October 21, 2010

Analysts Debate the Iran-Israel-US Triangle

Farideh Farhi

“The combined US policy of sanctions and offers of talks without preconditions is having an impact, just not the intended one,” said Farideh Farhi, speaking at a United States Institute for Peace event on Wednesday.  Farhi, a former Tehran University professor and an independent scholar and affiliate graduate faculty at the University of Hawai’i at Manoa, said that “hardliners were temporarily taken aback by the ferocity of the sanctions,” but “the reality of genuine hardships for the people has not changed hard-line policies.” In fact, she said, there has been a political shift towards the hardliners and an increase in hard-line rhetoric. “[A]fter the latest US sanctions, every single conservative opponent has supported Ahmadinajad’s foreign policy,” including his visits to countries like Lebanon that some observers have labeled as provocative.

Moderated by Daniel Brumberg, a Senior Adviser to the Center for Conflict Analysis and Prevention, the event featured a panel of analysts who discussed their wide range of views on the relationship between the US, Israel, and Iran, and covered sanctions, internal considerations in Iran, and the prospects for war between Iran and either Israel or the United States.

Panelists’ opinions on the Israeli and American governments’ policies towards Iran were mixed. Steven Simon, an adjunct senior fellow for Middle Eastern studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, was pessimistic about the impact of sanctions, saying that even many officials in the Obama administration did not believe they would be very effective.

However, according to Israeli Middle East analyst Meir Javedanfar, the policies of the Obama administration have significantly improved Israel’s security situation by generating an international consensus about the need for sanctions, strengthening Tel Aviv’s tough stance with Iran. However, Javedanfar argued, certain Israeli policies, such as ending the settlement freeze in the West Bank, are only “strengthening Ahmadinejad.”

Panelist s also discussed the rhetoric coming out of Tehran, with Farhi assessing that the Iranian government ratchets up incendiary rhetoric—such as Ahmadinejad’s comments about 9/11 at the UN—as a response to US sanctions. She said noted that Iran considers such rhetoric its own form of a “pressure track”, with its offers to negotiate serving as “carrots. She assessed that this approach was in many ways similar to Washington’s “dual track” approach with Iran.

The potential for war was covered, with Simon arguing that Israel viewed the possibility of war only as a “last resort” action it utilized only when it sensed the international community was ignoring an issue. According to Javedanfar, Israel is politically divided into two camps—one led by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu which believes Iran would attack Israel if it possessed a nuclear weapon, and one led by Defense Minister Ehud Barak which does not consider Tehran so irrational as to launch such an attack, but which is concerned a nuclear Iran would undermine Israel’s ability to retain and expand its Jewish population. According to Javedanfar, whichever faction wins that battle will be the one that shapes the Israeli reaction to any advances in Iran’s nuclear program.

Most panelists believed that the United States drew a “red line” for Iran at a “nuclear-capable” Iran, though the vague nature of such a declaration could increase the war risks. One problem mentioned by Scott Lasensky, a senior research associate in the Center for Conflict Analysis and Prevention at the US Institute of Peace, was that from the Israeli perspective, “Israelis don’t see the United States preparing for a credible threat to use military action, and it’s heightened their sense of isolation.”

Ultimately, the panel believed that the nuclear issue would continue to dominate relations between the three countries for the foreseeable future. “We are approaching an endgame,” said Farhi, given that an US-led international sanctions regime is now in place and Iran has responded with strong rhetoric but continues to express a willingness to negotiate.




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