Talking to Tehran: US President Barack Obama speaks on the phone from the White House with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani on Sept. 27. (White House)
TEL AVIV — Israel is reassessing its dwindling options for combating the Iranian nuclear threat as a war-weary White House and other world powers meet in Geneva later this month to probe diplomatic prospects for a deal with Tehran.
Government and defense sources here said US President Barack Obama’s readiness to “test the diplomatic path” has severely undercut Israel’s strategy of compelling complete dismantlement of Iran’s nuclear program through strengthened sanctions and the credible threat of military force.
In his Oct. 1 UN General Assembly address in New York, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu warned that Hassan Rouhani, Iran’s newly elected president, was not a reform-seeking moderate but a “mastermind” of deceit, who aimed to fool the world body “behind a smokescreen of diplomatic engagement and very soothing diplomatic rhetoric.”
Netanyahu was adamant that Israel “would never acquiesce” to a nuclear weapon-capable Iran. Nor would it accept a partial agreement that allows Iran to reconstitute the threat should it decide to break away from a deal.
Against such a threat, he repeatedly warned, “Israel will have no choice but to defend itself.”
But sources here say the Sept. 27 phone call that triggered a thaw in the 34-year freeze between Washington and Tehran has sapped credibility of Netanyahu’s threats. As long as the White House remains directly involved in so-called P5 Plus 1 talks with Iran, they say, Israel cannot contemplate pre-emptive attack.
“Obama’s relationship with Rouhani may be warming up, but it’s forcing us to put unilateral strike options on ice,” said a former member of the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) General Staff.
Maj. Gen. Seyed Hassan Firouzabadi, Iran’s second-ranking military officer, dismissed Netanyahu’s threats as “desperation” that would not deter Tehran’s “peaceful nuclear program,” the semi-official Fars news agency quoted the officer as saying.
Rouhani responded tauntingly to Netanyahu’s address via his official Twitter account: “Israel is upset to see that its sword has gone blunt and Iran grows more powerful day by day.”
Despite Obama’s assurances that both countries share the same goal of preventing a nuclear-armed Iran, most here are disheartened by the White House’s handling of the Syrian chemical threat and increasingly doubt US capability or intent to exercise the military option that the president insists is still on his desk.
Washington, London and Paris, however, contend the credible threat of force helped convince Syria to relinquish its chemical weapons and that an overture by Iran’s new leader offers a strategic opportunity that must be explored.
While US officials are hopeful, senior officials — as well as lawmakers and strategists — stress that only Iranian actions on its nuclear program rather than its rhetoric will lead to a change in sanctions.
In a Sept. 30 Oval Office meeting, Obama told Netanyahu he enters negotiations with Iran “very clear-eyed” and that any diplomatic deal would require “the highest standards of verification” prior to easing sanctions as demanded by Iran. He also said, “We take no options off the table, including military options.”
The emerging détente between its patron in Washington and its nemesis in Tehran poses parallel problems for the Jewish state: It needs to ensure a credible US military option should diplomacy fail or be prepared to act unilaterally should diplomacy succeed in a deal that falls short of its maximalist demands.
Either way, political and operational conditions do not augur well for a conventional military response should diplomacy fail.
With talks between Iran, Germany and the five permanent members of the UN Security Council likely to extend well into the new year, experts here say Israel will intensify public diplomacy in support of sanctions and continue its successful covert war against Iran’s nuclear and cyber programs.
Retired Maj. Gen. Amos Yadlin, a former Israeli military intelligence chief, has urged Netanyahu to cooperate closely with Obama toward a positive disarmament deal.
“A good agreement must be given a chance, even if it seems that the Iranian move is an exercise in deceit. Exposing the deceit can yield strategic benefits,” Yadlin, now director of Israel’s Institute for National Security Studies, wrote in a Sept. 29 paper.
According to Yadlin, even an agreement that carries a certain risk “represents a significantly smaller threat than the dangers inherent in the status quo, which is leading to an Iranian bomb or to a military move to forestall it.”