Israel drums up heat on Iran

By Kaveh L Afrasiabi

In the aftermath of Israel’s admission that Iran may be several years away from acquiring nuclear weapons capability, the chances have declined that Israel will strike Iran’s nuclear facilities in the foreseeable future.

That doesn’t stop Tel Aviv from frantically trying – to no avail – to rekindle the military option as it sees the undesirable ramifications of the latest intelligence estimate that sanctions on Iran mean it won’t be able to build an atomic weapon for at least a few years yet.

With the genie of a reduced Iran proliferation risk already out of the bottle, it will take Herculean efforts to convince the international community that Iran today represents an “existential threat” to Israel warranting military action.

Iran’s envoy to the UN, Mohammad Khazaee, on Tuesday emphasized the importance of upcoming talks between Iran and world powers in Istanbul for confidence building, He said in New York that the West has made serious errors about Iran and lost opportunities for cooperation in resolving regional issues.

“We are not going to accept suggestions based on pressure and threats,” Khazaee told reporters. “It is not going to work to put a knife in the neck of somebody, or a sword, and at the same time asking him to negotiate.”

Saeed Jalili, Iran’s main negotiator, will meet representatives of Britain, China, France, Germany, Russia and the United States in Istanbul on Friday and Saturday.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s shrewd salesmanship of war on Iran is now stuck in the self-inflicted mud of ambiguity, and it is hardly surprising that we are now witnessing a backtracking on the part of Mossad’s former head, Meir Dagan, who retired earlier this month. It was Dagan who threw cold water on the military option by telling Israeli parliamentarians just before retiring that Iran was unlikely to get weapons capability before 2015. He is now quoted in the Israeli press as recanting his statement and is instead singing a tune more agreeable to Tel Aviv that Iran may get its bomb much sooner.

A main reason for the dim prospect of military action against Iran is that already Iran has come under attack in the form of cyber-warfare, a new dimension of military warfare that infected computers at Iran’s nuclear facilities. According to a New York Times report this weekend, a joint Israel-American operation based in Israel was responsible for the cyber-attack last year, reportedly alarming some Russian scientists working at the Bushehr power plant, who warn of a Chernobyl-type meltdown as a consequence of the Stuxnet computer virus attack.

This, together with the recent spate of assassinations of Iran’s nuclear scientists, which has been attributed by Iran’s authorities to joint Israeli, American and British covert operations, may have resulted in a temporary setback for Iran but at the same time have hardened Tehran’s resolve. Iran’s chief nuclear negotiator, Jalili, has said that Iran will not discuss its uranium enrichment program at the nuclear talks in Istanbul.

Jalili’s statement to a delegation of foreign diplomats who visited Iran’s nuclear facilities on January 15 and 16, as well as to US television networks, comes at a crucial pre-Istanbul environment that favors Iran in many respects.

Firstly, irrespective of the cold shoulder that Western powers gave to Iran’s nuclear invite to the nuclear facilities, Iran’s initiative, and the positive response that it received from 120 member states of the Non-Aligned Movement, has strengthened Iran’s negotiating hand.

Second, the recent revelations on Iran’s problems with its centrifuges due to the Stuxnet cyber-attack have diminished the weight of the military option and, as a result, Iran is less threatened, and is therefore going into the Istanbul talks with a measure of unprecedented confidence.

Third, Iran has threatened to terminate the multilateral nuclear talks process if the Istanbul meeting ends in failure, and it has added another subtle threat; that is, Tehran would continue enriching uranium at 20% and even higher if the other side refuses to agree to Tehran’s request for nuclear fuel for its Tehran reactor.

Another, more implicit, warning that is embedded in Tehran’s pre-Istanbul action is that Iran’s nuclear transparency and the International Atomic Energy Agency’s (IAEA’s) access to Iran would suffer if there is no agreement on a proposal for an international nuclear fuel swap to produce medical isotopes.

According to a Tehran University political science professor, who spoke with the author on the condition of anonymity, the IAEA is well aware of the “serious damage to its reputation as well as its safeguard agreements with Iran in case there is no fuel swap”.

Iran is entitled to receive technical assistance from the IAEA on the Tehran reactor and there would be some backlash against the IAEA within Iran’s ruling circles, who are nowadays contemplating serious reactions vis-a-vis IAEA’s failure to assist Iran on what is commonly referred to as a “humanitarian issue”, in light of the Tehran’s reactor’s purely civilian purposes.

Meanwhile, Washington does not appear to have a clear strategy toward Iran. Gary Samore, the White House’s point man on counter-proliferation, has been talking tough regarding further sanctions if the “Iran Six” talks in Istanbul fail to yield the intended result of convincing Iran to give up its uranium enrichment program.

Samore, a political scientist who has a thin record on complex proliferation matters, and who has a background of getting Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction program completely wrong (seeBuilding a case, any case against Iran Asia Times Online, September 14, 2005), has collaborated with a neo-conservative outfit, United Against Nuclear Iran, headed by a protege of John Bolton, the hawkish former US envoy to United Nations.

As a result, it would be rather disastrous for the Barack Obama administration, which claims to want a healthier relationship with Iran, to forfeit its Iran policy in the hands of Samore and others like him who appear to be more concerned about appeasing Israel than formulating a realistic policy on Iran. Interestingly, Samore has not made any public comment on Dagan’s assessment of Iran’s nuclear (in)capability.

Netanyahu’s view of the downgraded assessment as an “estimate” is an implicit criticism that the former intelligence chief had spoken out of turn. Backtracking before the Knesset’s Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee on Monday, Dagan said, “The Iranian nuclear challenge will stay significant. This or that timetable won’t change the fact that Iran is striving to achieve military nuclear capability, and in certain scenarios can shorten the time” it takes to have nuclear weapons.

“Isrealis want war on all fronts,” says the Tehran professor, adding “they are on verge of war with Hamas, with Lebanon and Hezbollah, and of course they keep threatening Iran. They only understand the language of war and conflict.”

Perhaps if the US and its Western allies sign an agreement with Iran on the fuel swap and, furthermore, reach a better understanding with Tehran on areas of common concern, such as regional security, then this could force Israel to re-think a one-dimensional, counter-productive approach that does not even serve Israel’s own national interests. As long as there remains no paradigmatic shift in Israel’s militatristic discourse, this may be purely wishful thinking.

Kaveh L Afrasiabi, PhD, is the author of After Khomeini: New Directions in Iran’s Foreign Policy (Westview Press) . For his Wikipedia entry, click here. He is author of Reading In Iran Foreign Policy After September 11 (BookSurge Publishing , October 23, 2008) and his latest book, Looking for rights at Harvard, is now available.

(Copyright 2011 Asia Times Online (Holdings) Ltd.

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