Israeli and American officials met in Jerusalem on Thursday for one of their semi-annual “strategic dialogue” meetings, which concluded with a statement issued by the Foreign Ministry noting that Iran’s nuclear program was high on the agenda. Behind the bland public comments, however, one well-placed Israeli source spoke of friction in US-Israeli ties over the struggle to thwart Iran, with the US urging Israel to allow more time for sanctions to bite, and Israel expressing concern that its window of opportunity for military action is starting to close.
Thursday’s talks were led by Israel’s Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon and US Deputy Secretary of State William Burns. “Iran’s continued quest to develop nuclear weapons, which the United States and Israel are both determined to prevent, the destabilizing role which it plays in the region, and its promotion of international terrorism were all addressed by the parties,” the Foreign Ministry said in a statement.
Ayalon noted that these were the fifth such talks between the two nations within the strategic dialogue framework. “Of course, at the top of the daily agenda is the issue of stopping the Iranian nuclear development process. Iran is the most severe and immediate threat to regional security and world peace.”
The Foreign Ministry quoted Burns as stressing the importance of the meetings in light of regional changes. Burns was also said to have stressed American commitment to Israel’s security.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak have for months been publicly expressing skepticism about the prospect of sanctions thwarting Iran’s nuclear drive, with Netanyahu urging the international community in March to consider the consequences of a failure to act in good time against Iran and Barak stressing how much more complex it would be challenge an Iran that has attained a nuclear capability.
Privately, said the well-placed Israeli source, speaking on condition of anonymity, the issue is causing profound friction between Israel and the US, with Washington urging Israeli patience and Jerusalem responding that time is running out.
The source sketched out four possibilities unfolding on the diplomatic front over the coming months: The first, a negotiated agreement with Iran that resolves Israeli and American concerns, he said, was out of reach. The second, an unsatisfactory negotiated agreement that does not fully address those concerns, was also highly unlikely, he said. In its latest interactions with the P5+1 powers (the permanent members of the Security Council and Germany), Iran rejected proposals to negotiate the safeguards and restrictions that would prevent it attaining a nuclear weapons capability, and referred to plans to build a new enrichment facility and four new research reactors, according to a document obtained by The Times of Israel.
A third possibility, the Israeli source said, was that the international community would declare that the diplomatic track had failed. This, too, was highly unlikely, he stressed, given that a declared failure could be read in Israel as a signal to strike, and given the oft-stated American and European interest in ensuring more time for diplomacy and for sanctions pressure to bite, including the recent EU sanctions on Iranian oil.
The fourth and most realistic possibility, the source said, was that the diplomatic engagement would be maintained, however unsuccessfully. Since the US administration is anxious to avoid a dramatic conflict on the Iranian front ahead of the presidential elections in November, since Europe has no desire to be harsher than the Americans, and since the Iranians are primarily interested in buying time while they make further nuclear headway, there is an unfortunate case of common interests at play.
In early May, when Israel appeared to be destined for early elections, Channel 2 commentator Amnon Abramovich made headlines by asserting that Netanyahu was heading to the polls so that he would safely reelected, at the head of a transition government, and free to strike at Iran in September-October, with no need to worry about voter sentiment and aware that President Barack Obama would be paralyzed by the US presidential campaign. The Likud-Kadima coalition deal staved off elections then, but the September-October period remains potentially significant, given the need for pre-winter clear skies in any potential military intervention.
Iran’s capacity to withstand sanctions should not be underestimated, the Israeli source noted, saying that Turkey and India were among the countries letting Iran off the hook.
Meanwhile, Thursday’s talks also addressed the ongoing bloodshed in Syria. The two sides voiced concern over both the Syrian regime’s continued crackdown on its civilian populace and the assistance Syrian President Bashar Assad receives from Iran and Hezbollah. According to the Foreign Ministry, the situation in Syria “is a source of major humanitarian concern and the violence of the Syrian regime against its citizens could also lead to severe consequences for the entire region.”