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Our View: Drawing the Line With Tehran

Sep. 2, 2012 - 03:18PM   |  
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If the ayatollahs in Iran were the source of summer-long saber rattling and invective, it might be easier to understand. But the ultimatums and aspersions are coming instead from the very top of the same Israeli government that claims to be Washington’s best friend and most reliable regional ally.

Despite unequivocal U.S. pledges to prevent — by force, if necessary — a nuclear-armed Iran, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak are campaigning to convince fellow ministers and the public that Washington cannot be trusted to honor its word.

No longer coy about their disdain for President Barack Obama’s Iran strategy, Netanyahu and his defense minister openly scorn the prospects for derailing Tehran’s nuclear weapons drive through sanctions, diplomacy and relentless clandestine sabotage efforts.

The Obama administration’s repeated appeals for patience until all nonmilitary options are exhausted are met in Israel by manipulated intelligence leaks and ominous talk of ticking clocks.

In public interviews and private discussions, they hail the conviction and courage behind Israel’s pre-emptive attacks in Iraq (1981) and Syria (2007), while deriding U.S. Presidents Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton for respective failures in preventing Pakistan and North Korea from going nuclear. Israel’s security, they believe, can be secured only by Israel.

Netanyahu and his defense minister say America is hard enough to depend on, but even less so when led by a president they view as a lead-from-behind Islamic sympathizer teetering toward uncertain election prospects in November.

With Iran’s development efforts advancing in underground bunkers, the window appears to be closing rapidly on any kind of pre-emptive strike. Israeli proponents of pre-emption are now cynically seizing on upcoming U.S. elections as a propitious lever for forcing Washington’s hand.

Absent a near-term diplomatic deal that permanently derails Iran’s uranium enrichment program, Israel wants an ironclad U.S. commitment to destroy Iran’s nuclear capabilities by force. Otherwise, the Israeli discourse goes, the Jewish state has the sovereign right and duty to act unilaterally against what it sees as an existential Iranian threat.

This is why a growing chorus, including U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, and Israeli President Shimon Peres, have felt compelled to flag the limitations and perils of precipitous, unilateral Israeli action.

Until now, Netanyahu’s posturing has delivered brilliant results, galvanizing international backing for crippling sanctions against Iran, winning generous U.S. security perks and buying a virtual free pass on his government’s neglect of the Palestinian peace track.

Still, the central challenge remains: ending Iran’s nuclear drive, whose leaders have abused good-faith diplomacy through stalling and subterfuge.

Obama must reassure regional allies while marshalling international support for an even tougher line on Tehran, enhancing targeted sanctions to stanch trade and make Iranian assets so toxic that no nation would dare consider interacting with it for fear of debilitating American financial repercussions. At the same time, incentives must be offered to compel Iran to compromise, such as permitting limited enrichment for peaceful purposes in internationally monitored facilities, and in the economic sphere, not merely lifting sanctions but promising new investment.

With world energy supplies, currency markets and so much more at risk if a new regional war breaks out, it’s imperative to avoid conflict if possible. But should military force become the final viable option, it is one the United States can exercise at will and at the time of its choosing, in concert with its regional allies.

To Iran’s ayatollahs the message must be to stop masking their military ambitions under the guise of civilian nuclear energy and strike an enforceable agreement or bear the consequences.

And to Israel the message must be that the United States remains committed to supporting Jerusalem’s self-defense capabilities and will spearhead increasingly stringent global efforts to prevent a nuclear-armed Iran. But on the heels of two bloody wars, America will not be provoked piecemeal into another conflict.

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