Ahead of March meetings, Israel and the U.S. close ranks on Iran

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and President Obama, shown at a September 2011 meeting at the United Nations in New York, are likely to meet again in Washington at the beginning of March, when decisions on Iran will be coming to a head.

By Ron Kampeas, JTA

WASHINGTON—It’s one of those coincidences too tempting to believe is a coincidence.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is delivering a speech to AIPAC about what should happen next with Iran and likely meeting with President Barack Obama to discuss Iran options on the same day that the International Atomic Energy Agency convenes in Vienna to consider a report about Iran.

Netanyahu’s office confirmed over the weekend that he would address the American Israel Public Affairs policy conference on March 5, and sources say a meeting with Obama is likely. The IAEA board is meeting the same day—hours before the speech—to consider its inspectors’ latest Iran report. The most recent such report came closer than ever to indicting the Iranian regime for making weapons, and it helped spur stronger international sanctions against Tehran.

It is a coincidence, though.

Attendance by Israeli prime ministers at the annual AIPAC policy conference, which these days draws nearly 10,000 people, is generally a must. The IAEA board, although it meets twice yearly, does not set a date until several months in advance.

The confluence of events, however coincidental, underscores how decision-making on Iran is drawing closer for all the parties, and could come to a head if not by March, then before the year ends, according to recent media reports.

“Israel is in a delicate place,” Uzi Rabi, the director of the Moshe Dayan Center for Middle Eastern and African Studies, told a small group of reporters on Tuesday in Washington, where he is meeting officials under the auspices of The Israel Project. “It has committed itself to a military engagement” unless Iran retreats from its suspected nuclear program, he said.

“I don’t see how we can skip that after August,” Rabi added, noting that the fall is the approximate deadline that Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak has set before Iran’s program becomes too intractable to curtail through a military strike.

There are signs that the Obama and Netanyahu governments, after a period of uncertainty, have begun to coordinate their message on Iran.

Rabi, who also chairs Tel Aviv University’s Middle East history department, said he had heard that the recent visit to Israel by Gen. Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the U.S. military joint chiefs of staff, “made things clearer.” Previously there had been reported tensions between the two countries over Israel’s reported refusal to promise advance warning to the United States of an Iran strike.

In the wake of Dempsey’s meetings with his counterparts, U.S. and Israeli officials reset a date for the Austere Challenge, the largest-ever joint anti-missile exercise, for sometime around October, according to officials who have knowledge of the discussions, and U.S. military officials will visit Israel later this month to plan the exercise. A decision by Israel in December to postpone the exercise, originally set for May, spurred talk of distancing between the two countries.

Obama sought to set such doubts about coordination to rest in a pre-Super Bowl interview he gave Sunday to NBC.

“We have closer military and intelligence consultation between our two countries than we ever have,” he said when Matt Lauer asked him if he expected advance warning from Israel in case of a strike. “And my No. 1 priority continues to be the security of the United States, but also the security of Israel, and we are going to make sure that we work in lockstep as we proceed to try to solve this, hopefully diplomatically.”

The same day, Obama signed off on the most restrictive Iran sanctions yet, targeting Iran’s Central Bank, essentially making it impossible for third parties to deal with the U.S. and Iranian economies simultaneously.

A letter to Congress accompanying the order notes that it comports with the enhanced sanctions law passed by Congress in December and underscores its expansive intent. The order enhances freezes on U.S. dealings with Iran dating back to 1995 that forced any U.S. entity or its subsidiary to return funds that are identified as having originated with sanctioned Iranian individuals or entities.

Mark Dubowitz, the director of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a think tank that tracks the effectiveness of sanctions, said the Central Bank sanctions will accelerate the impoverishment of the Iranian regime.

“It’s an effective way to target Iranian government assets being processed through the U.S. financial system and potentially to freeze those assets for later distribution to victims of Iranian terrorism,” he said.

Congressional aides involved in sanctions legislation noted that the order comports with the law signed by Obama on Dec. 31 that was authored by Sens. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) and Mark Kirk (R-Ill.). Still, it was a sign of the urgency that the Obama administration is now attaching to heading off a nuclear Iran—and the prospect of an Israeli or U.S. military strike—that the president issued the order well within the 60 days provided by the law before he had to invoke a waiver.

Obama administration officials, in conversations in recent weeks with their Israeli counterparts and with Jewish and Israeli media, had emphasized that it was necessary to line up substantive international support for the sanctions in order for them not to backfire. One nightmare scenario, they said, would be for oil prices to rise as a result of the sanctions, thus further enriching Iran’s theocracy.

Those ducks appeared to be lining up: On Jan. 23, the European Union imposed an oil embargo on Iran, and on Monday, Prince Alwaleed bin Talal al Saud, who runs Saudi Arabia’s Kingdom Holding Company, told CNBC that the Saudis would not allow the price of oil to top $100 a barrel. It is currently at $97 a barrel.

Rabi said Israel would have to see substantive steps toward the likely disintegration of Iran’s current regime if it were to hold off on a strike: The impoverishment of the Iranian middle class, precipitating upward pressure on the regime, would be one sign.

“Sanctions will work,” he said, “if the ayatollahs feel that the whole saga is aiming at their very survival.”

Another would be meaningful inspections at Iranian nuclear sites, including the one near Qom uncovered by Western intelligence in 2009. A team of IAEA inspectors last month met with Iranian officials in an attempt to resume comprehensive inspections.

For now, Israeli leaders seem satisfied with the pace of pressure on Iran. After meeting with U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton on Tuesday, Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman said he “thanked her for the determined stance of the United States on the Iran issue and said the steps taken in recent weeks send an important message to the entire region.”