Biden's Assurances to Jerusalem

The visit of senior U.S. officials to Israel peaked today with the arrival of Vice President Joe Biden. In addition to the usual talk about the need to revive the peace process with the Palestinians, Biden will have one main task: to assuage the Israeli leadership and ensure that it is not planning any preemptive strike against Iran's nuclear sites which would disrupt the Obama administration's efforts to form a broad international front that would impose tough sanctions on Tehran.

Senior defense sources told Haaretz that American concerns about an Israeli strike, along with the obvious coolness in relations between U.S. President Barack Obama and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, have resulted in the substantial tightening of relations between the two countries' defense establishments.

The same sources said the Americans are trying to convince the Israeli defense leadership that the administration is committed to the efforts to bring about sanctions against Iran. Consequently, coordination between the two sides is deepening.

During the past two weeks alone, three defense-related U.S. delegations of various ranks have visited Israel - the most senior of which was that which included the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mike Mullen. Relations between Mullen and his Israeli counterpart, IDF Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazi, are considered excellent. In recent years the two have met 11 times.

Last week, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said that sanctions against Iran will go into effect within the next few months, a slower time table than originally expected, which had hoped that tougher sanctions would be in place by March.

In talks with administration representatives, senior Israeli officials were told that the plan is to accelerate the efforts during a conference on nuclear weapons to be held in Washington next month. The Americans are hoping to begin with a UN Security Council Resolution that will be a general but strong condemnation of Iran for violating its obligations not to develop nuclear arms.

The sanctions are expected to be relatively "soft" so that China will also support the resolution. At the next stage, the Obama administration is hoping to rally other friendly states, like the main powers in Europe as well as Canada and Australia, toward a much more stringent set of sanctions that will not be put through the Security Council.

Approval for a resolution at the Security Council requires nine of the 15 country members to vote in favor, and all the five permanent members not to veto.

A vote of only nine council members will be considered by Iran to be a success. Meanwhile, the United States will try to raise the number of countries supporting the resolution. During her tour of South America last week, Clinton tried to gain Brazil's support for sanctions.

Russia, which recently has experienced a certain rapprochement in relations with the United States on the Iranian question, is expected to support sanctions that will focus on the Revolutionary Guard and the various companies associated with them in Iran and internationally. China is primarily concerned with the potential harm sanctions will cause to its oil supply from Iran. Recently the Americans tried to secure a Saudi Arabian guarantee to China, which would see the amount of oil lost from Iranian suppliers provided by the Saudis. Similar efforts are being made with other Gulf states.

Will sanctions work? According to New York Times columnist Roger Cohen on Thursday, "Sanctions will not alter Iran's policy, and will further enrich the Revolutionary Guards who control sanction-circumventing channels from Dubai."

He does argue, however, that the sanctions will provide more time to probe relations between the United States and Iran along the diplomatic channels that were interrupted last October.

"I'm told that's how Obama, who remains intellectually committed to the idea of an Iran breakthrough, views them: a necessity in the light of Congressional and Israeli pressure, but not a likely means to get sanctions-inured Iran to change course." Cohen is calling on Obama to focus on the reformist opposition in Iran and rejects a military strike. He argues that such a move would only bolster the regime of the ayatollahs and will be "disastrous" for Israel.

Meanwhile on Israel's northern front, the leadership is walking on eggshells out of concern that Iran is keen to encourage Syria and Hezbollah to heat up the area, in part by weapons deliveries to Hezbollah that would destabilize the security equilibrium. During the past two weeks both Israeli and American officials have condemned the rearming of Hezbollah.

Instead of the usual cabinet meeting this morning, Netanyahu will be briefed by Defense Minister Ehud Barak and senior officers in the defense establishment on preparations to bolster the home front. Israel is watching developments in the region closely and apparently readying for any eventuality.