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U.S. Backers of Israel Pressure Obama Over Policy on Iran

WASHINGTON — On the eve of a crucial visit to the White House by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel, that country’s most powerful American advocates are mounting an extraordinary public campaign to pressure President Obama into hardening American policy toward Iran over its nuclear program.

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Senator Lindsey Graham, Republican of South Carolina, at a news conference last month.

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From the corridors of Congress to a gathering of nearly 14,000 American Jews and other supporters of Israel here this weekend, Mr. Obama is being buffeted by demands that the United States be more aggressive toward Iran and more forthright in supporting Israel in its own confrontation with Tehran.

While defenders of Israel rally every year at the meeting of the pro-Israel lobbying group, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, this year’s gathering has been supercharged by a convergence of election-year politics, a deepening nuclear showdown and the often-fraught relationship between the president and the Israeli prime minister.

Mr. Obama and Mr. Netanyahu will both speak to the group, known as Aipac, as will the three leading Republican presidential candidates, who will appear via satellite from the campaign trail on the morning of Super Tuesday. Republicans have seized on Iran’s nuclear ambitions to accuse Mr. Obama of being weak in backing a staunch ally and in confronting a bitter foe.

The pressure from an often-hostile Congress is also mounting. A group of influential senators, fresh from a meeting with Mr. Netanyahu in Jerusalem, has called on Mr. Obama to lay down sharper criteria, known as “red lines,” about when to act against Iran’s nuclear ambitions.

“We’re saying to the administration, ‘You’ve got a problem; let’s fix it, let’s get back on message,’ ” said Senator Lindsey Graham, Republican of South Carolina, who took part in the meeting with Mr. Netanyahu and said the Israeli leader vented frustration at what he viewed as mixed messages from Washington.

“It’s not just about the Jewish vote and 2012,” Mr. Graham added. “It’s about reassuring people who want to avoid war that the United States will do what’s necessary.”

To give teeth to the deterrent threat against Iran, Israel and its backers want Mr. Obama to stop urging restraint on Israel and to be more explicit about the circumstances under which the United States itself would carry out a strike.

Specifically, Israeli officials are demanding that Iran agree to halt all its enrichment of uranium in the country, and that the suspension be verified by United Nations inspectors, before the West resumes negotiations with Tehran on its nuclear program.

The White House has rejected that demand, Israeli and American officials said on Friday, arguing that Iran would never agree to a blanket ban upfront, and to insist on it would doom negotiations before they even began. The administration insists that Mr. Obama will stick to his policy, which is focused on using economic sanctions to force the Iranian government to give up its nuclear ambitions, with military action as a last resort.

Despite the position of the Israelis and Aipac, the American intelligence agencies continue to say that there is no evidence that Iran has made a final decision to pursue a nuclear weapon. Recent assessments by American spy agencies have reaffirmed intelligence findings in 2007 and 2010 that concluded that Iran had abandoned its nuclear weaponsprogram.

In his tone, at least, Mr. Obama is working to reassure Israel. In an interview published on Friday, Mr. Obama reiterated his pledge to prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon — with force, if necessary — and ruled out a policy of accepting but seeking to contain a nuclear-armed Iran. The Israeli government, he said, recognizes that “as president of the United States, I don’t bluff.”

The White House’s choice of interviewer — Jeffrey Goldberg, a national correspondent for the magazine The Atlantic — was carefully calculated. Mr. Goldberg is closely read among Jews in America; in 2010, he wrote an article exploring the situations under which Israel would attack Iran.

American Jews are anything but monolithic. More dovish groups, like J Street, are trying to make a case against a pre-emptive Israeli strike. But for the next few days, Aipac will set the tone for an intense debate over the Iranian nuclear threat.

Mr. Obama will not lay down new red lines on Iran, even if he discusses them with Mr. Netanyahu, administration officials said. And he is not ready to accept a central part of Israel’s strategic calculation: that an attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities would be warranted to stop it from gaining the capability to build a nuclear weapon, rather than later, to stop it from actually manufacturing one.

In the interview, Mr. Obama warned Israel of the consequences of a strike and said that it would delay but not prevent Iran from acquiring a weapon. He also said he did not know how the American public would react.

