image
Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and President Barack Obama, seen here at a September 2011 meeting at the United Nations in New York, are likely to meet again in Washington on March 5, as decisions on Iran come to a head. Avi Ohayon/GPO/FLASH90

WASHINGTON ““ March 5 is shaping up to be a crucial day in the effort to rein in Iran’s nuclear program.

In Vienna, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) will convene to consider its inspectors’ latest report on Iran’s nuclear program. The last such report came closer than ever to indicting the Iranian regime for making weapons, and it helped spur stronger international sanctions against Tehran.

Several hours later, in Washington, Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu will deliver a speech to an American Israel Public Affairs policy conference about what should happen next with Iran. Either before or after the AIPAC meeting, Netanyahu likely will meet with President Barack Obama to discuss Iran options.

It may appear to some to be a carefully arranged scenario, especially if the IAEA issues a negative report on Iran before Netanyahu steps up to the AIPAC podium, but it is truly a coincidence.

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 a year, does not set a date until several months in advance.

The confluence of events 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 during a visit this week to Washington, where he met with 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 heard that the recent visit to Israel by Gen. Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, “made things clearer.” Previously, media sources reported that there were tensions between the two countries because Israel was refusing to give the United States advance warning 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, even though Israel repeatedly denied that.

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, 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.

That international support appears to be lining up: On Jan. 23, the European Union imposed an oil embargo on Iran. 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 that for Israel to hold off on a military strike, it would have to see substantive steps toward the likely disintegration of Iran’s current regime. 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 sign 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.”

JTA Wire Service