(photo credit: AP)
Use of the military option to force Iran to halt its nuclear program would only yield temporary and ineffective results, US Defense Secretary Robert Gates told the Senate Appropriations Committee on Thursday.
Sanctions would make more sense, he said.
Gates said a military attack on Iran would merely send the country's nuclear program further underground. Instead, the United States and its allies must convince Teheran that its nuclear ambitions would spark an arms race that would leave the Islamic republic less secure.
Gates and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said the US should work with its allies on tougher international sanctions. Gates also said America should pursue partnerships with Russia on missile defense programs in the region to further isolate Iran and to give it economic and diplomatic reasons to abandon its nuclear interests voluntarily.
According to Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon, any US-Iranian dialogue should depend on the Iranian regime's willingness to stop its drive toward a nuclear weapon.
"It is unreasonable to even begin such a dialogue when the other side, Iran, is flagrantly in breach of all its commitments," Ayalon said on Thursday. "The Americans shouldn't start the dialogue until there is a full and complete cessation of uranium enrichment and weaponization, and an effective mechanism for verification is installed."
Ayalon was responding to a White House refusal on Wednesday to establish a timetable for the Obama administration's engagement with Teheran.
Speaking to foreign journalists, White House National Security Council spokesman Mike Hammer said, "It's not appropriate at this time to be trying to establish timetables, but rather seeing how the engagement can move forward."
The US was not looking for "talk for the sake of talk," but "there are opportunities there for us to engage with the Iranian government," he said.
The statement appears to echo the view of Clinton, who, in her first appearance before the House Foreign Affairs Committee last week, refused to put a time limit on the administration's effort to hold a dialogue with the Iranian regime. According to Clinton, the "engagement strategy" gave the US "credibility and influence" with countries that would be needed to impose "tight and crippling" sanctions. This was widely interpreted as a reference to Russia and China.
According to Ayalon, "There are more important issues than just timetables." The dialogue must include "benchmarks and verification mechanisms" to prevent the Teheran from using the diplomatic discussions to buy time for its weapons program.
Ayalon noted that "for the past four years, it is the continuing Iranian violation, the ongoing process of weaponization, that has prevented the Europeans from beginning a dialogue with Iran."
Similarly, senior defense officials have warned in recent days that Iran would exploit such a dialogue and could not be trusted to stop its nuclear program.
"Israel is not opposed to the American dialogue with Iran, but believes that the US should put a time limit on dialogue while the international community prepares a severe sanctions package that can be in place immediately in case the dialogue fails," Defense Minister Ehud Barak said in a statement late last week.
He recommended that the sanctions package include the financial and insurance sectors, imports and energy infrastructure, and warned that "Israel has already said that it is not taking any options off the table, and recommends that others do the same."
Earlier this week, Barak and Strategic Affairs Minister Moshe Ya'alon urged the Obama administration to set clear benchmarks throughout the engagement process that the Iranians would have to meet for the talks to continue.
"Israel cannot tell the US not to talk to Iran, but can warn that without a time frame, it will almost definitely fail," one senior defense official commented.
The official recommended that the talks be limited to 14-16 weeks.
"This is sufficient time to test the Iranians' sincerity," he said. "If the talks fail to stop Iran after 16 weeks, then it will be time to step up efforts, such as imposing harsher sanctions."
Iran will be one of the issues that President Shimon Peres and Obama will discuss when they meet in Washington on Monday.
Peres constantly tells world leaders that the Iranian nuclear threat is not just an Israeli problem, but a global problem, because Iran is a rogue state that wants to control the whole of the Middle East. If that is allowed to happen, he says, Teheran's appetite for power will increase, and it will want to rule the world.
Other issues on the agenda for the Peres-Obama meeting will be the strengthening of the strategic partnership between Israel and the US, and the degree of coordination between the two countries. Peres and Obama will devote much of their time together to discussing ways of advancing the Israeli-Palestinian diplomatic process as a major stepping stone toward advancement of peace in the region in general, and in this context they will also discuss the Arab initiative.
Peres leaves for Washington on Saturday night.
Hilary Leila Krieger, Greer Fay Cashman and AP contributed to this report.