Israelis Fear Obama 'Weak' on Iran Sanctions

Tuesday, 29 Dec 2009 09:33 AM

By Kenneth R. Timmerman

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Senior Israeli leaders tell Newsmax they are counting on the Obama administration to move promptly at the United Nations to impose tough new sanctions on the Iranian regime, but they fear the growing perception in the region that President Obama is a “very weak” leader who does not understand the calculus of peace and war.

“America’s enemies realize they are not facing a determined administration ready to go all the way to stop them,” a senior Israeli leader told Newsmax in Jerusalem last week, on the condition that he not be cited by name.

Eight months ago, the talk in Israel was of war. Israelis has just elected a tough new prime minister, who announced that stopping Iran’s nuclear weapons program was his top priority. The Israeli Air Force conducted two long-distance exercises with in-flight refueling to demonstrate the capability of striking Iran. There was ominous talk of “red lines” that Israel would not allow Iran to cross.

Now Iran appears to have crossed those red lines, and it has enough uranium to make at least two bombs. Yet the talk of war has receded.

So what changed? A nuclear-armed Iran represents a threat of “biblical proportions,” said government spokesman Daniel Seaman. But the extent of the domestic turmoil that has rocked Iran since the disputed June 12 presidential election has given new hope to some members of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s cabinet that war over Iran’s nuclear weapons program now can be avoided.

“The unrest [inside Iran] has led to a change in the calculation,” a top Netanyahu adviser told Newsmax. "In April, it was hard to make the argument that putting pressure on Iran would have any effect. Now the case for sanctions is stronger because there seems to be a growing likelihood of success."

Senior advisers to Netanyahu, including cabinet members, told Newsmax in Jerusalem that they now believe a combination of external pressure and help to the opposition inside Iran might convince the regime to change its behavior — or better yet, could provide the catalyst for a change of regime.

“The nuclear issue is tremendously important,” said a veteran Iran watcher who has advised prime ministers for many years. “But regime change must be the objective.”

He and other Netanyahu advisers contend that a secular democratic government in Iran most likely would focus on Iran’s economy and on rebuilding the country’s international reputation, rather than the aggressive pursuit of nuclear capabilities that have made the Islamist regime an international pariah.

Mohsen Sazegara, a founder of the Revolutionary Guards who went into opposition in 1989 and has been jailed repeatedly, agreed.

“The biggest mistake of my generation was to make a revolution against the world,” he told Newsmax. “The new generation wants to join the world, not destroy it.”

Israel now sees the Iranian regime as vulnerable in ways no one could conceive of just months ago. “Recently, they had to expand subsidies on basic foodstuffs,” another senior adviser said. “This is putting economic pressure on the regime.”

New international sanctions “are needed as soon as possible, and they can have a real impact on the Iranian economy. But this must be coupled with support from the outside for the green movement. Unfortunately, until now the U.S. has not provided any support to them at all,” the adviser said.

The third element of a tougher policy on Iran must be a credible threat of military action, should other measures fail to effect a change in Iranian behavior, the adviser added.

“These three things together — economic pressure, support for the opposition, and a credible military option always in view — are the only way you can avoid military action,” he said. “The goal of our policies should be to make the Iranian regime feel they are facing a dilemma, where they must choose between a nuclear bomb, and the survival of the regime. “

Some cabinet members believe that Netanyahu has made too many concessions to the United States in an effort to get President Obama to take the lead in stepping up the pressure on Iran.

“I am very concerned. We are definitely not getting our money’s worth,” said Uzi Landau, infrastructure minister who is a member of the 12-member security cabinet.

Landau specifically took issue with the government’s decision to agree to a White House demand that Israel impose a 10-month freeze on new building activity in Jewish settlements, over the objections of the prime minister’s top national security advisers.

“Already the Palestinians feel they have the wind behind them. They see Israel making concessions, so they ask us to pay more,” Landau told Newsmax during an interview in Jerusalem.

“Concessions are the invention of Western logic,” he said. “The thinking is that, if you make a gesture of goodwill, maybe the other side will reciprocate. Here in the Middle East, concessions bring you in the opposite direction. They strengthen the radical elements and distance us even further from peace.”

The timing of the settlement freeze, which expires in July, appears to have been chosen to give a political boost to Obama and congressional Democrats as they face a tough re-election campaign next year.

Netanyahu “understands American politics,” one adviser said.

But Landau, the lone member of the security cabinet who voted against the settlement freeze, disagrees. “America will make its move on Iran based on its own interests, not because we freeze settlements,” he insisted.

The Israeli government has been waiting patiently for the end of December, which Obama has indicated is his cut-off date for his engagement policy with the Iranian regime.

“The track of engagement has been cluttered with a lot of debris, making it harder to pursue,” a Netanyahu adviser said. “Is engagement over? That’s your headline, not mine. But the Iranians are making it increasingly difficult to go down that track.”

Contested Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad swept aside any prospect that Iran would comply with Obama’s end-of-year deadline, saying on Thursday that the United States and the West can set "as many deadlines as they want. We don't care."

The possibility that Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., would travel to Iran, which The Wall Street Journal disclosed last week, appears to be a last-ditch effort to revive engagement before it dies a natural death.

A Kerry trip to Tehran “would be a disaster,” a former senior Israeli intelligence official said, because it would allow the Iranian regime to buy more time to continue its pursuit of nuclear weapons.

“Iran is gaming the situation, playing for time. They think they can avoid sanctions by making some new proposal at the very last minute,” a senior Israeli cabinet member said.

A Kerry spokesman said the senator doesn't plan to travel to Iran, but the White House welcomed such an effort.

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