Israel Intel Minister: Not pessimistic about Iran deal

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Israeli Intelligence Minister Yuval Steinitz said Tuesday that he believes Iran is “serious” about wanting to make a nuclear deal to save its economy. But he pressed for no let-up in economic pressure unless Iran agrees to terms for a deal that many US national security experts believe could preclude a diplomatic compromise.

“I think they are serious,” Steinitz, speaking to al-Monitor in an interview Tuesday, said of the Iranians. “They want an agreement.”

But the deal they are aiming for, he said, is a “North Korea-type,” under which Iran would freeze, rather than dismantle, major elements of its nuclear program, and offer “better inspections procedures.”

“Nuclear energy without enrichment is the only reasonable compromise,” he said.

Steinitz was in Washington leading an Israeli delegation attending two days of high-level talks with US counterparts as part of the US-Israel Strategic Dialogue. US Deputy Secretary of State Bill Burns and Under Secretary of State Wendy Sherman addressed the gathering Wednesday, the State Department said.

Sherman led the US delegation to P5+1 talks with Iran in Geneva last week in which the Iranians “were saying they are ready to discuss” various elements of a potential nuclear compromise, Steinitz said. Though their proposal was not very detailed, Steinitz said he understood, he said he did not interpret that necessarily as a sign of lack of seriousness.

“I am not pessimistic,” Steinitz said. Iran's economic problems have brought Iranian leaders to realize they have a “dilemma,” he said. “If it’s put to them, ‘Look, the time to maneuver… is over. After ten years of negotiations… enough is enough. You have to make a decision. You want to save the Iranian economy? You have to give up your military nuclear project on all its components. You choose to continue with your military nuclear program? You will destroy the Iranian economy,” or face possible military action.

Steinitz, in the interview, argued against any sort of interim deal that might offer Iran an easing of sanctions in exchange for nuclear concessions. The concern, he said, is that once any sanctions are eased, the entire sanctions regime will crumble, and won’t be able to be ramped back up if Iran backslides on the agreement.

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Rouhani proposes nuclear transparency, easing US-Iran tensions

Iran’s President-elect Hassan Rouhani ushered in the post-Ahmadinejad era Monday with a sometimes extraordinary 90-minute press conference in which he stressed he would take a pragmatic and moderate approach to improve Iranian relations with the world and reduce tensions with the United States over Iran's nuclear program.

“The Iranian people…will be happy to build trust and repair relations with the United States,” if the US pledges to never interfere in Iran’s domestic affairs and to respect Iran’s rights, including for domestic enrichment, Rouhani told the packed press conference in Tehran.

“We don't want further tension” with the United States, Rouhani, 64, said. “Both nations need to think more about the future and try to sit down and find solutions to past issues and rectify things.”

“My government will defend the rights of the Iranian nation,” the multilingual cleric, who earned his PhD in Glasgow, said. “We want to see less tension, and if we see goodwill” from the United States, then “confidence -building measures can be made.”

Asked how Iran could get out from crippling economic sanctions, Rouhani said his government would offer greater transparency of Iran’s nuclear program and take steps to restore international trust to get sanctions rolled back. “Our nuclear program is transparent but we’re ready to take steps to make it more transparent,” he said.

Rouhani said, however, that the time has passed for Iran to agree to suspend lower level enrichment, which it did in 2004-2005 when he was Iran’s chief nuclear negotiator. “That era is behind us,” Rouhani said of the deal he negotiated a decade ago with three European powers to suspend Iran's 3.5% enrichment. “There are so many other ways to build international trust.”

Rouhani proposed that a deal he discussed in 2005 with then French President Jacques Chirac, which he said was rejected by the UK and the US, could be the model going forward.

Hossein Mousavian, who served as a member of the Rouhani negotiating team, said the Chirac idea that Rouhani referenced involved the highest level of transparency of Iran’s nuclear program in exchange for Iran having its rights under the nuclear Non Proliferation Treaty (NPT) recognized.

“We agreed with Chirac that: first, the EU-3 would respect the legitimate rights of Iran for peaceful nuclear technology under the NPT, including enrichment,” Mousavian told Al-Monitor Monday. “Second, Iran would accept the [International Atomic Energy Agency] IAEA's definition for objective guarantees that the Iranian nuclear program would remain peaceful and would not divert toward weaponization in the future.”

“It means that Iran would respect the maximum level of transparency that internationally exists,” Mousavian, a contributing writer to Al-Monitor, further explained. “In return, the P5+1 would not discriminate against Iran as a member of the NPT. It would respect Iran's rights under the NPT like other members.”

