Although it is too early to make a judgement, it looks as if Israel’s Iran policy has back-fired and may result in a very different outcome from the one Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu has long sought.
Israel’s thinking these past three years has been that punitive sanctions, cyber warfare and the assassination of Iran’s nuclear scientists must eventually force a crippled Islamic Republic to agree to ‘zero enrichment’ of uranium – that is to say to dismantle its entire nuclear programme. This, it was hoped, would open the way for ‘regime change’ in Tehran.
To bring about sufficiently severe pressure on Iran, Israel’s strategy has been to threaten to attack. It calculated -- rightly as it turned out -- that the United States and its allies would not dare call its bluff. Instead -- to head off an Israeli attack, which they feared could trigger a regional war with unpredictable and potentially catastrophic consequences -- they worked to bring Iran’s economy to its knees.
Israel’s strategy was working. Everything seemed to be going its way. Punitive sanctions on Iran were beginning to bite. Impatient for regime change, pro-Israeli propagandists in the United States had even started to call for covert action in support of the Iranian opposition.
Catherine Ashton, the European Union’s foreign affairs chief, then stepped into the fray. Confounding the hawks, she made an offer to Iran to restart negotiations, using a conciliatory tone quite different from the usual hectoring heard from Washington, Paris and London, and wholly at odds with Israel’s relentless sabre-rattling. Iran responded positively to Ashton’s invitation. Its first meeting with the P5+1 (the five permanent members of the UN Security Council plus Germany) took place in Istanbul on 14 April, and, by all accounts, was a surprising success.
Saeed Jalili, the chief Iranian negotiator -- who had joined Catherine Ashton for an informal dinner at the Iranian consulate the previous evening -- spoke of “a positive approach.” She, in turn, called the discussions “constructive and useful.” As a framework for the talks, she listed a number of principles, which must have reassured the Iranians and caused Israeli hawks to grit their teeth.
The Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty, she declared, must be a key basis for the talks. But the NPT allows signatories to enrich uranium on their own territory up to 3.5%, for power generation and other peaceful purposes. Ashton thus seemed to be sending a signal that Iran’s right to do so would be recognised. It looked as if the P5+1 had dropped Israel’s demand for zero enrichment. Instead, the suggestion was that the focus would be on getting Iran to stop enriching uranium to 20%, once it was guaranteed supplies for the Tehran Research Reactor, which needs uranium enriched to this level to produce isotopes for the treatment of Iran’s cancer patients. Since President Ahmadinejad has repeatedly said that Iran would stop producing 20% uranium if it was assured of supplies from abroad, the glimmer of a settlement seemed in sight.
Moreover, Catherine Ashton also said that the negotiators would “be guided by the principle of the step-by-step approach and reciprocity.” This reference to a gradualist approach and to mutual concessions gave a strong indication that sanctions would be lifted in stages once Iran provided convincing evidence that it was not seeking nuclear weapons and would accept intrusive inspection by the International Atomic Energy Agency. She had evidently decided to give some credence to the 2005 fatwa issued by Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, in which he forbade the production, stockpiling and use of nuclear weapons.
At the close of the 10-hour Istanbul meeting, Iran and the P5+1 agreed to hold their next meeting in Baghdad on 23 May, in what promises to be a prolonged series of talks.
Netanyahu’s angry reaction was fully in character. “Iran has been granted a ‘freebie’” he declared sourly, “to continue enrichment without any limitation, any inhibition. Iran should take immediate steps,” he stormed, “to stop all enrichment, take out all enrichment material and dismantle the nuclear facility at Qom. I believe that the world’s greatest practitioner of terrorism must not have the opportunity to develop atomic bombs.”
This shrill accusation seemed to be a case of the pot calling the kettle black. Quite apart from its continued oppression and dispossession of the Palestinians, Israel has a long record of murdering its political opponents, and is widely believed to have been responsible for the assassination of five Iranian nuclear scientists in the last two years, as well as for introducing the Stuxnet virus into Iran’s computer systems -- clear acts of state terrorism.
With crucial help from the French, Israel built its first atomic bombs in the 1960s, nearly half a century ago. They were ready for use if the 1967 war, which Israel launched against the Arabs that year, had turned against it. Most experts today estimate Israeli stockpile of nuclear weapons at between 75 and 150 warheads. Israel also has a second strike capability in the form of nuclear-tipped missiles on its German-built submarines.
Netanyahu claims that the Islamic Republic poses an ‘existential threat’ to Israel. There is not a scrap of evidence to support this claim. The Iranian President did say something to the effect that Israel would one day “pass from the pages of time” -- a phrase Israel miss-translated, no doubt for propaganda purposes, to mean an Iranian plan to “wipe Israel off the map.” Quite the contrary, it is Iran that would risk annihilation if it ever attempted to attack Israel. In addition to its large nuclear arsenal and sophisticated delivery systems, Israel has a vastly more powerful conventional military capability than Iran, largely supplied by the United States. The U.S. has indeed pledged to maintain Israel’s military superiority over all regional states -- its so-called Qualitative Military Edge -- a pledge which has been written into U.S. law.
What, therefore, is the reason for Israel’s anxiety? It fears that if Iran were to build a nuclear weapon -- or merely acquire the ability to do so -- Israel’s freedom of action would be restricted. It would no longer be able to strike its neighbours at will without risking being hit back. The simple truth is that Israel wants to deny its neighbours the ability to defend themselves. None is to be allowed to acquire a deterrent capability! Israel detests Hizbullah in Lebanon and Hamas in Gaza because these resistance movements have acquired some limited capacity to retaliate against Israel’s assaults. For this reason Israel calls them terrorist organisations and blames Iran for arming them.
Netanyahu has long opposed talks between Iran and the international community, and no doubt prays for them to collapse. The pro-Israeli lobby in the United States will very probably be mobilised in this cause. But if Catherine Ashton gets her way, if the negotiations with Iran are successful and the spectre of war is dispelled, Israel may have to live with a small dent in its regional supremacy.
Patrick Seale is a leading British writer on the Middle East. His latest book is The Struggle for Arab Independence: Riad el-Solh and the Makers of the Modern Middle East (Cambridge University Press).
Copyright © 2012 Patrick Seale – distributed by Agence Global