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    Middle East
     Mar 2, 2010
US's top brass target Israel
By Jerrold Kessel and Pierre Klochendler

TEL AVIV - The United States is raising the stakes in its bid to halt Iran's nuclear program, putting the issue on a "pressure track", says the chief of US Central Command General David Petraeus.

The US and other world powers are drumming up support for a fourth round of United Nations sanctions against Iran for its refusal to comply with repeated ultimatums to suspend uranium

enrichment and to agree to a United Nations-backed deal involving Iran's nuclear fuel being enriched abroad.

The UN's nuclear watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency, meets this week to discuss a tough new report on Iran by its new director general Yukiya Amano. (See IAEA heaps pressure on Tehran, Asia Times Online, February 23)

Petraeus said the Barack Obama administration intended to "send the kind of signal to Iran about the very serious concerns that the countries in the region and, indeed, the entire world have about Iran's activities in the nuclear program." In parallel, his commander, Admiral Mike Mullen, the chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff who just returned from the Middle East, made a point of warning that any military strike against Iran would not be "decisive" in countering Tehran's nuclear program.

The top US military commanders were speaking on the eve of talks in Washington with Israel's Defense Minister Ehud Barak. For now, both Barak and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu have lined up solidly behind the US-led attempt to gain Security Council approval for sanctions against Tehran.

However, in Netanyahu's description last week, the sanctions must be "crippling". The Israeli leaders have been careful not to express publicly any doubts about the US strategy. But there remain residual misgivings in Tel Aviv whether sanctions will indeed go through at the UN. And, whether they will work.

That was what lay behind Mullen's pointed recent visit to Tel Aviv. The motive for the US admiral's visit was unexpectedly transparent - his purpose not only to coordinate policy with Israel, but to restrain Israel from independent action.

Although re-emphasizing that President Barack Obama had made his policy abundantly clear - "Iran cannot have nuclear weapons," Mullen addressed the persistent speculation that Israel had not abandoned its ongoing preparations for a possible pre-emptive strike against Iran's nuclear facilities.

If a regional confrontation were to break out following a strike on Iran, the US military chief said bluntly, "It would be a big, big, big problem for all of us. I worry a great deal about the unintended consequences of a strike."

To underline this concern, Mullen took the almost unprecedented step of convening a short news conference at the US Embassy before entering meetings with Barak and Israel's military command. He even agreed to be interviewed by the three main Israeli television stations, using the opportunity again to caution that Israel should exercise complete restraint and do nothing to disturb US coordination of the international sanctions drive.

Mullen's strictures were an echo of the last time he was in Israel 18 months ago when he was dispatched by the George W Bush administration to deliver a similar message that Israel should not think of going it alone in trying to neutralize the perceived threat from Iran. Mullen did, however, reiterate the US assessment that unless the Iranian nuclear program was halted, Tehran could make a nuclear bomb "within one to three years".

The Israeli prime minister seems to have absorbed the message. When Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad warned that Iran would side with Syria and Lebanon if attacked by Israel, Netanyahu made the point of stating categorically that Israel "was not planning any wars", blasting the Iranian president for trying to "manipulate the situation" in a bid to head off the sanctions drive.

So, where does all this leave Israeli concerns about Iran?

The answer may be in another candid interview - with Israel's UN ambassador Gabriella Shalev. Asked by Israeli reporters in Washington, "Why is Israel recently so calm regarding Iran?" she responded, "We are very anxious. But ... if the Security Council will not impose on Iran what [US] Secretary [Hillary] Clinton called 'crippling sanctions', we'll end up just having the individual states working together on this issue."

Shalev expressed concern that the Security Council "can be paralyzed" because of the veto power of the five permanent members. "It took some time for the new US administration to figure out that the UN is not what they hoped for. Now they realize the complexities," she added quite undiplomatically.

Pressed on the possibility of a Israeli pre-emptive strike, she said frankly, "It's one of the options and all options are on the table. It's one of the bad options, though we don't think it's as bad as Iran having nuclear weapon. For us it's an existential threat."

Pressed further whether the US and Israel were still on the same page, the Israeli ambassador said, "I'm sure yes we are. The US fully understands the threat. There are two very bad possibilities: That Iran will go forward and end up with a bomb - just imagine that terrorist groups on our border will have this terrible weapon; and, the second is war. We hope neither of these possibilities occurs."

If, back in Jerusalem official Israel is being particularly careful not to express such public doubts about whether sanctions will eventually be effective, this is not true of some informed experts. Emily Landau, a senior research associate at the Institute for National Security Studies in Tel Aviv, and an expert on arms control and regional security, writes in the Israeli Ha'aretz newspaper: "If we assume that ultimately there will be sanctions, so what? The involvement with sanctions, who's for and who's against, when, why and to what extent, deflects from the primary problem - the absence of an American strategy for tough negotiations with Iran."

At this stage, the problem is not so much whether Israel will disrupt the US's sanctions strategy, but a still deep-rooted conviction held by many in Israel that the Obama administration might be beginning, in Landau's phrase, "to resign itself not only to the fact that Iran will continue to enrich uranium but also to recognition that the Islamic Republic could ultimately build a nuclear bomb".

Which is why, unless sanctions prove effective and Tehran is really made to shift its determined stance that it has the right to develop a nuclear capability; the potential for open confrontation will keep haunting the region and bedeviling diplomatic attempts to defuse global tensions on several fronts.

(Inter Press Service)

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