Iranian’s anti-Semitic tirades a factor in intensifying pressure

By Ron Kampeas, JTA

WASHINGTON — Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s strategy of trying to turn Israel and the Jewish people into scapegoats is helping to get his country into international hot water.

A Western alliance appeared close Monday to nudging Russia — which has resisted previous efforts to punish Iran for its nuclear program — into referring Iran to the U.N. Security Council for sanctions.

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Ahmadinejad’s relentless targeting of Israel has also proven central in Iran’s gathering isolation, although the principal factor fueling the tide against Iran has been its brazen defiance of entreaties to slow its nuclear program down.

Late last week, President Bush connected Ahmadinejad’s threat against Israel and the broader nuclear threat posed by Iran.

“The current president of Iran has announced that the destruction of Israel is an important part of their agenda, and that’s unacceptable,” Bush said last Friday after meeting with German Chancellor Angela Merkel. “And the development of a nuclear weapon, it seems like to me, would make them a step closer to achieving that objective.”

Iran insists its nuclear program is peaceful. The West believes it is close to manufacturing a nuclear bomb.

Israel has been warning the West for more than a decade that Iran and its nuclear ambitions pose the gravest threat to stability in the Middle East, but concern about the prospect of an Iranian bomb only began to gain traction after Ahmadinejad’s election last summer.

That’s when Iran declared its intention to roll back some of the inspections regime that had kept a lid on western worries about Iran’s plan to build a bomb. Those concerns came to a head last week when Iran removed U.N. seals on some of its uranium enrichment facilities last week.

Complementing the defiance were Ahmadinejad’s declarations that Israel should be “wiped out” and his denial of the Holocaust.

The Holocaust denial especially helped turn around Europe’s hopes that Iran could be swayed by diplomacy and promises of assistance in developing a peaceful nuclear capacity.

“To us Germans, too, it is totally unacceptable what Iran has said recently, for example, as regards the questioning the right of existence of Israel, the statements that were made with relevance to the Holocaust,” Merkel said at her meeting with Bush. “And it’s essential, we feel, that the E.U.-3 together with the United States take a common position here, become active, that we try to persuade as many other countries as possible to join themselves to us.”

The E.U.-3 refers to Germany, Britain and France, the three major European powers negotiating with Iran on behalf of the European Union.

The E.U.-3 despaired of Iran in September, after an unusually tough report from the U.N. watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency, accused the Islamic Republic of being in non-compliance with a 2-year-old freeze and of concealing some of its nuclear activity.

The Bush administration wanted Iran immediately referred to the Security Council, as did Israel, much of the U.S. Congress, and the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the pro-Israel lobby in Washington. But it relented in the face of a strategy proposed by the E.U.-3, which wanted to address the likelihood that China and Russia would exercise their vetoes should it come to the Security Council.

Both nations do a lot of energy-related business with Iran. Russia has a major stake in building Iran’s nuclear reactor, and China gets most of its oil from Iran. Both nations also traditionally resent international community monitoring of sovereign nuclear programs.

The E.U.-3 strategy was to bring Russia on as a negotiating partner. Russia, eager to restore international prestige that collapsed with the Soviet empire, eagerly agreed to new terms: Iran could run a nuclear program as long as the final stages of uranium enrichment were left to Russia. That would keep Iran from obtaining weapons grade uranium.

Israel once again played a role, when Ehud Olmert, the acting Israeli prime minister, lobbied Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov last week after the Russian foreign minister called to express his concern over the health of comatose Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.

The strategy appears to have paid off. “As for Russia, and Germany, and our European partners and the United States, we have very close positions on the Iranian problem,” Russian President Vladimir Putin said Monday after meeting with Merkel in Moscow.

He still urged caution, especially because Iran has threatened to end all cooperation with U.N. inspectors should the matter go to the Security Council.

China is much less likely to exercise its veto in isolation, and it too might consider the dangers of a nuclear Iran so close to its predominantly Muslim western provinces.

“China has never wanted, you know, nuclear powers around its country,” Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) said Sunday on “Face the Nation” on CBS. “I think China should recognize the devastation that Iran could bring about.”