Just ahead of the weekend, after a few days of conflicting declarations, the Prime Minister's Office made a statement clarifying Israel's position on international sanctions against Iran. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said during a meeting in the Netherlands that Israel wants the European Union to immediately impose an embargo on Iranian petroleum and not wait until July as planned.
About a week ago, senior Israeli officials including the prime minister offered varying positions on the sanctions. This was no coincidence. Israel finds itself in a strange situation, a political source involved in the matter said.
"If six months ago someone had told us that the EU was on its way to imposing a full oil embargo and that the U.S. president and Congress would approve severe sanctions against both the petroleum industry and the Iranian central bank, we would have found it hard to believe," the source said.
So why isn't Israel pleased? Largely because any congratulations from Jerusalem could convince the international community that current efforts are enough, stalling the trend to increase pressure on Iran. Israel must be the one keeping the fire burning if it wants the pressure to be stepped up.
There may even be a more conspiratorial explanation. If Israel's leaders are indeed preparing the ground for a military strike on Iranian nuclear sites, as much of the international media seems to be convinced of, they can't appear to be satisfied with the situation. This would completely contradict a strike in the future (and undermine Israeli public support for military action).
Israeli demands for sanctions are focused on Europe. European foreign ministers will meet tomorrow in Brussels to discuss approving the sanctions. The main difficulty lies in the reservations of Greece, Italy and Spain, which buy oil from Iran and are experiencing financial difficulties. These countries seek to delay an embargo as much as possible, while other EU members say time is pressing and it would be best to speed things up.
Israel is not only interested in an oil embargo; it also wants sanctions to include a direct blow against Iran's central bank. This is a request that Germany, for example, is in no hurry to agree to lest it affect locally based companies. As for the United States, it appears Israel isn't pleased with the administration's initiative to allow President Barack Obama the option to avoid punishing foreign companies that bypass the sanctions.
Another issue revolves around the timetable. Israel is concerned that in the absence of quick, intense moves against Iran, the Iranians will consolidate a sufficient chunk of their nuclear infrastructure at sites better protected against military strikes. They would become immune to a strike, as the West wavers.
Still, and despite Israel's reservations, we can't ignore the achievements of recent months. A full European embargo on Iranian oil would strip Iran of 20 percent of its oil export market. Meanwhile, the West is pressuring Japan and South Korea to limit oil imports from Iran. This move, if successful, would double the impact on Iran.
The United States is also asking China not to increase oil imports from Iran to make up for countries that cease buying oil from Tehran. It's not clear if this effort will succeed, but it's reasonable to assume that even if the Chinese don't agree, they will demand a lower oil price from Iran, which will also strike a blow against the Islamic Republic's economy.
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