Inter Press Service
Less than a week after Republicans made major gains in the U.S. midterm elections, Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu has called on President Barack Obama to "create a credible threat of military action" against Iran.
Initial official reaction was negative, with Defence Secretary Robert Gates insisting that Obama's preferred strategy of enhanced multilateral sanctions and negotiations, which may resume after a year's hiatus later this month, was working better than expected.
"I disagree that only a credible military threat can get Iran to take the actions that it needs, to end its nuclear weapons programme," Gates said when asked about Netanyahu's remarks during a visit in Australia.
"We are prepared to do what is necessary, but at this point, we continue to believe that the political, economic approach that we are taking is, in fact, having an impact in Iran."
According to diplomatic sources quoted in the Israeli and U.S. press, Netanyahu's appeal came during a meeting with Vice President Joseph Biden in New Orleans Sunday. It suggests that his right-wing government and its allies in the United States, including hawkish Republicans who will take control of the House of Representatives in January, are preparing to escalate pressure on Obama to adopt a more confrontational stance with Tehran.
Indeed, even as Netanyahu was telling Biden, according to the anonymous sources, that "only a real military threat against Iran can prevent the need to activate a real military force," Republican Sen. Lindsay Graham, a leading national-security spokesman for his party, told an international conference in Halifax, Canada, that Obama would help his own re-election chances in 2012 if he made "abundantly clear that all options (to Iran) are on the table" – a phrase that is associated with taking military action.
And if Tehran actually developed a nuclear weapon, he said, Obama should act "not to just neutralise their nuclear programme, …but to sink their navy, destroy their air force and deliver a decisive blow to the Revolutionary Guard. In other words, neuter that regime. Destroy their ability to fight back."
The rhetorical escalation by both Netanyahu and his supporters in Washington comes amid diplomatic jockeying between Iran and the so-called P5+1 – the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council and Germany –over the site and agenda of a meeting that both sides have said they hope will take place later this month.
The P5+1, which is represented by the European Union's foreign policy chief, Catherine Ashton, have proposed a mid- month meeting in Vienna. But Tehran Monday called for Turkey to host the talks.
Along with Brazil, Turkey had secured Iran's agreement last spring to a proposal, originally put forward as a confidence-building measure by the P5+1 a year ago, to ship a substantial amount of its growing stockpile of low- enriched uranium (LEU) outside the country for enrichment to the 20 percent level needed to fuel a nuclear plant in Tehran (TRR) that produces medical isotopes.
The Turkey-Brazil deal, however, was summarily rejected by the Obama administration and its European allies on the grounds that Tehran had added significantly to its stockpile in the previous six months.
In recent weeks, however, they have hinted they may go along with a similar transfer scheme if Iran agrees to send a larger proportion of its total stockpile out of the country, stops enriching uranium to the higher level and agrees to address the future of its nuclear programme.
In another conciliatory gesture, the Obama administration last week named Jundallah, a radical Sunni group that has repeatedly attacked government security forces in Baluchistan in recent years, a terrorist organisation.
While Netanyahu and his supporters here are dismissing as insufficient Obama's strategy of sanctions and talks, two centrist think tanks Monday urged the administration to place more emphasis on engaging the Islamic Republic.
Previewing a more-comprehensive report to be released Nov. 16, Barry Blechman and Daniel Brumberg of the non-partisan Stimson Center urged Obama to offer Tehran a "set of robust economic, political and strategic incentives that give Iran's leaders reason to cooperate" as part of a "recalibration" of U.S. strategy that would reduce its reliance on "coercive measures".
Writing in USA Today, the two non-proliferation specialists argued that Washington should explicitly recognise Iran's right to enrich uranium under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty – something that it has yet to do – and provide other inducements, including proposing bilateral or multilateral talks on security issues, notably Afghanistan and the drug trade, and normalising diplomatic exchanges, and offering help in modernising Iran's energy industry.
In addition, a new paper released Monday by the bipartisan Iran Task Force convened by the Atlantic Council on the evolution of internal Iranian politics, particularly since last year's disputed elections, called for Washington to pursue "strategic patience" with Tehran "and avoid overreactions that could set back Iran's political development".
"Short-term prospects for U.S.-Iranian reconciliation and for a resolution of the Iranian nuclear file are poor in large part because of Iran's internal political crisis," according to the author, veteran Iran observer Barbara Slavin. "In the longer term, however, history, demography, and education favour liberalization and international integration… The focus of U.S. policy should be to buy time for this evolution to take place."
Whether these recommendations will be taken up in preparation for the prospective talks remains to be seen, but it seems increasingly clear that Netanyahu and his supporters here feel emboldened by last week's election to press Obama in the opposite direction.
Netanyahu's government had been relatively quiet on Iran since last June when Obama succeeded in persuading the U.N. Security Council to impose a new round of sanctions against Iran for alleged nuclear transgressions. It even expressed satisfaction with subsequent efforts to rally the European Union, Japan, and South Korea among others behind much tougher sanctions against companies doing business with Tehran.
But, with sympathetic Republicans taking over the House of Representatives, the Israeli government appears confident it can press for more.
According to "diplomatic sources" quoted by the Jerusalem Post, Netanyahu warned Biden that Iran "is attempting to mislead the West, and there are worrying signs that the international community is captivated by this mirage."
"The only time that Iran stopped its nuclear programme was in 2003, and that was when they believed that there was a real chance of an American military strike against them," he reportedly told Biden.
U.S. neo-conservatives and other hawks have been making much the same argument for some time. In a speech to the influential Council on Foreign Relations in late September, Independent Democratic Sen. Joseph Lieberman, who is close to Graham and former Republican presidential candidate Sen. John McCain, called for Obama to "take steps that make clear that if diplomatic and economic strategies continue to fail to change Iran's nuclear policies, a military strike is not just a remote possibility in the abstract, but a real and credible alternative policy that we and our allies are ready to exercise."
Such war talk was denounced as "dangerous" Monday by the Atlantic Council's chairman, former Sen. Chuck Hagel, who also co-chairs Obama's Intelligence Advisory Board, as well as the Council's Iran task force. "If you're going to threaten war on any kind of consistent basis, then you'd better be prepared to follow through on that (threat)," he said.
"The United States of America is currently in two of the longest wars we've ever been in… at a very significant cost to this country. … I'm not sure the people of the United States want to do a third war," he said.