Mousavian, asked how Washington should try to realize the potential to advance a nuclear deal under the more moderate Rouhani presidency, recommended that US President Barack Obama write Rouhani, offer him congratulations, and reiterate US interest in direct talks.

“Confirm the willingness and intentions of the US for relations based on mutual respect and mutual interest, to depart from 30 years of hostility and tension,” Mousavian suggested. Reiterate Washington's “readiness for direct talks with no preconditions.”

“I think now is the time,” Mousavian said, adding that he too had been taken by surprise by Rouhani's victory.

A top advisor to President Obama said Sunday the White House sees Rouhani's election as a “potentially hopeful sign.”

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Israeli media mull leaders’ intentions on Iran


Israeli media reports give a sense of the intensifying debate and confusion in Israel and beyond over signs Israeli leaders are contemplating striking Iran in the fall:

Israeli columnist Ben Caspit, writing in Al Monitor partner Maariv and translated on our front page, expresses Israelis’ weariness and confusion over whether Israeli leaders’ rhetoric is a bluff or real, concluding:

Does all of this mean that they are really bluffing? I don’t know. They have the right to bluff, and they have the right not to bluff. They should sit, discuss, go over information, and decide already. They are leaders, and the power is in their hands. For the moment, their “determination” amounts to bluster. From the outside, it seems like they are not being taken seriously inside Israel, nor the rest of the world for getting too worked up. Who knows, maybe in the end they’ll bomb Iran just to prove they were serious.

Haaretz‘s Ari Shavit, writing August 11, interviews “the decision maker,” an anonymous senior Israeli official universally believed to be Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak:

… “The United States and Israel currently agree on the diagnosis,” says my interlocutor. “The intelligence assessments are the same and the rhetoric is practically the same. We and the Americans both know that Iran is determined to obtain nuclear weapons and that it is deceiving the whole world in order to do this. We and the Americans both say that we will not accept a nuclear Iran and that all options are on the table. But the gap between the two countries derives from the fact that the U.S. and Israel have different abilities.

“As the Iranians continue to fortify their nuclear sites and disperse them and accumulate uranium, the moment is approaching when Israel will not be able to do anything,” he warns. “For the Americans, the Iranians are not yet approaching the immunity zone − because the Americans have much larger bombers and bombs, and the ability to repeat the operation a whole number of times. But for us, Iran could soon enter the immunity zone. And when that happens, it means putting a matter that is vital to our survival in the hands of the United States. Israel cannot allow this to happen. It cannot place the responsibility for its security and future in the hands of even its best and most loyal friend.”

You’re describing a tragedy, I say to the decision maker. Iran’s immunity zone versus Israel begins a little sooner than its immunity zone versus the United States. […] Because of this gap of six to nine months, Israel could find itself going into a terrible war all on its own.

“I don’t see it as a tragedy, but it’s true that there is a built-in gap here. The Americans understand what we’re saying but they want more time. Some people here think this is a plot, but I don’t think so. In terms of sanctions and diplomacy, this administration has done more than any other administration. It has also prepared a military option at various levels. But where you sit is where you stand. And from the point of view of the American president, the moment has not yet come. The United States will be able to act next year, too. So the Americans are telling us that it would be a serious mistake to act now. After all, they could deal the Iranians a knockout blow, while they think all we can do is give them a black eye. So it would seem that it would be worth it for us, too, for them to be the ones to act and not us. But as a sovereign state, we’re saying that on issues vital to our security, we cannot place our fate in the hands of others. …

Yedioth Ahronoth‘s senior commentators Nahum Barnea and Shimon Shiffer wrote August 10th:

If it were up to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak, an Israeli military attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities would be launched in the coming autumn months, before the US election in November. Of course, the fact that Israel’s two most senior figures are determined to adopt the decision and pass it in the cabinet is of immense significance. It is no less significant that not one high-ranking official in the Israeli establishment — not in the Israel Defense Forces’ (IDF) top echelons, nor in the defense establishment and not even the President of Israel — currently supports an Israeli attack.

Veteran Israeli national security journalist Yossi Melman, co-author with Dan Raviv of the new book on the Mossad, Spies against Armaggedon, writes in Walla, in a translation provided by the author, that the next 80 days are critical because Israel may have a limited weather window to act:

The next eighty days are the window of opportunity in which Israel could attack Iran, until the end of October — and the weather only gets worse in November.  After late October, even if Israel’s government wishes it, it would be difficult for the air force to carry out the intended attack.  The climate conditions over Iran at the end of autumn and the start of winter are mostly cloudy — and thus they’re not amenable to an air attack.

