Archive for November 17, 2020

Israel must prepare for a change in US policy toward Iran

November 17, 2020


The possible change of leadership in the US is an opportunity for Israel to change course to a more appropriate policy also in terms of the Iranian challenge.

Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu points to a red line he has drawn on the graphic of a bomb as he addresses the 67th United Nations General Assembly at the U.N. Headquarters in New York, U.S., September 27, 2012. (photo credit: REUTERS)

‘The year is 1939 and Iran is Germany” – I heard Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu say at a Jewish conference in Los Angeles in 2006. This statement sounded to me anti-Zionist because it raised the question of whether we really are in the situation we were in 1939 before there was a Jewish state with the strongest army in the region. So, does Zionism justify itself?

In addition, I wondered how this apocalyptic message is consistent with the attempt to bring American Jews to visit Israel and invest in it, and with us Israelis to raise our children in a country on the brink of a nuclear holocaust. I do not intend to diminish the Iranian strategic challenge and the importance to prevent Iran from achieving military nuclear capabilities, but a more rational and less hysterical perspective would benefit Israel.

This alarmist approach was one of the reasons for the conflicts the Netanyahu government had with the Obama-Biden administration. A new perspective would benefit the ability of Israel to work jointly with the Biden-Harris administration on a coordinated approach.

The prevailing axiom in our area is that Iran poses an existential threat, and that its efforts to achieve the ultimate weapon require us to use any means possible to prevent it. As part of our zigzagging between paranoia and hubris, we hear that Iran is a strong power that threatens the future of the Middle East, and the next day that Iran is on the verge of collapse if only we take one step or another. Both statements are far from reality. I would like to present a more balanced approach to Iran and the threat posed by it.

There are many similarities between Iran and Israel. According to foreign sources, Israel achieved military nuclear capabilities in the 1960s and was the sixth country in the world to do so. Under the Non-Proliferation Treaty, the five permanent members of the Security Council (USA, Russia, Britain, France, China) have recognized nuclear weapons, but since then – India, Pakistan and North Korea have already declared nuclear weapons in their possession. Iran is not on the list, and even if it will be, Iran’s abilities are a long way from ours.

Iran’s motivation to acquire nuclear weapons, which is presented to us mainly as an aspiration for regional hegemony, is not different than Israel’s motivation, which stems from existential anxiety and the goal of defense and deterrence.

Iran is surrounded by enemies, represents a hated Persian minority in an area where an Arab and Turkish majority and represents an outcast Shi’ite minority in an area with a vast majority of Sunnis. Iran was traumatized by the war with Iraq, in which about a million Iranians were killed and wounded. As you may recall, the West supported Iraq.

Iran has chosen Israel as a target for its rhetoric because it pays off in terms of Iran’s status in the region, but Israel is not the reason for Iran’s motivation to acquire nuclear weapons.

As in Israel, the Iranian public is one of the most educated and creative in the world. The Iranian people, from all over the Muslim world, are most similar to us Israelis.

The governments of Israel and Iran are similar in the disproportionate influence of religious leaders and the lack of separation between religion and state, as opposed to liberal democracies. Israel often talks about the lack of democracy in Iran, but in the global ranking of democracies, Iran is ahead of Saudi Arabia, which we see as a moderate country. In Iran, it is remembered that the West supported the tyranny of the shah and that the United States assisted in a coup that brought the shah to power instead of a semi-democratic Mosaddegh regime. Israel, on the other hand, is in the process of declining in the democracy index.

Extremist elements in Iran have grown stronger thanks to the hysterical treatment of Iran by Israel and the United States. During the Gulf War, the Bush administration overthrew Iran’s enemy in Iraq – the Sunni Ba’ath party – and turned it into a chaotic Shi’ite-dominated state. Israel helped Iran export the revolution to Lebanon during its long stay in Lebanon after an unnecessary war (in which I participated) that turned Hezbollah into a legitimate organization in the eyes of the Lebanese.

Netanyahu encouraged president George Bush to overthrow the Ba’athist regime in Iraq. Netanyahu encouraged President Donald Trump to abandon the JCPOA agreement between Iran and the powers (P5 + 1). The abandonment of the agreement dismantled the international coalition that imposed crippling sanctions on Iran, which eventually brought Iran into negotiations; weakened Rouhani’s moderate leadership, which prefers a functioning economy to regional hegemony, strengthened extremist Revolutionary Guards, and brought Iran closer to a nuclear weapon.

