Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu is scheduled to fly to Moscow on Sunday evening for two days of talks expected to focus on Iran and the diplomatic stalemate with the Palestinians.
Iran will also be at the center of talks Adm. Michael Mullen, chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, will hold with Chief of General Staff Lt.-Gen. Gabi Ashkenazi this week, in a sign of growing cooperation ahead of a new regime of international sanctions on Iran. Mullen is to arrive on Sunday.
Although Netanyahu visited Russia in September for a 12-hour clandestine trip that was revealed by the media, this will be his first official visit since taking office last March. While very little has been uncovered about the September trip, it was believed at the time to be linked to reports of the sale of Russian arms to Iran and Syria, including state-of-the-art S-300 air defense missiles to Teheran.
That issue, according to Israeli officials, is still on the table, and likely to be discussed during the meetings. Netanyahu is scheduled to meet with President Dmitry Medvedev and Vladimir Putin. He is set to return late Tuesday night.
Although Russia signed a contract in 2007 to supply Iran with the S-300s – which the West fears could be used to defend Iran’s nuclear facilities – Moscow has not yet delivered the anti-missile systems. Russian officials, however, maintain that Moscow does intend to deliver them, concerned that reneging on the contract would hurt arms deals to other countries.
The focus of Netanyahu’s talks, however, is expected to be on recent developments in Iran, including the push for Russian support for a fourth round of UN Security Council sanctions against Teheran. Israeli officials noted that last week public Russian statements, especially one made by the head of the Russian National Security Council Nikolai Patrushev, indicated that Moscow was inching toward the West’s position that sanctions action was needed now.
Last week, Patrushev was quoted by Russian news agencies as saying, “Political and diplomatic methods are important in the settlement [of the Iranian nuclear issue], but everything has its limit and there are limits to patience.”
Until now Moscow has advocated intensive diplomacy with Iran, not convinced – or at least not saying so publicly – that Teheran intended to weaponize its nuclear program. According to Israeli officials, however, the revelation in September of the secret nuclear plant at Qom has had an impact on Russia’s interpretation of Iranian designs.
There is a great deal of high-level traffic between Jerusalem and Moscow, with Patrushev having visited here in December. As such, both Jerusalem and Moscow are well aware of each other’s position on Iran. What Netanyahu hopes to do over the next two days, one official said, is to gauge what impact the recent events in Iran have had on Moscow’s thinking.
Mullen and Ashkenazi are described by aides as close friends who speak at least once a week by phone. They most recently met on the sidelines of a NATO conference in Brussels, where they sat together for almost three hours.
Mullen, the top officer in the US military, will meet with Ashkenazi for the ninth time as well as other senior IDF generals, including Deputy Chief of General Staff Maj.-Gen. Benny Gantz, OC Military Intelligence Maj.-Gen. Amos Yadlin and the IDF’s attaché in Washington, Maj.-Gen. Gadi Shamni. He will also meet separately with Defense Minister Ehud Barak.
It will be Mullen’s third trip to the country since taking up his position in 2007. Before then, a chairman of Joint Chiefs of Staff had not visited Israel for close to a decade.
According to a recent New York Times
article, Mullen has urged Israel to hold off on attacking Iranian nuclear sites and to give a new round of sanctions, expected to be imposed in the coming weeks, a chance to work.
The US recently supplied land- and sea-based missile defense systems to allies in the Persian Gulf that are concerned about Iran’s continued enrichment of uranium and development of long-range ballistic missiles.
The understanding within the defense establishment is that with the possibility of diplomatic engagement between the US and Iran now over, the sanctions that until now were the stick, will now turn into the carrot. As a result, there is a need to increase coordination so that the possibility of military action against Iran can become the stick.
Mullen comes to Israel just a week after his assistant, US Air Force Gen. Paul Selva, was in Israel for a number of high-level but low profile meetings. Selva, who works closely with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, has been charged by the administration with gauging how both sides are progressing on their road map peace plan obligations.
Also here recently was US National Security Adviser James Jones, CIA Director Leon Panetta, NSC official Dennis Ross and Gen. Kevin Chilton, commander of the US Strategic Command.
“The Americans want to calm us down and make sure that we are giving sanctions a chance,” a senior defense official explained recently,
Mullen’s visit is part of a larger tour of the region. He will hear concerns from his Israeli counterparts about the planned US withdrawal from Iraq in 2011 and the effect such a move will have on the region. Israel is also worried by Hizbullah’s continued military buildup in Lebanon. The US has supplied military equipment to the Lebanese army and Israel is concerned that it will fall into Hizbullah hands.
Mullen will be received on Sunday at the Kirya military headquarters in Tel Aviv by a formal IDF honor guard and will also visit Yad Vashem in Jerusalem. At his request, Mullen will meet members of the IDF rescue delegation to Haiti, and hear about their experiences with rescue operations and field medical treatment.
On the Palestinian issue, the Kremlin is hosting Netanyahu just a week after it hosted Hamas head Khaled Mashaal, and just three weeks after Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas was in Moscow. In addition, Russia, which is keen on playing a bigger role in Mid East diplomacy, is scheduled to host a high-level meeting of the Quartet toward the end of the month.
The issue of a Moscow peace conference, an idea that the Kremlin has
been interested in as a follow up to the Annapolis conference in 2007,
will also likely be raised again. Israel’s position is that it is not
opposed in principle to a regional peace conference as a follow-up to
bilateral negotiations with the Palestinians.
The problem now is how to get the Palestinians to negotiate without
preconditions, one senior diplomatic official said, not the nature of a
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