Diplomacy: Exhausting efforts

Next week marks a new round of American-Israeli talks on the Iranian threat.

rice iraq conf 298.88 (photo credit: AP)
rice iraq conf 298.88
(photo credit: AP)
Sderot is bleeding in the basement, the Arab Peace Initiative is resting on the living-room table and the idea of talks with Syria is again crawling in through the attic window. But when the US and Israel sit down in Washington on Thursday for another round of strategic talks, the only real focus will be on the one real threat to the entire house: Iran. Transportation Minister Shaul Mofaz will lead the Israeli team at next week's US-Israel strategic dialogue, where a central topic will be how to turn up the economic heat on Iran, especially following last week's International Atomic Energy Agency report that said Teheran was going ahead with its uranium enrichment and was also blocking access to IAEA inspectors. Tellingly, one of those expected to take part is Stuart Levy, the US Treasury's undersecretary for terrorism and financial intelligence and the point man in Washington's efforts - independent of UN Security Council sanctions - to financially squeeze Teheran. The US team will be lead by the No. 2 man at the State Department, Undersecretary for Political Affairs Nicholas Burns. Even with the all the talk of sanctions, in the back of the minds of at least some of those involved in the dialogue will be the possibility that these economic steps won't work. The question then becomes, what next? For months, Israeli policy makers have debated the question of whether if push came to shove, US President George W. Bush would, in his waning days in office, order a military strike on Iran's nuclear facilities - if not to wipe the nuclear program out completely, then at least to set it back considerably. While some argue that the US is way too overburdened in Iraq and Afghanistan to take on a military engagement of this magnitude, others in Jerusalem have said consistently for more than a year that if Bush acted, it would likely be in the early summer of 2008, before the US political party conventions. ACCORDING TO this school of thought, Bush - because of a deeply ingrained religious belief that he has a mission to play as US president - does not want to bequeath to the world a nuclear Iran. He doesn't want to go down as the person upon whose watch a religiously radical Islamic leader attained the ability to blow up a good part of the world. This argument also holds that a strike against Iran would be one of the only ways that the US, following a withdrawal from Iraq that is bound to take place sooner or later, would be able to retain a position of considerable influence in the Middle East. With the Saudis, according to some officials in Jerusalem, urging the US to stop the Iranians, a strike as part of a retreat from Iraq would be something that could put the shine back on the US's tarnished image in the region. According to this logic, the US - rather than Israel - would take military action, because with its aircraft carriers in the Persian Gulf only it could carry out the sustained air strike, rather than a more limited air raid, needed to be effective against Iran's nuclear facilities. The thinking is also that that with the US all over Iraq's airspace right now, there is no way that Israel could reach Iran without first informing the US. Consequently, even if Israel were to carry out an attack, the US would be seen as complicit - and as a result blamed - because such an attack could not have been carried out without its consent. But an attack, according to this thinking, would not come out of the blue. It would come only after Israel said loudly and often that the situation was simply no longer tolerable and that something had to be done. In a variation on the "stop the crazy Israelis from doing something nuts" syndrome, the US could then tell the world that it had to act, because Israel was on the verge of doing so. In this construct, the world would likely be more understanding of an attack on Iran then it was regarding US action in Iraq. Why? Because nobody, anymore, has any real doubt that Iran wants to spin centrifuges and enrich uranium not to air-condition homes in Teheran, but rather to create the fissile material needed to incinerate homes elsewhere. Which is why it is instructive to pay attention to Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's and the government's public statements about Iran. Now these statements are moderate, calling for a continuation of international diplomatic efforts and a stepping up of sanctions. But if the statements begin to get more strident, then it could be an indication that Israel's faith in the ability of economic sanctions to actually work has been lost. Israel and the US are, for the most part, on the same page regarding Iran and the steps that now need to be taken. Yet there still remains one real point of disagreement, and that has to do with the time line. Mofaz, in an interview with The Jerusalem Post in February, said Iran had a long way to go before being able to enrich uranium at a weapons-grade level, but that this was a jump that could be made with technological assistance from outside or through an Iranian technological breakthrough. He said that the US and Israel had different assessments as to when Iran was likely to reach this point, and put that difference at "two or three years." This, however, is not merely an academic question. The time line is obviously key in determining when to throw up one's hands and say that the diplomatic process has been exhausted, and that there is now no other choice but to act militarily. That point has not yet arrived - and when Mofaz and Burns meet in Washington, they will still focus on trying to get to Iran's brain through the pocketbook. But unless the Iranians show some sign of stepping down, their next meeting - at the strategic dialogue planned for the winter - might very well concentrate on dealing with other options altogether.