Prime Minister Netanyahu is more certain than ever that an attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities will be necessary.  Some commentators are describing that attitude as “ideology.”  They believe that the PM, when it comes to Iran, has a fixed worldview.  They believe that he is concerned that if Iran obtains nuclear weapons, it would use them — so he is determined to prevent a second Holocaust.

But Netanyahu has never had a genuine “ideology.”  He just wraps his decisions in justifications and explanations that appear ideological.  That’s how it is with economic issues, and that’s how it is regarding a possible Palestinian state, and so it is also on Iran.

Yet despite his general image as a man who is cautious and avoids major risks, when it comes to Iran he is ready to gamble.  That’s because he believes that an attack would put him into Israel’s national Pantheon, with leaders such as David Ben-Gurion and Menachem Begin.  Begin, of course, ordered the air raid that destroyed Iraq’s nuclear reactor in 1981. …

Update: “Although Israel’s leaders frequently lament all the Iran ‘chitchat,’ make no mistake: It’s they who are fueling the discussion,” the Associated Press notes in a report on “Israel plunged into unprecedented debate on Iran war.”

(Photo: Israel’s Defence Minister Ehud Barak (L) and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu attend a session of the Knesset December 23, 2009. Reuters.)

Panetta to Netanyahu: US “will not allow Iran to develop a nuclear weapon, period”


The United States will use all means to ensure that Iran does not develop a nuclear weapon, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta told Israeli leaders Wednesday.

The United States “will not allow Iran to develop a nuclear weapon, period,” Panetta said at a meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Jerusalem Wednesday “We will not allow them to develop a nuclear weapon, and we will exert all options in the effort to ensure that that does not happen.”

The Pentagon chief is the latest senior Obama official seeking to reassure Israel, amid mounting concern in Washington that Israel is losing patience with the U.S. approach and may move to strike Iran this fall, I report in a piece on the front page.

“The problem we face is, to the Israelis, it looks like we are dithering and that we are going to keep on dithering until they lose their opportunity to act,” said Patrick Clawson, deputy director of research at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, in an interview with Al-Monitor shortly after his research organization held discussions with former members of Israel’s strategic dialogue. “That is not confidence-building for the Israelis.”

“The US administration’s attitude is, we’ve got to wait to see if [the sanctions are] working, Clawson said. “On sanctions, … the big question is what political impact they have, not what economic impact they have. It’s hard to know why the Iranians show up for negotiations unless sanctions are responsible.”

Three sets of high-level six-nation nuclear talks with Iran this past spring have failed to date to narrow differences on a possible confidence-building measure that would end Iran’s higher-level 20% enrichment. Washington will not agree to another P5+1 political directors meeting with Iran if there is no serious prospect of progress toward an agreement, sources told Al-Monitor. European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton and chief Iran nuclear negotiator Saeed Jalili are due to confer this month to see if there’s a basis for further negotiations.

American diplomats said, however, there is significant value to the diplomatic channel despite the lack of progress to date.

“My feeling is it’s very, very important … to see if there is some give in Iran positions,” former US Ambassador to Iraq Jim Jeffrey said Tuesday at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “As we go down to the wire, there is some hope for that particular channel.”

Meantime, some Israeli analysts continue to believe Netanyahu will heed the advice of his military and intelligence chiefs who are warning against unilateral Israeli action.

“The chances for an Israeli strike are very low, given the objections inside the security establishment,” Noam Sheizaf wrote at Israeli online magazine +972. “I think that Netanyahu is now trying to negotiate an American promise to attack by a certain date in 2013. An American led attack would eliminate the risk of political fallout resulting from a military failure, and save Netanyahu the need to fight with the entire security establishment.”

American defense experts are not convinced the threat of an Israeli strike has receded.

“Israeli anxiety and [the] risk of [an Israeli] Iran strike [are]  real, but [Israeli] impatience [is] also meant to press the administration in the wake of the Romney trip,” former Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for the Middle East Colin Kahl wrote on Twitter.

(U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak (front, R) greet Israeli soldiers after a joint news conference during a visit to the Iron Dome defense system launch site in Ashkelon August 1, 2012. REUTERS/Mark Wilson/Pool.)

Romney to Israeli paper: Both Obama and I say nuclear Iran unacceptable


GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney has given two interviews to Israeli newspapers ahead of his arrival in Jerusalem Saturday night.

