Clinton’s message to Israel: Don’t jump the gun

Clinton’s message to Israel: Don’t jump the gun

As the summer goes by, Israel’s window of opportunity for a strike at Iran may slowly be closing. So be it, the US is signaling, according to Israeli experts

Raphael Ahren is the diplomatic correspondent at The Times of Israel.

At the end of her record-breaking 13-day journey to nine countries, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton invited journalists to a press conference at her Jerusalem hotel on Monday night. The event was scheduled for 9 p.m., but Clinton ran an hour and a half late. In the meantime, some US embassy staffers who had worked on her visit took the opportunity for a little nap on the hotel floor.

“I’m sorry to keep you so late, but it’s been a very busy and active, productive day here in Jerusalem,” Clinton said when she finally arrived. Given the hour, Clinton only briefly talked through the meetings with senior government officials she had held throughout the day. She didn’t explain what had held her up in the hotel — long after she had returned from talks with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his senior ministers. Had she been reporting back to the president? Or maybe she, too, had allowed herself a nap?

She also, unsurprisingly, did not definitively answer the questions on everybody’s mind: What is the US going to do about Iran? And how? And when?

The secretary did give some hints, however. She made plain it was not too late for Iran to respond to international pressure and mend its nuclear ways. She underlined America’s continued preference for economic pressure over military force. And she used the interesting formulation that Israel and the US “are on the same page at this moment” (emphasis added) regarding efforts to thwart the regime from going nuclear — which may have been an entirely insignificant choice of words, or might just have pointed to the fact that Israel is nearer to Iran than the US, feels more threatened by Iran than does the US, might have a more limited capacity to effectively intervene militarily in Iran than does the US, and therefore might not always be “on the same page” over Iran as the US.

For Israeli analysts, the thrust of Clinton’s message to Israel was clear: Don’t jump the gun.

The US sees sanctions as having a biting impact. It is preparing more. It regards Iran as having tried in vain to divide the P5+1 nations — the permanent members of the United Nations Security Council plus Germany. And it therefore emphatically feels the point of no return, the moment that would justify the use of military force, has not been reached.

Summarizes Emily Landau, a senior research associate at the Institute for National Security Studies: “The Americans are probably saying to the Israelis, do not take military action yet, because the sanctions have led to a new dynamic in the international community’s efforts to curb the Iranians’ nuclear aspirations.”

If so, perhaps Clinton’s reference to a “productive” day of meetings — including with the overtly itchy-fingered Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak — spelled “mission accomplished.” Perhaps she persuaded Israel to hold its fire, that the US has this one covered. Or perhaps that word, too, should not be subjected to exaggerated analysis.

Steering by the secretary

President Barack Obama has repeatedly pledged that he will not allow the Islamic Republic to acquire nuclear weapon capabilities, and that “all options” are on the table. While Clinton acknowledged with striking candor that the P5+1 nuclear talks are deadlocked — indeed, Iranian documents obtained by The Times of Israel earlier this month suggest that the Islamic Republic intends to expand its nuclear program rather than curtail it — she gave no indication that a readiness to utilize those options is growing.

‘The choice is ultimately Iran’s. Our own choice is clear: We will use all elements of American power to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon’

Earlier this week, Deputy Secretary of State Bill Burns discussed the issue in Jerusalem with his Israeli counterpart, Danny Ayalon; National Security Adviser Tom Donilon was here at the same time on a secret visit, engaging in “in-depth strategic consultations,” as Clinton said; and Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta is scheduled to arrive in Jerusalem this month. So are the Americans coming to dissuade the Israelis from launching a preemptive strike at Iran’s nuclear facilities? Or are they coming to brief their counterparts on the plans for an American attack?

Again, Clinton wasn’t specifying, but she was steering: “We all prefer a diplomatic resolution, and Iran’s leaders still have the opportunity to make the right decision,” she said at Monday’s press conference. “The choice is ultimately Iran’s. Our own choice is clear: We will use all elements of American power to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon.”

She added, “I made very, very clear that the proposals we have seen from Iran thus far within the P5+1 negotiations are nonstarters. Despite three rounds of talks, it appears that Iran has yet to make a strategic decision to address the international community’s concerns and fulfill their obligations under the IAEA [International Atomic Energy Agency] and the UN Security Council.”

At the same time, she said that, “We know the sanctions are biting. Israel and the United States agree on that.”

Some mileage to go

According to Brig. Gen. (ret.) Uzi Eilam, a former top Defense Ministry official, the question is not whether the Americans are determined to stop Iran from going nuclear, because they clearly are, but what they will do to achieve their goal. “As I understand it, there is a willingness on the American side to implement additional sanctions in addition to the existing sanctions,” he said.

Eilam, who also served as director-general of the Israeli Atomic Energy Commission, said the Americans feel sanctions are working but need to be intensified. “There’s some more mileage to go before they give up,” he said. Personally, Eilam added, “I am sure the Iranians are rational and that they are aware of the impact of the sanctions.”

Emily Landau said that not only are the sanctions crippling the Iranian economy in a way the regime can no longer ignore, but Tehran is also noticing a change in the way the international community is speaking in one voice regarding its demands. “The Iranians are feeling the heat,” she told The Times of Israel.

Iran was hoping that it could get the European Union and the US to ease the sanctions on its oil industries and its banks, but the P5+1 stood united and remained determined, she added.

EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton (left) and chief Iranian nuclear negotiator Saeed Jalili (right) at the third round of P5+1 talks, in Moscow in June (photo credit: AP/Kirill Kudryavtsev)
EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton (left) and chief Iranian nuclear negotiator Saeed Jalili (right) at the third round of P5+1 talks, in Moscow in June (photo credit: AP/Kirill Kudryavtsev)

“Iran is not yet willing to discuss its nuclear program as seriously as the P5+1 would like them to. But Iran also wasn’t able split the P5+1,” she said, noting that just two years ago, Russia and China adamantly opposed tougher sanctions. Iran has met a somewhat different approach of late, says Landau. “There is a noticeable shift in the overall dynamic: Iran noticed a new type of determination, a new sense of greater unity of these powers, who don’t always see eye to eye on these issues.”

While it is impossible to know what Clinton discussed with the Israeli leaders, Landau believes that the secretary, like the other senior US officials coming to Jerusalem, is urging restraint. The mere fact that the Iranians are willing to sit down and talk about their nuclear program proves that international pressure is working, she said.

And if all else fails

‘The American air force would know exactly how to launch an aerial attack — even in bad weather’

But what if sanctions ultimately don’t prove sufficient? Washington promises to prevent Iran from going nuclear – but what is the operational definition of that statement? Israeli analysts speak of a closing of the “window of opportunity,” as Tehran moves its facilities underground. In addition, some Israeli pundits speculate over a strike before the winter, as the air force requires clear skies to launch an attack.

“It’s easier to wage war in the summer,” said Eilam, “and many of the wars here in our regions, excluding the War of Independence which lasted for two years, took place in either in summer or at the end of the summer, around October.”

If the US wanted to strike, however, it could do so at any time, he added. “Nowadays, airplanes are equipped with so many advanced [technological] systems. The American air force would know exactly how to launch an aerial attack — even in bad weather.”

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