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(photo credit: IAI [file])
Nothing is free. For the past decade Israel has been preparing and fretting and warning about the nightmare of a nuclear Iran. And it hasn't been easy.
The first step was to convince the world that oil-rich Iran wasn't developing nukes so it could, in an environmentally friendly way, run air conditioners in Shiraz.
It took time, but most countries - except for some, like South Africa and Venezuela - came around and accepted the idea that Iran's nuclear program wasn't intended for "peaceful means," but rather to supply the ayatollahs with their very own A-bomb. Second, there was the need to push for sanctions against Iran. That, too, was a long and arduous chore that culminated last December in UN Security Council Chapter Seven resolutions against Teheran. But sanctions alone - it is clear - might not do the trick, and suddenly this week the specter of military action or war was raised as possibly the only way to stop the Iranians.
Interestingly enough, the war idea wasn't broached by those war-mongering Americans, but rather by the peace-loving French. Bernard Kouchner, the slightly bizarre French foreign minister, discussed this possibility in an interview on France's RTL radio. Kouchner, who was in Israel last week and discussed the Iranian situation with Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, said the crisis with Iran over its nuclear program forced the world "to prepare ourselves for the worst," specifying that could mean a war. He emphasized, however, that negotiations should still be the preferred course of action.
In all fairness to France, Israeli diplomatic officials heavily involved in the Iranian file have been saying consistently for months that France has been the leader within the EU in advocating a tough and firm stance against Iran - more so than either Germany or Britain. In parallel to the Kouchner remarks, there were high-profile reports in the US this week that Vice President Dick Cheney, who reportedly favors a more aggressive approach toward Iran, was gaining the upper-hand in the administration over US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who reportedly favors continuing to pursue the diplomatic option.
Suddenly, the idea of a military strike to stop Iran went from the unthinkable to the very conceivable. The idea gained even more credibility after the alleged Israeli raid on what some speculated was a nuclear-related shipment or facility in Syria two weeks ago.
The New York Times reported this week that a "belief has been growing in Iran, which administration officials have pointedly not tried to stem, that the Bush administration is considering military strikes against Iran. An Israeli air strike in Syria last week kicked up speculation in the Iranian press that Israel, in alliance with the United States, was really trying to send a message to Iran that it could strike Iranian nuclear facilities if it chose to."
WHAT ALL this goes to show is that the containment of Iran - through harsher diplomatic measures, and possibly even military ones - is very, very much on the world's agenda. And this brings us back to the idea of nothing being for free.
Israel sees the containment of Iran as nothing less than an existential imperative. Although Iran is obviously a threat to the whole world, and not just a threat to Israel, it is first and foremost a threat to Israel, and for years Jerusalem has been enlisting US and European help to contain Teheran. But there will be a price, and that price - namely what Israel will be expected to "deliver" in order to make the US's much-desired Middle East meeting in the fall not only a reality but also a success - is widely believed to have been one of the focuses of Rice's discussions with her Israeli hosts during her 24-hour visit this week. Rice's determination to convene the international meeting, even as Israel has indicated it could very much live without it, as the Palestinians have signaled they want to postpone it, and as the Arab world has shown absolutely no excitement in joining it, demands an explanation.
Not only does Rice want the meeting to happen, she is also demanding that it be "serious and substantive.
"I've been very clear that this meeting has to, in a substantive way, support the activities and the efforts of the parties to lay a foundation for the negotiation of a Palestinian state as soon as possible," Rice said on her way to Israel from Washington on Wednesday. "And that's really what this meeting needs to do," she said. "I think everybody expects it to be serious and substantive. I think everybody expects it to address critical issues and, you know, we don't expect anything less. I mean, the idea that somehow the president of the United States would call an international meeting so we can all have a photo-op I think is just very far-fetched."
Her message was clear. The meeting needs to take place, and it needs to deal with substance. The reason the meeting is important for the US is not only because of the stated goal of plodding ahead toward a two-state solution, but also because it is central to the emerging US thinking on the region. The premise of this thinking is that the so-called moderate Arab states - states such as Saudi Arabia, the Gulf States, Egypt and Jordan - are petrified of a nuclear Iran. These Sunni states, this logic runs, are also fearful of the marching Shi'ite extremism. The conference is a way to cement the Sunni countries together into what could then be presented as a moderate Arab block.
In other words, Rice wants to translate this fear into an "Arab Quartet" that could coalesce around the Palestinian-Israeli issue, and then be a force that could come into play on other regional issues as well, primarily Iran.
The international meeting is needed not only to push the Israel-PA dialogue forward, but also to formally bring this moderate block into being. The idea of creating an Arab Quartet counterbalance to Iran is especially important to Rice, because she is reportedly the main advocate in the administration of continuing to pursue the diplomatic track - rather than looking into the military one - in dealing with Iran. For the diplomatic track to work, sanctions need to be serious. And for sanctions to be serious, not only do Russia and China have to play ball, but so do the neighboring Arab countries.
If Iran hits back at sanctions by curtailing oil production, the US needs commitments that Saudi and the Gulf States will pick up the production slack. Furthermore, Iran has revealed sensitivity over the last few years to isolation. A decision by Iran's Arab neighbors to isolate the regime would have a huge impact, and would be more of a blow than even isolation by the EU. The Saudis - as is so often the case - are therefore key, and they are making their demands of Rice. According to Israeli sources, the Saudis want to see whether the document that Israel and the Palestinians are in the process of drawing up before the meeting reflects to some degree the parameters of the Arab Peace plan they launched in 2002. In other words, Riyadh wants the document to deal with the core issues of Jerusalem, refugees and borders not only in a general way, but in detail - with deadlines and a timeline. With al Qaeda setting up cells in various Saudi cities, a public meeting with Israel at an international meeting in Washington is not the most popular move that the present Saudi leadership could make. But the Saudi leadership could be able to dull the criticism, and legitimize what would certainly be a controversial move, by saying that the US had adopted its plan as the basis of negotiations.
The planned meeting in November serves another US interest, as well: It could bolster the American image as a player that can actually deliver the goods in the region, an image in desperate need of refurbishing following the failures in Iraq. The US will want to show that it is not only the policeman in Iraq, but also a harbinger of hope to the people in the Middle East. It will want to show that it can deliver something on the Israeli-Palestinian track. But to do this, Israel will have to "deliver."
Olmert, therefore, met Rice this week facing a situation in which she needs to satisfy the Saudis, and he will be expected to satisfy Rice. Politically, this is not an easy place for him to be. If Olmert accedes to what are widely believed to be US requests to make some symbolic concessions on Jerusalem, the borders or refugees, he will be pummeled by the Right - both inside and outside his party - who will surely accuse him, using biblical imagery, of selling the country's birthright for a plate of lentils. And who knows then what will happen to his coalition?