly recognize Iran's right to enrich uranium under the
nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty - something that it has yet to do - and
provide other inducements, including proposing bilateral or multilateral talks
on security issues, notably Afghanistan and the drug trade, and normalizing
diplomatic exchanges, and offering help in modernizing Iran's energy industry.
In addition, a new paper released on Monday by the bipartisan Iran Task Force
convened by the Atlantic Council on the evolution of internal Iranian politics,
particularly since last year's disputed elections, called for Washington to
pursue "strategic patience" with Tehran "and avoid overreactions that could set
back Iran's political development".
"Short-term prospects for US-Iranian reconciliation and for a resolution of the
Iranian nuclear file are poor in large part because of Iran's internal
political crisis," according to the author, veteran Iran observer Barbara
Slavin. "In the longer term, however, history, demography, and education favor
liberalization and international integration. The focus of US policy should be
to buy time for this evolution to take place."
Whether these recommendations will be taken up in preparation for the
prospective talks remains to be seen, but it seems increasingly clear that
Netanyahu and his supporters here feel emboldened by last week's election to
press Obama in the opposite direction.
Netanyahu's government had been relatively quiet on Iran since last June when
Obama succeeded in persuading the UN Security Council to impose a new round of
sanctions against Iran for alleged nuclear transgressions. It even expressed
satisfaction with subsequent efforts to rally the European Union, Japan, and
South Korea among others behind much tougher sanctions against companies doing
business with Tehran.
But, with sympathetic Republicans taking over the House of Representatives, the
Israeli government appears confident it can press for more.
According to "diplomatic sources" quoted by the Jerusalem Post, Netanyahu
warned Biden that Iran "is attempting to mislead the West, and there are
worrying signs that the international community is captivated by this mirage".
"The only time that Iran stopped its nuclear program was in 2003, and that was
when they believed that there was a real chance of an American military strike
against them," he reportedly told Biden.
United States neo-conservatives and other hawks have been making much the same
argument for some time. In a speech to the influential Council on Foreign
Relations in late September, Independent Democratic Senator Joseph Lieberman,
who is close to Graham and former Republican presidential candidate Senator
John McCain, called for Obama to "take steps that make clear that if diplomatic
and economic strategies continue to fail to change Iran's nuclear policies, a
military strike is not just a remote possibility in the abstract, but a real
and credible alternative policy that we and our allies are ready to exercise".
His remarks were praised by William Kristol, the editor of the neo-conservative
Weekly Standard and a top adviser to Republican foreign-policy hawks, and the
Wall Street Journal's editorial page.
Such war talk was denounced as "dangerous" Monday by the Atlantic Council's
chairman, former Senator Chuck Hagel, who also co-chairs Obama's Intelligence
Advisory Board, as well as the Council's Iran task force. "If you're going to
threaten war on any kind of consistent basis, then you'd better be prepared to
follow through on that [threat]," he said.
"The United States of America is currently in two of the longest wars we've
ever been in, at a very significant cost to this country ... I'm not sure the
people of the United States want a third war," he said.
Jim Lobe's blog on US foreign policy can be read at http://www.lobelog.com.