Israel to Obama: hold Iran's feet to fire, or else
Fri Feb 6, 2009 8:16am EST

By Alistair Lyon, Special Correspondent - Analysis

BEIRUT (Reuters) - Israel will go along with U.S. President Barack Obama's Iran 
diplomacy, but try to shorten the deadline for results by signaling its 
willingness to attack Iranian nuclear sites if need be.

Israel votes on Tuesday and its next prime minister -- the front-runner is 
rightwinger Benjamin Netanyahu -- is likely to go to Washington within a few 
months and press Obama to stick to his campaign promise not to let Iran develop 
an atomic bomb.

Aaron David Miller, a former U.S. Middle East negotiator now at the Woodrow 
Wilson International Center for Scholars, said the visit would entail a 
"strategic conversation" with Obama.

"It need not be conclusive or threatening, but it will be very serious and ... 
scare the daylights out of the president that unless the international 
community mobilizes to address the situation, the Israelis will," Miller said.

Unlike his predecessor, George W. Bush, Obama has offered direct talks with 
Tehran. But he has yet to define his policy, which officials say is under 
review. He has spoken of tougher sanctions if needed and has not excluded 
military action.

Israelis fret that diplomatic overtures will only give Iran more time to 
perfect its uranium enrichment program -- which the Iranians say is meant to 
produce electricity, not bombs.

The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has found no proof of Iranian 
nuclear bomb-making. But the West sees as sinister Iran's refusal to stop 
enriching uranium -- an activity it is permitted as a Non-Proliferation Treaty 

Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak called this week for a "strategic 
agreement" with Washington to ensure that any talks with the Iranians "should 
be kept short and followed by harsh sanctions and readiness to take action."


And an Israeli legislator and weapons expert, Isaac Ben-Israel, said his 
country had a year or so to attack Iranian nuclear sites pre-emptively and 
could do so on its own, even if such strikes would only delay, not destroy, 
Iran's program.

Iranian officials dismiss the chance of a blitz by Israel, assumed to be the 
Middle East's only nuclear power, but say Iran would retaliate against Israeli 
and U.S. interests if attacked.

"We are not worried about an Israeli attack," Aliakbar Javanfekr, an aide to 
Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, told Reuters last week, adding that 
"wise people" in the United States and Europe would restrain the Israelis.

Any Israeli bombing would unleash more chaos in the Middle East and global oil 
markets, inevitably entangling the United States and its Gulf Arab allies, and 
posing ferocious new challenges to U.S. involvements in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Ali Ansari, an Iran scholar at St Andrews University in Scotland, said an 
Israeli strike would be catastrophic and that discussion of it aimed at 
sabotaging any U.S.-Iran dialogue.

"It's extraordinarily unlikely. It would completely hamstring the Obama 
administration," he declared.

Others are less ready to rule it out.

Mark Fitzpatrick, senior fellow for non-proliferation at London's Institute for 
Strategic Studies, said an Israeli attack was "a significant possibility, but 
not a probability."

Israel, he said, is focused on a short period before Iran can produce enough 
low-enriched uranium to store secretly for later enrichment to weapons grade 
and potential use in a bomb.

"That point will probably be some time toward the end of this year," 
Fitzpatrick said. Israel would then have to weigh the efficacy of any attack 
against its negative consequences.

IAEA chief Mohamed ElBaradei said this week Iran would need another two to five 
years to achieve nuclear weapons capacity, citing CIA and other U.S. 
intelligence estimates.


Many analysts argue that Israel could not act without a green light from 
Washington -- particularly since the direct route to Iran lies through 
U.S.-managed Iraqi air space.

"My sense is, on something like this the no-surprise rule will apply," said 
Daniel Levy, a senior fellow at the New America Foundation. "America will have 
the opportunity to red-light it. Therefore I don't think it's in any way 

Miller concurred. "For the Israelis to be the Lone Ranger on this is almost 
unimaginable," he said.

Fitzpatrick said Obama stood a better chance than Bush of achieving early 
diplomatic progress to stay Israel's hand.

"He is probably more likely to be able to persuade other states to take tougher 
sanctions measures precisely because it would be coupled with an outreach to 
Iran," he said.

China and Russia, which both wield veto power on the U.N. Security Council, 
have resisted tighter sanctions, especially after U.S. intelligence agencies 
said in December 2007 they believed Iran had halted its nuclear arms program in 

But Miller said he doubted Obama's diplomacy would swiftly produce a grand 
bargain with Iran or prevent it from developing a nuclear weapon "however nice 
the music sounds."

"It will not be effective enough to retard that point at which the Iranians 
will be perceived to have gone beyond the point of no return -- even if they 
have not," he said.

"The Israelis will be pushing us to ensure that Iran never gets to that point 
and failing that, they will consider a military strike," Miller added.

Israelis are haunted by the Holocaust, alarmed at Iranian rhetoric and enmeshed 
in the narrow calculus of survival, not the global strategic considerations of 
their U.S. ally.

And they are determined to maintain the regional military supremacy that a 
nuclear-armed Iran would threaten.

Israel's recent onslaught on Iranian-backed Hamas militants in the Gaza Strip 
was a message to Tehran, said an analyst for Janusian, a security and political 
risk consultancy in London.

"This is the death and destruction they can rain down on anyone who threatens 

(Additional reporting by Sue Pleming in Washington, Edmund Blair in Tehran, 
William Maclean in London and Dan Williams in Jerusalem; Editing by Charles 

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