I still remember as a diplomat serving in the US that the line we presented was that sanctions were not enough to bring about a change in Iranian policy, and after the agreement was signed, that if only they had continued with the sanctions, Iran would have surrendered.

I remember the concern we expressed during the negotiations about the possibility that president Barack Obama would include regional agreements with Iran. And after the agreement was signed, Obama was accused of failing to reach a regional agreement that would prevent Iran from promoting terrorism. The alarmist Israeli position has caused harm and continues to do so. Israel is perceived as inconsistent, failing to convince the Europeans, Russians and Chinese, whose cooperation is necessary.

Israel must be part of an international coalition trying to reach an agreement with Iran that will prevent it from reaching a nuclear bomb, but it must be understood that an agreement requires compromise. Israel must prevent Iran from transferring weapons to Hezbollah, but alongside military action, smart diplomacy must be exercised vis-à-vis Lebanon, where the mechanism of negotiations about the naval border can serve as an opportunity. Israel needs to find ways to reach out to the Iranian people and make a clear separation between our attitude toward the ayatollah’s regime and our attitude toward the general public.

The Iranian people are a proud people who do not support the rule of the ayatollahs, but want the change to come from within and not from outside intervention. A day will come and this proud people will change the political reality in Iran and the Arab Spring will also become the “Persian Spring.”

One can find Iranian exiles in the West who will say that an overthrow of the regime by US force will be welcomed there with flowers, as there were Iraqi exiles who claimed this before the attack on Iraq, and we know how that ended.

Another very important point of similarity between the Iranian and Israeli governments is that they are the only governments in the world that do not support the two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and both benefit politically from this conflict as well as from the conflict between them.

The Iranian position is understandable, the only way the apocalyptic calls of its leaders against Israel be realized is if we fail to reach a two-state solution with the Palestinians and the status quo will eliminate us demographically or morally. But in this case, it is us eliminating Zionism, not the Iranians.

The possible change of leadership in the US is an opportunity for Israel to change course to a more appropriate policy also in terms of the Iranian challenge.

The writer is an adviser for international affairs at the Peres Center for Peace and Innovation, a member of the board of directors at Mitvim – the Israel Institute of Regional Foreign Policy and of J Street Israel. He served as political adviser to president Shimon Peres, and served in the embassy in Washington and as consul-general to New England in Boston.

Trump asked for options to hit Iran nuke sites in last days in office – report

November 17, 2020

New York Times reports president asked top advisers if he had options to strike main sites to halt enrichment, but was warned it could lead to wider conflict

By TOI STAFF and AGENCIESToday, 3:13 am  0Illustrative: In this image provided by the U.S. Navy, the guided-missile destroyer USS Porter (DDG 78) launches a tomahawk land attack missile in the Mediterranean Sea, April 7, 2017 (Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Ford Williams/U.S. Navy via AP)

US President Donald Trump convened top advisers last week to ask if he had options to strike Iranian nuclear sites during his last weeks in office, but was dissuaded with warnings it could lead to a wider conflict, The New York Times reported Monday.

Trump convened top officials on Thursday, a day after the UN nuclear watchdog said Iran had stockpiled more than 12 times more enriched uranium than the 2015 nuclear deal allows, the Times reported, citing four current and former US officials.

Among those present were Vice President Mike Pence; Secretary of State Mike Pompeo; acting defense secretary Christopher C. Miller; and Gen. Mark A. Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the report said.

Trump asked them how he should respond to the International Atomic Energy Agency report and what his options were. The Times said the focus of any attack would almost certainly be the heavily fortified Natanz nuclear center.US President Donald Trump arrives to address the nation from the White House on the ballistic missile strike that Iran launched against Iraqi air bases housing US troops accompanied by Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Mark Milley, center, and US Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. David L. Goldfein, January 8, 2020. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

Pompeo and Miley reportedly warned that a major strike, whether with missiles or by a cyberattack, could easily escalate into a major regional conflict.

The report said they left Thursday’s meeting believing that Trump had taken a missile strike of the table, but could still be looking at a more measured response against Iran or its allies.

Trump’s most high-profile attack on Iran, when the US killed top Iranian general Qassem Soleimani in a January 3 drone strike at Baghdad’s airport, resulted in a limited response from Iran.

The Pentagon has a wide range of strike options for Iran, including military, cyber and combination plans, the report said, noting that some called for direct action by Israel.

