Iran must be confronted, the No. 2 official in the State Department said at the Herzliya Conference on Sunday, shortly after a five-hour meeting with Transportation Minister Shaul Mofaz, in charge of Israel's strategic dialogue with the US. US Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs Nicholas Burns said, "We have to confront Iran." Iran, Burns said on the first day of the conference, "is our most important challenge, a country with a radical agenda, a president that asserts that the Holocaust did not occur."
Live video feed from the Herzliya conference
Burns vowed that the US "will continue to assert the right and the responsibility to maintain stability in the region.
"The Iranians have played a negative role in all the recent conflicts [in the Middle East]," Burns said, adding that while the US did not seek a confrontation with Iran, "no options were off the table."
Burns, along with US Deputy Secretary of Defense Gordon England, who also participated in the conference, met with Mofaz and Gabi Ashkenazi, currently the Defense Ministry director-general and the leading candidate to replace Dan Halutz as chief of General Staff.
Following the meeting Mofaz told the conference that 2007 will be "a year of decision."
"This is the year when the world will have the responsibility of determining whether the Middle East will face a nuclear arms race, the strengthening of the radical axis and the strengthening of world terrorism, or whether it will be possible to lead the Middle East to new horizons, to a moderate, pragmatic and stable future."
Mofaz said that it was necessary to look reality in the face and say clearly: "Iran is the heart of the problem in the Middle East, it is the most urgent threat facing the world, and this is a problem that needs to be dealt with before it is too late." Saying that a Middle East with a nuclear Iran "will not be the same Middle East," Mofaz also stressed that Iran with a nuclear weapon "is an existential threat to Israel. This is the time to stop Iran," he said, "before it is too late."
Burns added that the American administration viewed Iran as increasingly more isolated in the international community. He said that "Israel, Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states are US allies," later listing only four countries which support Iran: Belarus, Syria, Cuba and Venezuela. "With friends like that," Burns said to chuckles in the audience, "you can finish the sentence..."
Meanwhile, many of the American and Israeli analysts - both official and unofficial - at the conference were cautiously optimistic that Iranian influence in the Middle East could be curtailed, and that this process had already begun. The causes: isolation in the international system, economic mismanagement and a growing opposition to Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
"The Saudis have stopped hiding the fact that there are joint interests for Israel and Saudi Arabia, and [Saudi officials] are telling the media that the Iranian threat is greater than the Israeli one," Col. (res.) Eran Lerman, director of the Israel/Middle East office of the American Jewish Committee and a former senior IDF intelligence analyst, told The Jerusalem Post.
"It is ironic that [the Sunni Arab states] have lived for two generations with the assumption that the Jews have a nuclear weapon, but only when the Shi'ites are developing one do we hear [that they are developing their own options]," Lerman continued.
There is a real strategic opportunity for Israel to reach out to moderate Sunni governments, asserted Dr. Ian Bremmer, president of the political risk consultancy firm Eurasia Group and an expert on US foreign policy. This is "particularly true [in the face of] the active promotion of conflict and the aggressive policies of this particular Iranian government," he told the Post.
According to Robert Einhorn, a former US assistant secretary of state for nonproliferation and a member of the American Council on Foreign Relations, "there's a Sunni Arab-Israeli commonality of interest in containing an ideologically aggressive Iran."
Einhorn told the Post that the recent Gulf Cooperation Council declaration that the Gulf States would seek nuclear technology was "a message to Iran that others can do what they are doing and a message to the United States and the West that they had better stop Iran."
The main pressure on the Iranian regime appears to be local, and the lever of domestic opposition was on everybody's mind at the conference.
While "six months ago, Iranians were proud their country was seen - even in the Arab world - as a leader," said Einhorn, "at this point, they are beginning to see Ahmadinejad as a liability." According to Bremmer, "this [Iranian] government's economic mismanagement" has left it vulnerable to economic action against the regime, particularly centering on the country's energy supplies. "The Iranian economy is under pressure in a way that Saudi Arabia and Russia are not."
It is for this reason that "the Saudis are reluctant to talk about limiting energy production," despite the fact that the price of oil has dropped in recent months from some $78 per barrel to the current price of $52. "A $50 price pressures Iran," Bremmer believes.
"There are millions of Iranians who want to see regime change," asserted former senior American defense official Richard Perle, declaring that "the failure to help them [on the part of the US administration] is a shocking dereliction."
One former senior US government official told the Post that "the problem with Iran is that it doesn't recognize Israel and supports Hizbullah. But," added the official, speaking on condition of anonymity, were Iran to change these two policies "it would be possible to have a sophisticated and appropriate dialogue."
Herb Keinon and Yaakov Katz contributed to this report.