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Israel, U.S. Pursue Divergent Path on Iran

As the Obama administration’s policy toward Iran begins to take shape, fault lines between the American approach and that of Israel are becoming apparent.

In his boldest overture thus far, President Obama issued a video greeting to the Iranian people and leadership on the occasion of the Iranian New Year, Nowruz. In the March 20 message, Obama stressed America’s commitment to resolve its conflict with Iran through diplomacy. “This process will not be advanced by threats. We seek instead engagement that is honest and grounded in mutual respect,” the president said.

The public overture, which appeared to all but dismiss the possibility of military action, seems to stand in contrast to the Israeli approach, which insists on keeping the threat of force on the table when dealing with Iran’s nuclear program.

“This is a sharp departure from the Israeli position,” said Trita Parsi, president of the National Iranian American Council and author of “Treacherous Alliance: The Secret Dealings of Iran, Israel and the United States”

“The president’s approach is that diplomacy cannot work if there is a constant military threat,” he said.

Obama’s message to Iran could serve as the first step toward preparing a formal dialogue with the Islamic Republic’s leaders. It comes at a time when the Obama administration is still reviewing its Iran policy, a process that is now nearing its final stages. According to American diplomatic sources, the new Iran policy was already formulated in working groups and is now awaiting approval from the principals at the White House, State Department and Pentagon.

One of the first steps expected, once the new policy is approved, is a direct letter from President Obama to Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, in which he will spell out America’s intentions.

It is still not clear whether the letter will be followed by open talks or by the launching of back-channel discussions. Dennis Ross, the State Department special adviser who is expected to coordinate the Iranian outreach effort, has in the past expressed his preference for secret talks.

Khamenei responded to Obama’s overture in a speech before a mass-gathering in the Iranian city of Mashad. He condemned American policy toward Iran, past and present, and dismissed recent outreach from Washington as “the slogan of change.”

“Have you released the possessions of the Iranian nation? Have you removed the cruel sanctions? Have you stopped the insults, accusations and negative propaganda against this great nation and its officials? Have you stopped your unconditional support for the Zionist regime?” he asked. “What has changed?”

But Iran’s supreme leader did not altogether close the door on the possibility of engagement with America.

“We shall see and judge. You change, and we shall change as well,” said Khamenei, adding that Iran has not had any experience yet with President Obama.

His speech was punctuated with chants of “Death to America” from the crowd.

America’s effort to open talks with Iran is drawing much attention but little public response from Israel, which has long advocated tough measures and military threats to stop Iran’s nuclear program. “We are in a wait-and-see mode,” explained an Israeli diplomat.

According to Israeli sources and media reports, Jerusalem is insisting that engagement with Iran be limited in time and that it be coupled with tougher sanctions from America and its Western partners. Israel fears that Iran would use a prolonged period of negotiations to move forward with its nuclear program.

Israel has conveyed its positions to the Obama administration in a series of recent discussions, including a March 16 meeting in Washington between Israel Defense Forces chief-of-staff Gabi Ashkenazi and Ross, as well as during Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton’s February visit to Israel. Ashkenazi, according to an Israeli military source briefed on his meeting, asked Ross to make clear to Tehran that America is not shelving the possibility it would use military force to block Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons.

Israel was not consulted before Obama released his Nowruz greeting and did not officially react to the overture. But an Israeli official told the Forward: “We support any step if it is aimed at stopping the Iranian nuclear program.”

Leading Jewish groups have consistently focused their advocacy efforts on pressuring Iran through sanctions and mostly refrained from raising the issue of military options. The American Israel Public Affairs Committee states on its Web site that there is a need for limiting the timeframe of talks with Iran. “Iran can only be given a few months to negotiate without verifiably suspending its enrichment and reprocessing activities,” AIPAC stated, while also urging the administration not to wait until after the Iranian elections in June to begin talks.

The Obama administration, for its part, seems intent on beginning talks in the next few weeks. Ross, a veteran Middle East negotiator who has close ties to the Jewish world, having until recently served as chairman of the Jewish People Policy Planning Institute, has told colleagues that he believes there is a need for a time limit of several months for the negotiations.

Jewish groups are also calling for increasing sanctions on Iran before and during the time of negotiations. The administration has so far reinforced sanctions and is supporting further moves to increase pressure on Iran.

A recent poll conducted by the dovish Israel lobbying group J Street found American Jews to be divided when asked what course of action they prefer in dealing with the Iranian nuclear threat: 39% of respondents preferred negotiations and incentives, while 37% favored tough international sanctions and isolation. A similar split was seen on the issue of using military force to stop Iran: 41% of Jews participating in the survey said they would oppose America using military force if Iran were on the verge of acquiring nuclear weapons, while 40% say they would support such military action.

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