Think-tank comments on Iran worry Israel

US research, which was prepared for Obama, to be focus of Saban Forum in Washington this weekend.

obama serious 248.88 (photo credit: AP)
obama serious 248.88
(photo credit: AP)
Israeli officials expressed concern Wednesday about some of the recommendations in a report top American experts have prepared on Middle East policy for the Obama administration, including expanding engagement with Iran and possible responses should Teheran acquire nuclear capabilities. The report, drafted by the Council on Foreign Relations and the Brookings Institution, will be a major focus of the latter's Saban Center for Middle East Policy forum this weekend for top US and Israeli officials, as Washington heavy hitters try to play a role in shaping the policies of the next administration. Foreign Ministry officials weren't thrilled about the report's recommendations, but downplayed its significance. "We have nothing to be afraid of," one official said, refuting those who expressed fear that this report would become Obama's diplomatic road map. "Obama is surrounding himself with people who we know - from Hillary Clinton, to Rahm Emanuel, to James Jones. There is no reason to panic. "It could be that the new administration's policy will be different from the Bush administration's; in fact, it will be a little different. But that doesn't mean it will be against Israel." The official remarked that the report would likely be passed around by Obama subordinates, along with many other similar documents being prepared over the transition period. It was unrealistic, he said, to think Obama is going to internalize this report's findings and make them his own policies. Still, the Saban gathering draws together international figures of the highest order and leading thinkers and experts on Middle East issues. US President George W. Bush is set to give his valedictory speech on the region at the weekend event, being held in Washington. Despite Bush's presence, the report is blunt in assessing that current US policies toward Iran have "failed." Instead, the report calls for direct engagement with Iran, to begin at a low level as soon as possible. Though it acknowledges that diplomacy is not a cure-all, it considers diplomacy more likely than other options - including a military attack and regime change - to productively manage Iran's nuclear ambitions. A separate chapter on Iran estimates that the country won't be capable of producing a credible nuclear weapons option for another two to three years, during which increased sanctions alongside engaged diplomacy are advocated. But, it adds, "If diplomacy or force fails to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons, a declared US nuclear umbrella for the region or parts of it should be a key mechanism for deterring Iran, reassuring Israel, and incorporating our other allies into an effective regional balance." Martin Indyk, who heads the Saban Center and co-wrote the report's introductory section - though he didn't author the chapters dealing with specific countries - explained the latter recommendation as potentially helping to synchronize the American and Israeli time frames on Iran. Speaking to the press after the report was unveiled on Tuesday, Indyk said that the US and Israel have different deadlines for dealing with the threat of a nuclear Iran, because Israel sees the issue as an existential one while the US sees room to maneuver, even if Tehran did acquire some nuclear capabilities. By the US providing security guarantees, such as a nuclear umbrella, he argued, it could reassure Jerusalem and "buy more time" for diplomacy to work. Indyk also backed US support for Israeli-Syrian negotiations that are already under way through a third party, Turkey. He suggested that they could strengthen the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian peace process, since a price for an agreement would be Syria cutting its ties to radical Islamic parties and Iran, whose influence the Fatah-led Palestinian Authority also wants to see diminish as part of its effort to tame Hamas. In its chapter on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the report contends that Hamas needs to be brought back into a Palestinian national unity government to try to reshape its current role as a spoiler. The report doesn't push the US to recognize Hamas, but suggests mediation by the Arab countries between the rival Palestinian parties. Indyk also said the current Annapolis process could continue to provide a good framework for moving forward on the Israeli-Palestinian issue. Richard Haass, president of CFR and the co-author of the introduction, agreed that there were positive aspects of Bush's policies that shouldn't be thrown out in the new administration's haste to turn the page. "It's important that the administration not start with an ABB approach - anything but Bush," he said.