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Wednesday, October 7, 2015

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‘Red lines’ debate underscores tension over Iran

Tags: Columnists

According to a recent Obama administration communiqué, the United States and Israel, its chief ally in the Middle East, are in “full agreement” that Iran cannot be permitted to acquire a nuclear arsenal. This White House press release was issued after Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu addressed the United Nations and declared that a “red line” must be drawn to deter and limit Iran’s ability to purify uranium to bomb-grade enrichment. Beyond concurring on this fundamental principle, Washington and Jerusalem are at odds over Netanyahu’s demand to issue an ultimatum to Iran.

To Israel’s disappointment, the United States is clearly unwilling to make that kind of public commitment. Nor is any other country, including Canada. In short, no one wants to be dragged into a war.

Netanyahu has expressed confidence that U.S. President Barack Obama will not allow Iran to build nuclear weapons. But with Israel threatening to launch a pre-emptive strike on Iran, he and Obama have been unable to agree on a timetable that would trigger a military response to destroy or disable Iran’s nuclear facilities. Given the imperatives of geography and the differences in military capabilities, Israel’s defence minister, Ehud Barak, has noted that Israeli and U.S. clocks are ticking at different times.

Netanyahu, who recently warned that Iran is six to seven months away from attaining a nuclear weapons capability, argues that the Iranian government, having already enriched a stockpile of uranium to 20 per cent purity, is inexorably reaching what Barak has succinctly described as a “zone of immunity.”

This is a reference to the point beyond which Israel would no longer be able to stop Iran from enriching uranium to 90 per cent purity and thereby assembling an atomic device.

Netanyahu, who swept to power in 2009 partly on the strength of an election campaign promise to curb Iran’s nuclear ambitions, claims that Iran will only back down if “red lines” are drawn.

“We know that the Iranians see red,” Israel’s ambassador to the United States, Michael Oren, has said. “We know they can discern the colour red. We know that the redder the line, the lesser the chance that they will pass it.”

This burning matter has caused considerable friction between Israel and the United States. It surfaced acrimoniously on Aug. 24 when Netanyahu reportedly told the U.S. ambassador to Israel, Dan Shapiro, that the Obama administration has not displayed sufficient clarity on Iran. The verbal exchange was witnessed by U.S. Congressman Mike Rogers, who said it had been “very tense” and “agitated.”

Shapiro dismissed his account as “a very silly story.” But on Sept. 11, about two weeks before Netanyahu’s appearance at the United Nations, he criticized the United States for refusing to set clear “red lines” that would touch off the bombing of Iran’s nuclear sites. Netanyahu also claimed that the Obama administration has no “moral right” to restrain Israel from striking Iran.

To some degree, Netanyahu’s comments were a response to a statement made by U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who said, “We’re not setting deadlines.” Leon Panetta, the U.S. secretary of defence, joined the debate. Asserting that “a bunch of little red lines” would not determine American policy, he claimed that the United States would have a year to respond should Iran decide to build a nuclear weapon.

Rightly or wrongly, U.S. officials contend that the United States has the means to detect, and prevent, Iran from passing that threshold. They believe that Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, has yet to make a decision as to whether Iran will even build a militarized nuclear program. Iran says its nuclear program is designed for peaceful purposes – a claim hotly disputed by Israel and the United States.

Before resorting to brute force, the Obama administration wants to give diplomacy and international economic sanctions far more time to work.

As Israeli Finance Minister Yuval Steinitz has admitted, sanctions have exacted a heavy toll on Iran, having affected its vital oil exports, degraded its currency and set off the first street protests in Tehran in three years. But Khamenei has declared that Iran will not be swayed by the biting sanctions.

Six world powers – the United States, France, Britain, Russia, China and Germany – have engaged Iran in three rounds of talks since April in an attempt to defuse the crisis. But with Iran having steadfastly refused to halt enrichment, the objective of the entire exercise, the negotiations have faltered, prompting the United States, France and Britain to warn the Iranians that time is running out for a diplomatic solution.

The U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Susan Rice, has accused Iran of bad faith, saying its approach is “to deny, deceive and distract.”

Netanyahu, in his recent speech to the United Nations, levelled an identical accusation. As he put it, “Iran uses negotiations to buy time to advance its (nuclear] program.” Sanctions, he acknowledged, have had an impact: “The Iranian economy has been hit hard. But we must face the truth that sanctions have not stopped Iran’s nuclear drive.”

He added, “At this late hour, there is only one way to peacefully prevent Iran from getting atomic bombs, and that’s by placing a clear red line on Iran’s nuclear weapons program.”

Red lines, he claimed, do not lead to war. “Red lines prevent war.”

Despite his insistence on imposing “red lines” on Iran, Netanyahu has not precisely spelled out when Iran’s nuclear program would constitute a casus belli and prompt an Israeli attack. But on Oct. 2, following reports that the United States had given Israel assurances it will not tolerate an Iranian breakout to nuclear arms, Netanyahu suggested that the deadline for a military strike has been pushed forward to mid-2013.

Barak, nonetheless, continues to insist that Israel must act before Iran’s nuclear program becomes impervious to bombing raids, and that Israel cannot rely on outside powers to rein in Iran.

Barak’s assertion, underpinned by the assumption that the United States is loathe to embroil itself in a war with Iran, suggests that Israel may have to deal with the problem unilaterally. But Israeli public opinion opposes a pre-emptive strike, and most ministers in Netanyahu’s cabinet prefer a diplomatic solution, if one is still possible.

Certainly, many of Israel’s supporters in the Diaspora are wary of the prospect of Israel acting unilaterally. Ron Lauder, the president of the World Jewish Congress, has warned that an Israeli strike without American assistance would be disastrous.

The Americans may yet use force to deal with Iran’s nuclear program. The U.S. ambassador in Israel has said that the United States has made the “necessary preparations” to hit Iran. One of his predecessors, Martin Indyk, has gone further: “I’m afraid that 2013 is going to be a year when we’re going to have a military confrontation with Iran.”

The commander of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards Corps, Gen. Mohammad Ali Jafari, has also sounded a dire warning. saying that a war with Israel is inevitable. His predecessor, Mohsen Rezai, has predicted that 10,000 Israelis will be killed should a war break out.

This much is certain. Every “red line” will be crossed if external force is deployed to eliminate or cripple Iran’s nuclear program.

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