Israel will wait

By Willis Sparks and Geoff Porter

As the world focuses on the diplomatic tug of war over Iran's nuclear program, Israel lives with the worrying hum of all those centrifuges spinning just a thousand miles to the east. Yet, Benjamin Netanyahu's government knows that if Israel launches airstrikes, there's a limit to how much damage can be done and how long Iran's progress can be delayed. It therefore has to persuade the Obama administration -- and anyone else who might help slow Iran's march -- to see the risks from Iran as Israel sees them.

It helped that Iran recently revealed the existence of an undeclared nuclear site near the city of Qom. At the very least, that revelation of Iranian dishonesty might have made it a little more difficult for Beijing and Moscow to justify continued resistance to sanctions. Yet, Israel remained quiet. Suddenly it appeared Netanyahu, Defense Minister Ehud Barak, and National Security Advisor Uzi Arad might have a wind at their backs. Though they'd like the wind to blow a bit more steadily and to get them to their destination quicker, they can't risk the rhetoric that might label them as blowhards.

But now there's talk of a diplomatic breakthrough. Following talks in Geneva with negotiators from the United States, China, Russia, Britain, France, and Germany, Iran has signed on to a tentative "interim agreement" to accept a U.S.-Russian proposal (that has been on the table for more than a year) to ship much of its low enriched uranium outside the country for reprocessing. Ensuring that this uranium is processed outside the country would help verify that it's used for civilian, not military, purposes. And then over the weekend, Iran ostensibly agreed to allow IAEA inspectors into the Qom facility on Oct. 25.

This leaves the Israeli government in a bind. First, because the details have yet to be worked out and Iran could renounce a completed agreement at any time, Israel can't take much comfort from it. Second, the fact that others treat it as a potential diplomatic breakthrough makes it even less likely than before that Israel could justify military strikes or that the US can persuade Russia and (especially) China to support sanctions tough enough to make any difference in Iran's strategic planning.

Israel has no faith that the potential for diplomatic détente between Iran and the US and EU is anything more than an Iranian stalling tactic, buying Tehran more time to speed toward the nuclear finish line. Likewise, Israel doesn't believe that sanctions -- no matter how tough they are -- will back Iran down. For Israel, diplomacy and sanctions are merely different forms of delay, but Netanyahu has little choice but to wait them out.

He'll be waiting for some time. First, diplomacy has to run its course. Following the tentative agreement in Geneva and the announcement that Iran will allow inspection of its Qom facility, the diplomatic track seems to be gaining momentum. Once that momentum slows and stalemate resumes, sanctions will be debated and some of them will be implemented. That won't happen before spring 2010 at the earliest.

In the meantime, Israel has little choice but to sit on its hands. Netanyahu knows that strikes on Iran's nuclear sites during delicate negotiations would inflict much more damage to Israel's international reputation -- and its relations with Washington, in particular -- than to Iran's nuclear program. Nothing brings this home more clearly than the U.N. Human Rights Council's report investigating Israel's military campaign in the Gaza Strip in 2008-09, which came very close to launching a legal process within the UN that could have produced a referral to the U.N. Security Council -- and possibly a war crimes tribunal. That's not going to happen, but it underscored already shifting international attitudes toward Israel.

Former Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz has said 2010 would be the year of sanctions. His government was hoping for a year of action. Instead, Israel will wait.

Willis Sparks is Global Macro Analyst and Geoff Porter is Middle East & Africa Director at Eurasia Group. 

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