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When It Comes to Iran, Israel Is Walking a Fine Line in Washington

Lobbying Congress for tougher sanctions against Iran risks incurring Obama Administration’s wrath.

Amos Harel
Amos Harel
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Amos Harel
Amos Harel

Israel is conducting a diplomatic campaign aimed at blunting the success of the so-called charm offensive led by Iranian President Hassan Rohani during his visit to the United Nations last month. After the Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s aggressive speeches, Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon, who is now in the United States, is focused on persuading the Americans not to allow any relaxation of the sanctions on Iran before Tehran signs a binding agreement that will slam the brakes on its nuclear program. In the background, Israel is canvassing Congress with a more ambitious goal in mind – intensifying the sanctions, a move that could lead to a confrontation with the Obama administration, which opposes doing so at this stage.

At the end of a meeting Tuesday night with his host, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, Ya’alon said that any easing of sanctions would lead to their collapse. There are plenty of interested parties who would be glad to start doing business with Iran should the sanctions be lifted, Ya’alon said, which would alleviate the economic pressure on Tehran while allowing the Iranians to continue enriching uranium. Ya’alon urged the United States to avoid falling into the “trap” of relieving the sanctions as a confidence-building measure until Iran has fulfilled the conditions set for it.

Ya’alon also met with Senator Robert Menendez, chairman of the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Menendez, a New Jersey Democrat, is one of Israel's most prominent friends on Capitol Hill, and a major player in the sanctions issue. The Kirk-Menendez Amendment, which he co-sponsored with Sen. Mark Kirk, an Illinois Republican, imposed many of the sanctions two years ago, and is considered by many the most effective measure taken by the United States against Tehran’s nuclear program.

Israel would prefer that the renewal of nuclear talks between the six world powers and Iran in Geneva next Tuesday be accompanied by a tightening of sanctions that would involve expanding on the original Kirk-Menendez initiative. The Senate is debating, among other things, harsher steps against the Iranian banking system and restrictions on trade in metals (which the Iranians have been using as a substitute for trade in dollars, something that has been restricted by measures taken against them by the international community).

U.S.: No tougher sanctions before talks

The Israelis, who officially claim they that don’t intervene in congressional matters, believe that sanctions should be intensified if it turns out that Iran continues to enrich uranium during negotiations. However, Wendy Sherman, the senior State Department official responsible for negotiations with Iran and for handling the sanctions, told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee last week that the administration believes it best not to toughen sanctions ahead of the next round of talks.

Sherman even hinted it would be appropriate to consider removing some sanctions down the road if Iran makes concessions during the negotiations. In light of the new positive atmosphere in relations between the United States and Iran, which culminated in a telephone conversation between U.S. President Barack Obama and Rohani, it is difficult to imagine the administration supporting a move in Congress for additional sanctions even after the talks in Geneva.

Israel is entering a sensitive area here, with the timing particularly problematic in light of the crisis between the president and his Republican rivals that has paralyzed the entire U.S. government. One can certainly understand the logic behind Israel’s tough approach to Iran, given the number of times Tehran has already led the West around by the nose. But the sequence of aggressive statements by Netanyahu, from his speech to the UN General Assembly to his address at Bar-Ilan University’s Begin-Sadat Center this week, create the impression that Jerusalem is not prepared to consider any compromise with Iran at all.

‘Act of strategic suicide’

The prime minister has barreled through Washington like the proverbial bull in a china shop in the past, when he preached to Obama in front of the cameras (in a meeting dubbed “the history lesson” a couple of years ago), and then with the blatant intervention attributed to his people on behalf of Mitt Romney, the Republican candidate for president, during last year’s election. Although the relationship between Obama and Netanyahu has somewhat improved since the president's visit to Israel in March, it could easily deteriorate if Israel is perceived as ignoring the rules of the game on Capitol Hill. The White House is still keeping track of every move.

Although official Israel is doing all it can these days to maintain the military option against Tehran as a realistic possibility, it seems that events of recent months have completely altered the international agenda. No matter how many times the prime minister reminds his audiences of the possibility that Israel will act alone, the global debate is now being conducted in the space between sanctions and compromise. In other words, the question is over what concessions can be extracted from Iran with the help of the sanctions that have already brought its economy practically to its knees.

Jerusalem now realizes, perhaps more than at earlier stages, the full ramifications of conducting an independent military strike on Iran against the will of the United States. A former senior defense official, who played a major role in recent years in the relations between the two countries, told Haaretz this week that an Israeli strike after an agreement is reached between Iran and the world powers and against the latter’s will, on grounds that the compromise reached was insufficient, could be likened to “an act of strategic suicide.”

The gaps between the United States and Iran are still large and cannot be bridged during the coming round of talks, but the current global atmosphere makes independent military action by Israel very difficult. Even the man who would have to implement such an attack if so ordered – Chief of Staff Benny Gantz – referred during his Bar-Ilan speech to the renewed diplomatic efforts aimed at Iran, along with the chemical disarmament effort in Syria, as positive regional trends that in an optimistic scenario could “lead to what people much greater than me, and under other circumstances, referred to as a ‘new Middle East.’”

Netanyahu poses with U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman Robert Menendez (D) and other committee members at the Capitol. September 30, 2013.Credit: AFP

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