Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu Monday welcomed the European Union's decision to impose harsh new sanctions on Iran, including an oil embargo and a freeze on Iranian central bank assets, but warned that this may still be insufficient to stop Iran's nuclear program.
Nevertheless, government officials said, it probably will suffice to defer any talk of an attack on Iran's nuclear facilities at least until July.
"Today the EU has decided to impose sanctions on the export of petroleum from Iran," Netanyahu told a meeting of his Likud Knesset faction. "I think that this is a step in the right direction. True, it is still impossible to know what the result of these sanctions will be. Very strong and quick pressure on Iran is necessary. Sanctions will have to be evaluated on the basis of results. As of today, Iran is continuing to develop nuclear weapons without hindrance."
But while Israeli officials welcomed the sanctions, some also described them as a kind of golden cage: Now that the EU has largely complied with Israel's demands, they said, Israel will have to give the new sanctions at least six months to prove or disprove their effectiveness. The upshot is that any decision on whether or not to attack Iran is likely to be postponed at least until July.
Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman said he hoped the EU decision would push Iran to stop pursuing nuclear weapons.
"This is an important step that reflects the Europeans' understanding of and willingness to deal with the biggest threat to world peace of our time," Lieberman said. "We hope this decision will serve as a warning light to Iran's rulers and cause them to change their policy with regard to obtaining nuclear weapons without the need for even harsher measures."
Both the oil embargo and the sanctions on Iran's central bank are steps Jerusalem has been pushing for the last three months. During most of this time, however, Israeli officials were skeptical that the Europeans would ever agree to them.
As a result, Israel launched a campaign to pressure the European Union by hinting that without such sanctions, it would have no choice but to take military action against Iran.
Netanyahu has discussed the issue personally with several world leaders in recent weeks, and his increasingly harsh statements apparently convinced at least some of them that he really did intend to attack Iran.
In addition to Israel's diplomatic campaign, officials in Jerusalem cited the attack on the British Embassy in Tehran in late November as a contributing factor to yesterday's decision. That incident shocked and outraged many EU members, they said.
For years, many European countries had opposed the measures adopted yesterday on the grounds that they would do grave damage to the EU's economy. The anti-sanction lobby was led by Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt, but Greece, Italy and Spain were also vocal opponents. All three countries are currently mired in deep economic crises, and last year, they respectively obtained 35 percent, 15 percent and 13 percent of their oil from Iran.
The pro-sanctions faction - led by France, Britain and Germany, with the United States and Israel pushing from the outside - therefore devoted much of its effort to finding a way for these countries to replace Iranian oil with other sources at a reasonable price.
The compromise adopted yesterday states that while all new purchases from Iran will be banned immediately, existing purchase contracts with Iran can be maintained until July 1.
The EU plans to reevaluate the sanctions on May 1 to ensure they aren't having a devastating economic impact. It also agreed to compensate any member state hurt by the oil embargo.
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