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Israel’s supporters said they believed that a majority of Americans would support an Israeli military strike against Iran. But polling data paints a murkier picture: while close to 50 percent of Americans say in several polls that they would support Israel, a slightly larger number say they would stay neutral. In some surveys, there is strong support for continuing diplomacy.

Supporters of Israel argue that in the American news media, Iran’s nuclear program has been wrongly framed as Israel’s problem, rather than as a threat to the security of the whole world.

“This is about the devastating impact on U.S. and Western security of a nuclear-armed Iran bent on bullying the region into submission,” said Josh Block, a former spokesman for Aipac.

Turnout for this year’s Aipac conference is expected to surpass all previous records. And the roster of speakers attests to the group’s drawing power. In addition to Mr. Obama, Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta will speak, as will Congressional leaders including Senator Mitch McConnell, the chamber’s Republican leader, and former Speaker Nancy Pelosi, the Democratic leader in the House.

On Tuesday, the screens in the Washington convention center will light up with the Republican presidential contenders Mitt Romney, Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum, who are likely to fault Mr. Obama as not doing enough to prevent Iran from getting a weapon.

“Aipac is the spearhead of the pro-Israel community’s efforts to move the American government’s red lines closer to Israel’s red lines,” said Martin S. Indyk, a former American envoy to Israel.

Officials at Aipac declined to comment about the conference or their strategy. But Mr. Block and other former Aipac officials said that, as in previous years, the group would blanket Capitol Hill with its members — all of whom will carry a message about the Iranian nuclear threat.

They will be pushing on an open door. Democrats and Republicans, divided on so much, are remarkably united in supporting Israel and in ratcheting up pressure on Iran. The Senate voted 100 to 0 last year to pass legislation isolating Iran’s central bank, over the objections of the White House.

There are four bills in the House and Senate that call for tougher action against Iran or closer military cooperation between Israel and the United States. Mr. Graham is one of 32 Republican and Democratic sponsors of a resolution that calls on the president to reject a policy of containing Iran.

“The Senate can’t agree to cross the street,” Mr. Graham said. “Iran has done more to bring us together than anything in the world.”

To counter Aipac’s message, J Street has circulated a video on Capitol Hill, highlighting American and Israeli military experts who have voiced doubts about the efficacy of a strike on Iran.

“We are saying there needs to be time for enhanced sanctions and diplomacy to work,” said Jeremy Ben-Ami, the president of J Street. “We’re trying to calm down the drumbeat of war.”

US military operation against Iran would be a grave mistake

Published: 14 January, 2012, 02:04

Satirical mural of Statue of Liberty on the wall of the former US Embassy in Tehran

Satirical mural of Statue of Liberty on the wall of the former US Embassy in Tehran

 

The Iran controversy is heating up. Writer and political analyst Igor Panarin believes the US should heed the reasoning of Russia, China and Turkey and refrain from going to war with Iran.

In the article below, Panarin explains his view.­­

The government of Iran has already accused Israel of being behind the assassination of Mostafa Ahmadi Roshan, the Iranian nuclear scientist who was killed in Tehran earlier this month. Iran has also announced that Roshan’s death will not hinder its nuclear program.

Roshan’s assassination came at the height of the renewed tension between Washington and Tehran over Iran’s nuclear program. Threatened with ramped-up economic sanctions by the United States, Iran has declared that it may respond by sealing the Strait of Hormuz with its navy. This brings the longstanding stand-off between the US and Iran to a probable theater of operations for first time in many years in the Strait of Hormuz.

Following Tehran’s warning, the US Navy promptly sent its Fifth Fleet aircraft carrier group to the Persian Gulf, with British naval elements hurrying to join their American allies.

Meanwhile, Iran held a naval exercise titled Velayat-90 (Supremacy-90) between 24 December 2011 and 2 January 2012. The war game covered a vast area from the Persian Gulf and the Gulf of Oman to the Gulf of Aden and the Arabian Sea. The scale of the exercise served to display Iran’s readiness to engage in naval warfare outside the Persian Gulf. The Iranian Navy also used the war game to test-fire its new long-range cruise missiles, demonstrating its capability to hit US Gulf bases, Israel, and America’s Arab allies in the region.

