Israel gives the impression that it was completely unprepared for the recent dramatic switch in American policy toward Iran. The Bush administration did not consult with Israel before deciding to add a senior American diplomat to the talks the Europeans are conducting with the Iranians, nor did Washington inform Jerusalem of its intentions to open an interests section in Tehran. The Prime Minister's Bureau received word of America's new policy almost at the last minute, just in order to ensure that Israel would not be taken totally by surprise. If clandestine diplomatic feelers between Washington and Tehran preceded the announcement, Israel was left completely in the dark as to their existence.
The American "detente" with Iran has one obvious consequence: As long as the diplomatic game continues, there is not the slightest chance in the world of any aggressive action being taken against Iran's nuclear program. Which means no bombing of nuclear facilities. And no naval blockade and no prevention of commercial flights from Iran, as Israel has proposed. If even a minor-ranking American diplomat is posted in Tehran, to ostensibly "speak with the people," the Iranian regime will enjoy total immunity.
Israeli leaders are still hoping that all is not lost, that America is merely making a strategic move here, that Washington is simply dangling a bit of diplomatic bait that will be doomed to fail but which can pave the way for a military strike. But all that is simply wishful thinking. The American public has no stomach today for an additional war and its army opposes the idea of opening up a "third front" in Iran, after Afghanistan and Iraq.
The average American is much more concerned about spiraling gasoline prices than about Iran's nuclear ambitions. Of all the steps U.S. President George W. Bush has undertaken to solve his country's energy crisis, the rapprochement with Iran has emerged as the most effective of all. At a cost of only one airline ticket for William J. Burns, the U.S. State Department's third-ranking official, the administration in Washington achieved an almost-immediate 12-percent drop in oil prices.
Even as early as last autumn, signs Washington was softening its position could already be observed. American officials have clarified to their Israeli counterparts and to other officials in Jerusalem that any idea of a military move against Iran is now history. They have enthusiastically told the Israelis that they have chosen the path of dialogue and that this option is also good for Israel. Even if Iran gets the nuclear bomb, an American embassy in Tehran will be the best guarantee of stability and tranquility in the region.
Publication of the American intelligence community's evaluation of the situation, according to which the Iranians suspended their plans for developing nuclear weapons in 2003, convinced Defense Minister Ehud Barak that the Bush administration would not deal with the Iranian problem and would instead pass it on to the next occupant of the White House.
Israel, which considers aerial bombing an accepted solution for thwarting the nuclear armament plans of hostile states in the region, was very displeased. The feeling in Jerusalem is that time is running out and that, if Bush does not stop the operations of the uranium enrichment facilities at Natanz - with an American military strike or with American authorization of an Israeli operation - Iran will become a nuclear power.
Prime Minister Ehud Olmert tried to persuade Bush to change his position. After showing Bush a contrary intelligence assessment, Olmert actually believed he had succeeded in defusing the impact of the American intelligence document. In April, Olmert stepped up his rhetoric considerably. "I want to tell Israel's citizens," he declared in a Haaretz interview, "that Iran will never attain nuclear capability." Olmert's success in destroying the suspected nuclear reactor in Syria last summer apparently convinced him that progress could be made toward the next target.
Initially, Bush signaled that he was leaning toward that approach, when, for instance, he defined the Israeli strike against the Syrian facility as "a message to Iran." The wind started blowing in a different direction last month: The Pentagon launched a series of information leaks suggesting solid opposition to an Israeli military strike against Iran. Last month, in Europe, Bush declared that he planned to "leave behind a multilateral framework to work this issue" of Iran's nuclear ambitions.
This is certainly not what somebody who intends to go to war this summer or this fall would say; instead, this is the kind of statement one would expect from someone interested in netting a diplomatic achievement just before leaving office. Jerusalem chose to ignore the signals and to continue issuing threats. In an interview he gave to The Washington Post, Israel's ambassador, Sallai Meridor, spoke of the danger of an Israeli military operation and called for a suspension of gasoline delivery to Iran. According to Meridor, "effective sanctions on the import of refined petroleum products could be a game-changer."
In his view, oil companies "should not sell gasoline that is used by Iran's nuclear scientists and its terror chiefs to drive to 'work.'" Three days later, America's policy underwent a transformation - but in the opposite direction. Now, Jerusalem must also change its approach. Instead of making the mistake of holding on to the false hope that Bush will actually order the bombing of Iran, Israelis should start looking at the positive aspects of an American-Iranian dialogue, while insisting that Israel's vital interests not be undermined. First of all, and most importantly, Israel must thwart any attempt at linking the dismantling of Iran's nuclear capabilities with the idea of shutting down Israel's nuclear reactor in Dimona or any other attempt to weaken Israel's deterrent power.
In addition, the Israelis must demand that the centrifuges' operations be totally suspended and that, should Iran succeed despite everything in developing nuclear weapons, they be provided with suitable compensation in the form of both security guarantees from the U.S. and advanced anti-missile technology. Unlike fighter pilots, diplomats do not receive citations for heroic action; however, they must be given a chance to stop the Iranian nuclear program, as they did in Libya and North Korea.
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