Israel has been blamed for an attack on an advanced centrifuge development and assembly plant at Natanz in July. It has also been blamed, together with the US, for the Stuxnet virus that sabotaged Iranian enrichment centrifuges a decade ago.A building Iran claims was damaged by a fire at the Natanz uranium enrichment facility some 200 miles (322 kilometers) south of Tehran, on July 2, 2020. (Atomic Energy Organization of Iran via AP)

The New York Times also reported this week that Israel assassinated Al-Qaeda’s No. 2 in Tehran in recent months at the behest of the US.

Monday’s report highlighted fears that Trump could seek to dramatically influence events in his final few weeks in office (even though he has not conceded the election) in a bid to tie US President-elect Joe Biden’s hands on issues like Iran.

Israel’s Ambassador to the US Ron Dermer warned Monday that it would be a “mistake” for the incoming administration to reenter the Iran nuclear deal, as Biden pledged to do during the campaign.

“I think it would be a mistake and hopefully [Bdien] will look at the Middle East as it is, he will see the benefits of [the normalization] process, of how he can continue that process, and I think to not go back into the same deal,” Dermer said during a panel in Washington.

The nuclear deal was signed by the United States, Germany, France, Britain, China and Russia in 2015, but Trump withdrew from it three years later. Nevertheless, he has said he expects Iran to abide by the limits it sets.

The IAEA reported in a confidential document distributed to member countries and seen by The Associated Press last week that Iran as of November 2 had a stockpile of 2,442.9 kilograms (5,385.7 pounds) of low-enriched uranium, up from 2,105.4 kilograms (4,641.6 pounds) reported on August 25.Construction at Iran’s Natanz uranium-enrichment facility that experts believe may be a new, underground centrifuge assembly plant, annotated by experts at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies at Middlebury Institute of International Studies, October 26, 2020. (Planet Labs Inc. via AP)

The nuclear deal allows Iran only to keep a stockpile of 202.8 kilograms (447 pounds).

The IAEA reported that Iran has also been continuing to enrich uranium to a purity of up to 4.5%, higher than the 3.67% allowed under the deal.

Wednesday’s report confirmed that, in line with previous statements by Iranian officials, centrifuges had been installed at an underground part of the Natanz nuclear facility after another part of the site was damaged the explosion in July, which Iran blamed on “sabotage.”

Iran has openly announced all violations of the nuclear deal in advance, which have followed the decision by the US to pull out unilaterally in 2018.

The deal promised Iran economic incentives in exchange for the curbs on its nuclear program. Since the US withdrawal and imposition of new sanctions, Tehran has been putting pressure on the remaining parties with the violations to come up with new ways to offset the economy-crippling actions by Washington.This photo released by the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran on November 5, 2019, shows centrifuge machines at Natanz uranium enrichment facility in central Iran. (Atomic Energy Organization of Iran via AP)

At the same time, the Iranian government has continued to allow International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors full access to its nuclear facilities, a key reason the countries that remain parties to the JCPOA say it’s worth preserving.

The goal of the agreement is to prevent Iran from building a nuclear weapon, something the country insists it does not intend to do.

A widely cited analysis by the Washington-based Arms Control Association suggests that Iran now has more than double the material it would need to make a nuclear weapon. However, IAEA Director General Rafael Grossi told The Associated Press in an interview last month that his agency does not share that assessment.

Before agreeing to the nuclear deal, Iran enriched its uranium up to 20% purity, which is a short technical step away from the weapons-grade level of 90%. In 2013, Iran’s stockpile of enriched uranium was already more than 7,000 kilograms (7.72 tons) with higher enrichment, but it didn’t pursue a bomb.

In the quarterly report distributed to members on Wednesday, the IAEA said it still has questions from the discovery last year of particles of uranium of man-made origin at a site outside Tehran not declared by Iran.

The United States and Israel had been pressing the IAEA for some time to look into the Turquzabad facility, which Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu described to the UN in 2018 as a “secret atomic warehouse.”

In the current report, the IAEA said the “compositions of these isotopically altered particles” found there were “similar to particles found in Iran in the past, originating from imported centrifuge components.” It said it found Iran’s response to questions last month “unsatisfactory.”

“Following an assessment of this new information, the agency informed Iran that it continues to consider Iran’s response to be not technically credible,” the IAEA wrote this week. “A full and prompt explanation from Iran…is needed.”