Tehran declared the drill a huge success, announcing that Stage Two of the naval exercise will follow in February. The situation is obviously developing very fast.

The Iranian exercise was promptly followed by an exchange in media assaults and aggressive rhetoric between Washington and Tehran. The two latest developments – Roshan’s murder and Iran’s announcement regarding its 20 per cent uranium enrichment capabilities – have propelled their already heated stand-off to the point of highly flammable. Threats of new sanctions by the West merely contribute to aggravating the situation. As the European Union stated its intention to decide on banning crude-oil imports from Iran during its coming Foreign Affairs Committee meeting on 23 January this year, Tehran announced it would respond by shutting down marine traffic in the Strait of Hormuz, which accommodates almost 40 per cent of global seaborne oil shipments, putting through some 15-17 million barrels a day. This would effectively bar about 90 per cent of aggregate oil exports by all Gulf nations from the global market.

The Iranian naval forces, which consist of the regular navy and the Islamic Revolutionary Guards’ Navy, have always been a vital stakeholder for seaborne trade through the Strait of Hormuz. Iran has allowed international commercial traffic through its territorial waters voluntarily, based on the UN Law of the Sea Convention III, which stipulates the right of “innocent passage” through any territorial waters for vessels to ensure fast and unimpeded transit between open ports and the high sea. Although Iran has not ratified the convention and is therefore not bound to comply with it, it has nonetheless abided by its provisions in good faith for the most part.

Russia expressed its attitude on the issue on 12 January through a public statement by deputy foreign minister, Sergey Ryabkov, who called upon both Iran and the West to abstain from any action that may aggravate the situation in the Strait of Hormuz.

China maintains a largely similar stance, having just rejected US secretary of the treasury Timothy Geithner’s call for a significant reduction in Iranian oil imports by China. Geithner addressed the People’s Republic with this appeal during his visit to Beijing last week.

Russia’s National Security Council secretary Nikolai Patrushev also made an appearance to address the issue on 12 January this year. He warned of a possible military escalation of the conflict, claiming that Israel was egging on Washington for aggressive military action.

Despite the US Navy’s formidable power, the Persian Gulf’s narrow inlet makes it highly vulnerable for a ground-to-ship missile strike from Iran. Even Iranian speedboats can pose a serious threat to American carriers and destroyers due to their small size coupled with their high speed, which makes them difficult to spot before they get within killing range of large US battleships. Iran can also target the Fifth Fleet with its cruise missiles from the Gulf’s northern shore. Its other military assets include midget submarines, aerial drones, air-cushion vehicles, frogman squads and floating mines. Therefore, even though a military showdown between the US Navy and Iranian armed forces is likely to be a case of asymmetric warfare, Iran would have both a variety of lethal military capabilities and geography on its side.

In the words of Russia’s deputy foreign minister, Sergey Ryabko, “a military operation against Iran would be a most grave mistake, a very crude miscalculation. The consequences of such a hypothetical development of events would be most far-reaching for regional and global security.” 

Russia’s opposition to a Western military operation against Iran was made most explicit recently as Moscow sent its own aircraft carrier group to the port of Tartus in Syria. China has been similarly opposed to any military action against either Syria or Iran, warning that an armed conflict in the Gulf would be disastrous for the global economy and result in a humanitarian crisis.

Turkey’s reluctance to back a war on Iran also poses a significant constraint for a Western military gamble. Ankara has insisted on staying within diplomatic boundaries in addressing the Iranian nuclear controversy. Foreign minister Ahmet Davutoglu recently tabled Turkey’s proposal to host an international conference on the Iranian nuclear issue.

The attitude of powerful regional and global actors such as Russia, China and Turkey suggests that it would be rather prudent of Washington to follow their advice and resort to renewed diplomatic effort vis-à-vis Iran rather than enter into yet another Middle-Eastern quagmire with a highly unpredictable outcome.

Prof. Igor Panarin, Doctor of Political Sciences, specially for RT

The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of RT.

US navy crosses Strait of Hormuz after Iranian oil threats

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