Israel, US hold strategic talks on Iran

Come after Russia says it opposes “paralyzing” sanctions aimed at energy sector.

steinberg ayalon shake hands 311 (photo credit: Matty Stern/U.S. Embassy Tel-Aviv)
steinberg ayalon shake hands 311
(photo credit: Matty Stern/U.S. Embassy Tel-Aviv)
Israel and the US were holding a one-day, high-level strategic dialogue onThursday expected to focus on sanctions against Iran, a day afterRussia announced it opposes “paralyzing” sanctions aimed at the IslamicRepublic’s energy sector.
A week after Prime Minister BinyaminNetanyahu returned from Moscow, where he publicly called for “cripplingsanctions” and “sanctions with teeth” against Iranian energy exportsand imports, Oleg Rozhkov, the deputy head of the Russian ForeignMinistry’s security and disarmament department, said that Moscow wouldnot back “crippling or paralyzing” sanctions that could lead to the“political or economic or financial isolation” of Iran.
Related: Barak demands UN sanctions on Iran
Accordingto Reuters, Rozhkov – when asked by a reporter what sanctions Russiamight support – replied, “Those that are directed at resolvingnonproliferation questions linked to Iran’s nuclear program.
“Whatrelation to nonproliferation is there in forbidding banking activitieswith Iran?” he asked. “This is a financial blockade. And oil and gas.These sanctions are aimed only at paralyzing the country and paralyzingthe regime.”
Despite these comments, the Israeli and US teams onThursday had been expected to concentrate on the issue of sanctions to haltIran’s nuclear program. A possible military strike is not expected tobe discussed, since Washington has made clear that while it might needto be discussed in the future, the military option is not now on theagenda.
There is currently no known discussion between Israeland the US, at any level, about military action, even though over theyears both countries have said that it should not be taken off thetable.
In Washington, meanwhile, US Secretary of State HillaryClinton said that Iran’s continuing refusal to provide more informationon its nuclear program had left the international community “littlechoice” but to impose new, tough sanctions on Teheran.
Incongressional testimony on Wednesday, Clinton said Iran’s failure toaccept the Obama administration’s offers of engagement and prove itsnuclear intentions were peaceful had given the US and its partners newresolve in pressuring Teheran to comply with international demandsthrough fresh penalties.
“We have pursued a dual-track approachto Iran that has exposed its refusal to live up to its responsibilitiesand helped us achieve a new unity with our international partners,” shetold the Senate Appropriations Committee.
“Iran has left theinternational community little choice but to impose greater costs andpressure in the face of its provocative steps. We are now workingactively with our partners to prepare and implement new measures topressure Iran to change its course,” Clinton said, in comments thatseemed at odds with Rozhkov’s statement in Moscow.
Netanyahu’soffice had no comment on Rozhkov’s remarks, while one governmentofficial said Israel would likely seek clarification from the Kremlin.
Theposition articulated by Rozhkov runs contrary to the impressionNetanyahu gave reporters last week in Moscow when, after meeting withRussian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, he said the feeling towardsanctions in Moscow today was dramatically different than it was 10months ago.
Clinton addressed the possibility that Congressmight impose its own sanctions on Iran, besides those the US wasseeking through the UN Security Council. Congressional sanctions mightbe tougher than any for which the United States could win internationalapproval at the UN, but the US wants international backing for itstough stance against Iran and sees the UN penalties as a powerfulsymbol of world resolve against an Iranian bomb.
The commentsfrom Moscow came as a bit of a surprise, as top officials both inWashington and Jerusalem have expressed optimism in recent weeks thatsignificant nonmilitary action, such as “crippling” sanctions, couldhave a real impact on Teheran.
The Israeli delegation toThursday’s strategic dialogue in Jerusalem will be led by DeputyForeign Minister Danny Ayalon, while the US team will be headed byDeputy Secretary of State James Steinberg. This is the first meeting ofthe strategic dialogue framework, which was set up in 1999, sinceNetanyahu and US President Barack Obama came into office.
Themeeting comes as both Jerusalem and Washington believe that Iran ismaking its international position more difficult by continuing to talkabout enriching uranium to higher levels. While it is unclear exactlywhich way China – which holds a veto on the UN Security Council – willvote on sanctions, there is a growing sense that it would be unlikelyto buck the will of most of the rest of the world – and the otherpermanent members of the Security Council – and scuttle sanctions. Thisassessment is largely based on previous Chinese behavior and Beijing’sgeneral reticence to defy international consensus.
A high-levelIsraeli delegation, led by Strategic Affairs Minister Moshe Ya’alon andBank of Israel Governor Stanley Fischer, left for Beijing on Wednesdayto lobby on behalf of sanctions.
In the run-up to the SecurityCouncil sanctions vote, expected sometime in March, the US is doing itsutmost to distance itself from any hint that sanctions were intendedfor regime change in Teheran, and not only to stop the nuclear program.The fear is that this could chase both Russia and China away fromsupporting a fourth round of sanctions.
For instance, Rozhkov told reporters on Wednesdaythat “Russia isn’t working or participating in actions which shouldlead to overthrowing the existing regime. We are working with the USand others... only to solve those concerns we have regarding Iraniannuclear efforts.”
Also on Wednesday, Russian Foreign MinisterSergey Lavrov suggested that a delay in delivering air-defense missilesto Iran was connected with concerns about regional tensions.
Russiasigned a contract in 2007 to sell S-300 missiles to Iran, a move thatwould substantially boost the country’s defense capacities and make anattack on Iran’s nuclear facilities more difficult.
Lavrov, whenasked about the delivery, said Russia never takes “any actions leadingto the destabilization of this or that region. All deliveries ofRussian weapons abroad follow from the need to strictly respect thisprinciple.”
It marks the first time Russia has publicly calledinto question the wisdom of honoring its contractual obligations toIran. Various Russian defense officials had suggested in recent weeks,including the day before Netanyahu went to Moscow last week, that thecommitment to supply the missiles would be fulfilled.
Whenpressed on the specific reason for the missile holdup, Lavrov broadenedthe question by referring to arms sales by any country to SouthAmerica, the Caucasus and the Middle East.
“There are certain principles we need to be guided by when sellingarms,” he said. “We cannot sell weapons if it will destabilize any ofthese regions.”
Netanyahu, asked after his meeting last week with President DmitryMedvedev whether he had received assurances that Moscow would notsupply the weapons systems, said, “I trust what I heard from thepresident of Russia. I trust him because I know that in this issue,Russia is guided by concerns about regional stability.”
AP contributed to this report.