Washington — As the United States moves toward the final stage of imposing sanctions against Iran’s central bank and oil industry, American officials are trying to erase Israeli suspicion about the effectiveness of economic pressure and to ensure that Jerusalem and Washington are fully coordinated in dealing with Iran’s nuclear threat.
A recent assassination of an Iranian nuclear scientist, which has been attributed to Israel by multiple sources (including Western intelligence, according to Time magazine), has tested this coordination and has made clear that despite a broad agreement between the United States and Israel, there are still areas of tactical difference.
The United States, now ratcheting up sanctions to a level seen as devastating to the Islamic Republic’s economy, is opposed to any unilateral Israeli action that could destabilize the region and put at risk the international drive to tighten the screws on Iran.
“We’ve heard from Iran that sanctions are biting,” a senior administration official said, adding that the next round of sanctions will force Iran to decide between adhering to international demands or suffering a crippling blow to its economy.
These sanctions will deny national and private banks that conduct business with Iran’s central bank access to America’s financial system. The first stage of the sanctions relates to business dealings outside the energy sector; the second, to be implemented within six months, includes all petroleum transactions.
In recent weeks, according to the senior official who briefed reporters on condition of anonymity, the United States sent teams overseas to discuss the implementation of sanctions with other nations. The goal of these teams was to increase oil supplies from Gulf countries and from Iraq and Libya in order to make up for Iranian oil and to convince key consumers of Iranian oil, including China, Japan and India, to diversify their oil suppliers and cut purchases from Iran. The United States has also increased its own oil and natural gas production to make sure the sanctions don’t lead to a spike in oil prices. “We are doing this in a phased but aggressive manner so Iran doesn’t increase its oil revenue,” the official said.
This phased approach has caused some in Israel to question the resolve of the United States to actually block Iran’s oil sales. “The American administration is hesitant because it fears oil prices will go up in an election year, and in this aspect this is definitely disappointing,” Israel’s deputy prime minister, Moshe Ya’alon, said on January 16.
But remarks by Defense Minister Ehud Barak on January 18 appeared designed to allay American concerns that the two nations were on different tracks.
Close talks between the two governments, including a visit by Martin Dempsey, chairman of America’s Joint Chiefs of Staff, in Israel on January 19, were focused on reassuring Israelis that America’s drive for sanctions is serious and effective.
Friction between the two countries was also caused by a clandestine act that the United States feared could derail its sanctions effort and ignite violence.
The January 11 assassination of Mostafa Ahmadi-Roshan, 32, director of the Natanz uranium enrichment facility, was immediately attributed to Israel’s Mossad, although the government in Jerusalem never acknowledged that it was responsible for the killing. In the past two years, three other scientists working as part of Iran’s nuclear program have been assassinated in a similar way, and another was targeted but survived the attack.
“Israel’s hope is that by eliminating key people, it will reduce the personnel of the program, convince others to quit and deter new ones from joining,” said Matthew Kroenig, Stanton Nuclear Security Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and former Middle East adviser at the Pentagon. Kroenig, however, does not believe that this hope is realistic.
Other experts were also skeptical about the prospects of damaging Iran’s nuclear program by killing off its scientists. “It is hard to imagine a country with a scientific and industrial base large enough to sustain a nuclear weapons program, but so small that the death of a few individuals would cause it to halt,” said William Tobey, former deputy administrator for defense nuclear nonproliferation at the National Nuclear Security Administration. Tobey, currently a fellow at Harvard University’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, added that producing nuclear weapons is “no longer at the frontier of science,” and therefore uniquely talented scientists are not as important as they were in the past.
But regardless of Israel’s rationale for the alleged scientist targeting, its most significant partner in the fight against Iran’s nuclear program, the United States, has made clear that it is opposed to the method and to the timing of these actions.
Senior administration officials went out of their way to deny any American involvement in the killing. Top officials, including Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, spoke publicly on the issue, with Clinton telling reporters, “I want to categorically deny any United States involvement in any kind of act of violence inside Iran.”
The assassination, experts explained, runs counter to America’s current interest, which is to maintain stability in the region while building an international front against Iran’s oil industry.
Killing the scientist, a bold move that took place in broad daylight, is seen as an act that Iran cannot ignore. The assassination has already triggered a pledge from Tehran that it will retaliate. For an American administration hoping to pressure Iran into talks about complying with international norms, an angry leadership in the Islamic Republic would make the effort ever more difficult.
The greater concern in Washington is that the covert action and any reprisal could inadvertently escalate and lead to a military conflict in which none of the sides are interested. “One mistake can trigger a confrontation,” warned Meir Javedanfar, who teaches contemporary Iranian politics at the Interdisciplinary Center, in Herzliya, Israel. Javedanfar added that the lack of any kind of hotline of the sort that America and the Soviet Union kept during the Cold War means that any skirmish has the potential of deteriorating into a full-scale war.
The Tehran assassination revealed the fault lines in the Israeli-American consensus over Iran.
Both nations agree on the key strategic components of dealing with Iran: not allowing Iran to become nuclear; viewing sanctions as the best course of action, and keeping the military option on the table. But differences still exist, and recent events, including the Tehran assassination, have brought these differences to the fore. Israel has made clear that it will not accept a veto from the United States on a military strike and that it does not feel obliged to coordinate such an attack with the Americans; the United States, on the flip side, has concerns regarding Israel’s commitment to let the sanctions process play out before taking action, and Israel has its doubts about Obama’s willingness to back his words concerning “all options on the table” with actions, if and when needed.
An Israeli government official stressed that it would be wrong to read too much into these differences, since a strong basic understanding exists and coordination between the two countries is closer than ever. And while Iran may not have a hotline with the United States, Washington and Jerusalem have a robust set of communication channels at all levels, ensuring that misunderstandings are addressed and resolved.
Contact Nathan Guttman at firstname.lastname@example.org