Washington - With confrontational words and deeds intensifying between Iran and Israel, the United States is signaling to Jerusalem that it would prefer at the moment to deal with the Iranian nuclear crisis through diplomacy and the threat of economic sanctions.
The latest hostile move came July 9 from Iran, where several medium- and long-range missiles were launched as part of a large-scale military exercise. The missile launch, which was trumpeted publicly by a government-run news agency, came one month after the Israeli air force conducted exercises with more than 100 aircraft over the Mediterranean.
On June 28, the Bush administration dispatched the military’s top commander to Israel to convey to Jerusalem that the military option is not the preferred course of action at the moment. Back home in Washington, the State Department stressed publicly that nonmilitary channels still need to be pursued.
In the recent escalation between Israel and Iran, Middle East analysts see concern in Jerusalem that sanctions and diplomatic measures are not producing results while Tehran moves forward on its alleged nuclear weapons program.
“This is all being fed by a larger unease of people in Israel and around the world, who are looking at Iran’s technological progress, at the ineffectiveness of the U.N. Security Council and the International Atomic Energy Agency, and at the U.S. presidential race,” said Ilan Berman, vice president for policy at the American Foreign Policy Council.
According to Berman, Israeli officials are concerned about the United States being tied up with domestic political issues.
“That’s why the Israeli military exercise should be seen as a signal not only to Iran but also to the United States,” he said.
Talk of Israel using military force against Iran’s nuclear program took center stage in recent weeks, following hawkish remarks by two prominent Middle East figures.
Israel’s transportation minister, Shaul Mofaz, who formerly served as military chief of staff and later as defense minister, said in an interview last month with Israel’s daily Yediot Aharonot that “if Iran presses ahead with its plan to develop nuclear weapons, we will attack.” Meanwhile, Washington’s former ambassador to the United Nations, John Bolton, told Britain’s Daily Telegraph that an Israeli attack might take place by January 2009, after the November elections but before the new president is sworn in.
These remarks, which drew international attention and sent gas prices soaring, came days before word got out of a large-scale Israeli air force exercise in which more than 100 jet fighters simulated what Washington experts called a possible attack plan against Iran. Tehran responded with its own military show of force, which culminated in a test of long-range missiles with the capability to reach Israel.
One of the commanders of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps, Ali Shirazi, followed up July 8, when he was quoted by a government-run Web site as saying that if Iran were attacked, “Tel Aviv and the U.S. naval fleet in the Persian Gulf will be the first targets which will be set on fire in Iran’s crushing response.”
On June 28, the United States sought to blunt the saber rattling by sending Admiral Michael Mullen, chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, for high-level discussions in Israel. Upon returning to Washington, Mullen stated, “From the U.S. military perspective, opening up a third front right now would be extremely stressful on us.”
Anthony Cordesman, a leading military analyst at Washington’s Center for Strategic & International Studies, said that Mullen’s remarks should be seen as a clear message to Israel.
“The United States has not given Israel a green light to attack Iran,” Cordesman said during a July 7 meeting with defense experts in Tel Aviv.
Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak and the military’s chief of staff, Gabi Ashkenazi, will be in Washington for separate visits in July, and are expected to discuss the issue with Pentagon officials.
Speaking at a Capitol Hill hearing July 9, a senior State Department official also joined the effort to calm the winds of war blowing from the region. The under secretary for political affairs, William Burns, told the House International Relations Committee that the military option against Iran should be viewed only as a last resort.
“We are fully committed to diplomacy,” Burns said. “I do not believe we have exhausted all diplomatic tools.”
But according to diplomats and officials contacted by the Forward, nonmilitary efforts to stop Iran are now at a crossroads.
The sanctions imposed in the past year by the U.S. Treasury Department against Iranian financial institutes, according to the diplomats and officials, have not sufficiently affected the Iranian economy, which has been buffeted by the rise in gas prices. Washington is now considering three other avenues for increasing economic pressure on the regime in Tehran: imposing limitations on international insurance companies dealing with Iran; targeting Iran’s shipping fleet by increasing inspections and restrictions, and going after the export of refined petroleum products to Iran, which imports half of the fuel it uses because of a lack of refining capability. This issue of increasing sanctions to include petroleum and shipping restrictions is also at the center of legislation now being debated in Congress.
State Department officials have said publicly that broadening the sanctions against Iran is viewed by the administration as the most favorable course of action. According to diplomatic sources, the latest flare-up in talks about taking military action against Iran could serve as a catalyst to push Americans and Europeans to support the deepening of sanctions against Iran, viewing them as less damaging than use of the military option.
Based on public accounts of the countries involved, the diplomatic front has also reached a standstill.
On June 14, the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council, along with Germany, presented Tehran with a proposal to help Iran build a civil nuclear power plant in return for giving up uranium enrichment, which could be used for military purposes. The negotiators received from Tehran what was described as an insufficient reply.
Javier Solana, the European Union foreign policy chief conducting the talks with Iran, called the negotiations difficult.
“I don’t want to give the impression of being too optimistic,” Solana said.
Nathan Guttman staff writer, is the Forward’s Washington bureau chief. He joined the staff in 2006 after serving for five years as Washington correspondent for the Israeli dailies Ha’aretz and The Jerusalem Post. In Israel, he was the features editor for Ha’aretz and chief editor of Channel 1 TV evening news. He was born in Canada and grew up in Israel. He is a graduate of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Contact Nathan at firstname.lastname@example.org, or follow him on Twitter @nathanguttman