Israel Backs Diplomacy on Iran, While Considering Other Options

When the International Atomic Energy Agency convenes in Vienna later this month, it will be under intense pressure to take action against Iran’s nuclear program. Since the last IAEA meeting in September, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has called for Israel to be “wiped off the map,” his scientists are threatening to produce weapons-grade uranium and Tehran’s talks with E.U. representatives on the nuclear issue remain deadlocked.

All this has led to international calls for steps to stop Iran going nuclear.

The most likely IAEA action will be to refer Iran’s violations of its nuclear commitments to the U.N. Security Council, a move that could result in stringent economic sanctions. But for that to happen, China and Russia, as permanent members of the Security Council with veto powers, would have to go along. So far, it’s not clear that they would.

In Israel, there have been calls for a more assertive anti-Iranian policy in the wake of Ahmadinejad’s call for Israel’s destruction. And while Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz is careful to say Israel is not considering any military option “today,” he does not rule out a military strike in the future if diplomacy fails.

“I believe we should make our best effort to achieve the maximum we could achieve by diplomatic channels, before thinking about other channels,” Mofaz said in a recent interview with Newsweek.

Calling Iran to account for its nuclear plans will not be easy.

Battered and bruised by the war in Iraq, the Bush administration has no stomach for a direct confrontation with another huge Muslim state. Moreover, it’s relying on Shi’ite Iran to help set up a Shi’ite-dominated democracy in Iraq.

The United States therefore would prefer to sit back and watch the three main players in the European Union — Britain, Germany and France — negotiate an agreement on the nuclear issue with Iran.

The trouble is that with only two weeks to go before the next IAEA board meeting in Vienna, the Iranians and the E.U.-3 aren’t on speaking terms. In the absence of a diplomatic agreement, the United States and Europeans are likely to push for a strong IAEA resolution, referring the issue to the Security Council.

What happens then depends largely on Russia and China. Either could veto a move to impose economic sanctions on Iran: Russia, because of the hard currency it earns from sales of sophisticated technology to Iran, China, because it’s a large customer for Iranian oil.

But they will be under pressure from the United States and European Union to help curb Iran’s nuclear ambitions. The Europeans are showing increasing signs of impatience with Iran, especially after Ahmadinejad’s statement on Israel, with the Italians playing a leading role. Italian Foreign Minister Gianfranco Fini accused Ahmadinejad of fueling terrorism against Israel.

“Not recognizing Israel’s right to exist is an incentive for terrorism because the moment you don’t recognize a state’s right to exist, you don’t recognize a people’s right to exist,” he declared in a recent interview with Corriere della Sera.

Fini urged Iran to be fully transparent about its nuclear plans, because no one wants to isolate Iran or take military action. In Israel last week, Fini said Italy would like to see the Iranian nuclear issue referred to the Security Council.

The IAEA board of governors is scheduled to meet in Vienna on Nov. 24.

In its last resolution, passed in late September, the IAEA found Iran guilty of “non-compliance,” spoke of Iran’s “history of concealment” and warned that next time it might well refer the issue to the U.N. Security Council.

The fact that the Iranians have ignored a long list of IAEA demands made in September — for example, that Iran be open about its nuclear plans, suspend uranium enrichment or conversion programs, reconsider plans for a heavy water reactor, ratify and implement a protocol on nuclear non-proliferation, provide for spot checks of nuclear facilities and get back to a negotiating process with the E.U.-3 — makes a move to the Security Council all the more likely.

That’s the course of action Israel would like to see, as Mofaz noted with Newsweek.

“I believe today we should make the best effort in the diplomatic channel. And there is a chance that by putting pressure on Iran, a decision in the U.N. Security Council will delay or stop an Iranian nuclear capability,” Mofaz said.

According to Mofaz, Iran is still at least a few years away from the point of no return in uranium enrichment, which would enable it to produce a nuclear bomb. Therefore he feels there still is a limited window of opportunity for diplomacy — but he implies that if Iran gets closer to producing a bomb, that window will close.

When Mofaz says that “a military option is not on the agenda today,” the emphasis clearly is on the word “today.”

Still, in the wake of the Ahmadinejad statement, some usually sanguine analysts would like to see Israel taking a more overtly activist line. In an article entitled, “Hitler from Tehran,” Ha’aretz’s veteran military analyst, Ze’ev Schiff, writes that “the call for Israel’s annihilation adds a more acute dimension to the nuclear dispute, one that does not exist, for instance, in the nuclear dispute with North Korea.”

Short of a declaration of war on Iran, Schiff suggests that Israel reconsider its policy of sitting on the sidelines, waiting for the international community to act.

“Israel has good levers for applying pressure on Iran,” he says, “for example, by aiding the Kurds and the mujahedin who oppose the regime.”

Schiff says Israel also should continue building a strike force capable of taking out Iranian nuclear installations, even if the wisdom of ever using it is dubious.

Clearly, the prospect of a nuclear bomb in the hands of a regime led by Ahmadinejad and the fundamentalist ayatollahs worries the entire international community, and Israel more than most. The question is whether Iran’s nuclear drive can be stopped by anything other than force — and, if it comes to force, will only Israel be ready to use it?

Then again, it’s possible that Ahmadinejad’s blunt talk simply called the West’s bluff. Without effective diplomacy or a genuine military option, will Israel and the world just have to get used to the idea of a new balance of power when it comes to Iran?

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