“I would treat Israel like the friend and ally it is,” Romney told Israel Hayom, the newspaper owned by Las Vegas casino mogul Sheldon Adelson, who has donated millions of dollars to Republican and Israeli causes. Adelson, who owns a home in Israel, may attend a $50,000 a plate fundraiser for Romney in Israel Monday.

“I cannot imagine going to the United Nations, as Obama did, and criticizing Israel in front of the world,” Romney continued. “You don’t criticize your allies in public to achieve the applause of your foes.”

So Romney learned first-hand in London Thursday, as his perceived criticism of preparations for the London Olympics got his three-nation foreign trip off to a quite rocky start.

British Prime Minister David Cameron and London mayor Boris Johnson–both conservatives–fiercely defended preparations for the London Olympic Games after Romney told NBC Wednesday he found some reports of some pre-Games snafus “disconcerting.”

“If Mitt Romney doesn’t like us, we shouldn’t care,” railed the headline from the conservative UK Telegraph Thursday. London mayor Boris Johnson later mocked Romney in front of a crowd of 60,000 in Hyde Park, asking: “Mitt Romney wants to know whether we’re ready! Are we ready?” .

Romney also gave an interview in London Thursday to Israel’s liberal Haaretz newspaper. (Being on foreign soil when the interview was conducted, he told the paper he was trying to refrain from politicizing foreign policy.)

Asked about his Iran policy, Romney said he, like President Obama, have both said that a nuclear Iran is unacceptable:The military option is the least attractive option but should not be ruled out, he said.

“President Obama has said that a nuclear Iran is unacceptable. I feel a nuclear Iran is unacceptable,” Romney told Haaretz. “The term ‘unacceptable’ continues to have a meaning: It suggests that all options will be employed to prevent that outcome.”

“I am personally committed to take every step necessary to prevent Iran from developing a nuclear weapons capability,” Romney said.

In Israel, Romney will hold a breakfast fundraiser Monday (July 30) at Jerusalem’s King David Hotel. He will also meet with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu–an old friend from their days at the Boston Consulting Group; Israeli President Shimon Peres, Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad, and US Ambassador to Israel Dan Shapiro, who served as the Obama campaign’s chief of Jewish outreach in 2008.

But even with the personal ties and partisan sympathies Romney shares with Netanyahu, the powers of his White House incumbent challenger to make policy, sign bills, and grab headlines are hard to match.

On Friday, President Obama signed “a new U.S.-Israel security pact …a move that could steal some of the headlines there” as Romney arrives,” Yahoo’s Olivier Knox noted.  Indeed.

Israeli leaders and American Jewish groups applauded Obama’s action Friday.

“The Government and the people of Israel express profound gratitude to President Barack Obama on his signing of the U.S.-Israel Enhanced Security Cooperation Act,” Israeli Ambassador to the United States Michael Oren said in a statement Friday. It “sends an unequivocal message of support to the people of Israel at a time of great uncertainty throughout the entire Middle East.”

The security pact bolsters the “crucial” US-Israel security alliance “by extending loan guarantees…authorizing American military stockpiles in Israel, and improving military and intelligence cooperation, particularly in missile defense,” the Orthodox Union’s Nathan Diament said in a press statement.

Meantime, US Defense Secretary Leon Panetta plans to travel to Israel, as well as Jordan, Egypt and Tunisia next week, the Pentagon announced Thursday.

The bill signing, as well as the Pentagon chief’s Israel trip, come “as Mitt Romney nears a visit to Israel with no power to provide security aid, unlike the incumbent,” CBS’s Mark Knoller noted.

(Photo: U.S. Republican Presidential candidate Mitt Romney speaks to the press following his meetings with British Prime Minister David Cameron and British Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne outside 10 Downing Street in London, July 26, 2012.   REUTERS/Jason Reed.)

White House counterterror advisor in Israel to discuss Bulgaria bus bombing probe

Obama’s top counterterrorism adviisor John Brennan visited Israel Wednesday, after traveling to Bulgaria earlier this week to confer on the investigation into the July 18 Burgas  bus bombing.

Brennan visited Israel July 25 “to consult with senior Israeli officials about a range of shared security concerns, including the recent wave of terrorist plots against Israeli and other interests,” NSC spokesman Tommy Vietor said in a statement Wednesday.  Brennan also met with Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad.

Bulgarian Prime Minister Boyko Borisov said Tuesday after meeting with Brennan that Bulgarian authorities now believe the suspected suicide bomber in the Burgas bus bombing had been in the country for about a month, and had worked as part of a group with a high degree of discipline.

“These are extremely experienced people who observed absolute secrecy,” Borisov said at a press conference with Brennan July 24th, Agence France Press reported.

