Diplomacy: Crunch time on Iran

February is a key month for international efforts to halt Iran’s nuclear ambitions through economic sanctions.

The organizers of this week’s Herzliya Conference on the Balance of Israel’s National Security can boast a successful event that generated many headlines, most notably the appearance of Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Salam Fayyad on one stage with Defense Minister Ehud Barak.
But the biggest surprise of the week was not what was said at the conference but what wasn’t. Dozens of experts from around the world spoke ad nauseam about the Iranian nuclear threat, but Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu surprised everyone by not even mentioning the issue that is the central focus of his premiership.
The Prime Minister’s Office said Netanyahu spoke enough about Iran in his speeches surrounding the visit of Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi. Some analysts said he wanted to detract from the luster of a conference associated with Kadima.
But the real reason for the omission appeared to be that efforts to prevent the nuclearization of Iran are actually heading in the right direction. Therefore, there was no need to address the Iranian threat from a stage that prime ministers have used in the past to deliver historic speeches.
While there has not been a huge story on Iran that led a newspaper in recent days, the number of headlines on the issue over the past week has been dizzying.
Last Thursday, CIA Director Leon Panetta secretly came here to discuss Iran with Netanyahu and other top leaders. The meetings reportedly had a much better atmosphere than Panetta’s last known visit in April, when he rattled the nascent Netanyahu administration with his warning to “forget the military option” with Iran and his insistence on conducting “open-ended engagement” with no deadline.
That visit ignited weeks of behind-the-scenes talks in which Israel persuaded US President Barack Obama to announce in his May press conference with Netanyahu that at the end of 2009, the diplomatic approach to preventing Iran’s nuclearization would be reassessed (a nicer word than deadline).
Also on Thursday, the US Senate passed landmark sanctions legislation that would bar foreign firms from doing business with Iran’s energy sector by cutting off their access to the US market and American financial assistance.
The following day, the American administration sent a message to Iran when it revealed that it had deployed anti-missile systems on ships off the Iranian coast and in four Persian Gulf states.
On Sunday, Netanyahu’s national security adviser Uzi Arad said at the Herzliya Conference that regarding Iran “a lot is happening that would be prevented if published,” and that there was “more progress than visible to the eye.”
MONDAY MAY have been a very significant day on the Iranian front, even though no one actually did anything. The rotating presidency of the UN Security Council shifted from China to the French, who have pushed for serious sanctions since the Iranian election in June.
European and Israeli leaders said they believed the Security Council would pass sanctions during the month France was in charge. A senior minister said that even if the sanctions the UN passes are crippled rather than crippling, they would provide a legal basis for Western nations in a “coalition of the willing” to approve crippling sanctions like a naval blockade.
It is no wonder that on Tuesday, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad told Iran’s state television that he was ready to accept an international offer to send uranium abroad for enrichment. The US responded by questioning his sincerity. But in a blow to the anti-Iran nuclearization effort, that same day, US National Intelligence Director Dennis Blair said that it remained unclear whether Iran’s leadership would make a political calculation to begin producing weapons-grade uranium.
The Iranians sent a message to skeptics like Quartet Mideast envoy Tony Blair the following day, when they launched a research rocket carrying a mouse, two turtles and worms into space and displayed a Simorgh rocket that can carry a satellite weighing 100 kilograms up to 500 kilometers above Earth. Later that day, Vice Premier Moshe  Ya’alon called for the world to threaten Iran seriously with military action.
All that happened in just one week. And next week is expected to be just as intense.
Thursday is the 31st anniversary of the Iranian revolution, which is expected to be marked all week by rioting against the regime and statements by Ahmadinejad about expanding his nuclear program.
The following week, Netanyahu will go to Russia to try to persuade the Kremlin to back the sanctions that are expected to pass the week after that, and additional sanctions that Obama would then sign into law.
A senior minister said Obama had come a long way since his top aides warned that sanctions against Iran could harm America’s war efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan. The minister said that Obama now saw the cause and effect relationship between the Iranian and Palestinian issues the same way that Netanyahu does.
In their May press conference, Netanyahu said that preventing Iran’s nuclearization would defeat extremists, strengthen moderates and boost prospects for Mideast peace. Obama responded that he saw the equation the opposite way: He would solve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which would give him momentum to prevent Iran’s nuclearization. But now he and Netanyahu are on the same page.
One consequence of the decision to focus on Iran before the Palestinian issue returns to center stage is the 10-month settlement freeze, which removes some international pressure from Israel until it expires on September 25.
The length of the freeze was merely the result of bargaining between Israel and the US, which wanted it to last two years. But senior Likud sources close to Netanyahu suggested that even though it was not initially intended, the end of the freeze could end up serving as an unofficial deadline for the economic approach to preventing Iran’s nuclearization before considering the military option.
September could end up being a critical month, but only if the efforts for sanctions in February are unsuccessful.
Netanyahu has said that he sincerely believes that the economicapproach can be successful if handled properly by the internationalcommunity. Then there would be no need for a military approach.
Either way, Netanyahu will have plenty to talk about regarding Iran at next year’s Herzliya Conference.