The July 18th attack, which targeted a bus of Israeli tourists who had arrived in the Black Sea resort town on a charter flight, killed seven people, including five Israeli tourists, their Bulgarian bus driver, and the suspected bomber.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Sunday that Israel has rock-solid evidence the attack was perpetrated  by Hezbollah.

(Photo: US anti-terror adviser John Brennan (left) speaks during a joint press conference with Bulgarian Prime Minister Boyko Borisov in Sofia on July 24. The suicide bomber who killed six people in an attack on Israelis had accomplices and may have entered Bulgaria from Europe’s Schengen passport-free area, Borisov said Tuesday. AFP Photo/Tsvetelina Belutova)

 

Former Mossad chief: “Better to wait” before accusing Iran in Bulgaria bus bombing

Former Israeli intelligence chief Danny Yatom said Thursday that while it’s logical to assume that Hezbollah or Iran were behind the July 18 Bulgaria bus bombing that killed seven people, assigning culpability should probably have waited until the evidence is solid.

“Usually it takes some time to locate those who were behind the bombing, and those who sent them,” the former Mossad chief told journalists on a call organized by The Israel Project Thursday.

“From the modus operandi used by some organizations, it’s logical to assume that Iran or Hezbollah or Hezbollah and/or Iran were behind this terror attack,” Yatom said. “As long as we don’t have solid information about it, it’s better to wait.”

“All signs point to Iran,” Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Wednesday of the attack on the bus of Israeli tourists at Bourgas airport on Bulgaria’s Black Sea Coast, in which seven people, including five Israeli tourists and two Bulgarians, were killed, and 30 injured. “In the past months we saw Iranian attempts to attack Israelis in Thailand, India, Kenya and Cyprus. This is an Iranian terror offensive that is spreading throughout the world.”

Bulgarian authorities on Thursday released a video of the man suspected of being the bus bomber, and said that he was carrying a fake Michigan driver’s license. ABC News obtained a photo of the suspect’s fake Michigan driver’s license, which identifies the man as Jacque Felipe Martin, from Baton Rouge, Louisiana, born in 1987.

US intelligence assesses that the suspect was a member of a Hezbollah cell operating in Bulgaria, the New York Times reported Thursday, citing an unnamed senior U.S. official. Continue reading

Israel unity government unravels over draft law

Israel’s two-month old unity government appeared to be dissolving Tuesday, as Shaul Mofaz, the leader of centrist Kadima party, said talks had failed on a law on drafting Israel’s ultra-Orthodox into the military.

“Netanyahu has chosen to side with the draft-dodgers,” Mofaz said after a Kadima meeting Tuesday, Haaretz reported. “I have reached an understanding that the prime minister has not left us a choice and so we have responded.”

Mofaz rejected a compromise proposal submitted Tuesday morning by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, which would have called for ultra Orthodox Israeli males to be subject to conscription from 18-23 years old. After 23 years old, they would be directed to the civil service. Continue reading

Muslim Brotherhood’s Mohammed Morsi declared Egypt’s new president

My colleague Barbara Slavin reports:

Mohammed Morsi of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood is the new president of Egypt, although his powers and term in office are likely to be limited. Results of a June 16-17 runoff announced Sunday after a laborious rendition of election challenges and decisions gave Morsi 52 percent of the vote to 48 percent for Ahmed Shafik, the last prime minister of ousted leader Hosni Mubarak. About 51 percent of eligible voters participated and nearly a million of the 26 million votes cast were disqualified.

The military council that has ruled Egypt since Mubarak fell on Feb. 11, 2011 has pledged to turn authority over to the new president by the end of this month. But the SCAF has also announced that it will assume some legislative powers since Egypt’s highest court ordered the dissolution of an Islamist-dominated parliament. The SCAF also says that it will appoint a new constituent assembly to write a new constitution, after which more elections must be held for parliament and president. So it remains unclear how much power Morsi will wield and for how long. Continue reading

Monday links

  • Egypt’s Mubarak reported to be in a coma (CNN)
  • The Netanyahu paradox (Vanity Fair)
  • Vogue regrets Asma al-Assad profile (NY Times)
  • Syrian National Council picks secular Kurdish academic as new leader (AP)
  • P5+1 political directors meet in Strasbourg on Iran (State Department)
  • Russian FM Sergei Lavrov to Tehran Wednesday ahead of Moscow nuclear talks (Al-Arabiya)
  • Iran’s Ali Bagheri writes EU negotiator again to press for agenda-meeting (IRNA)
  • Iran talks: time for a bold new approach? (Imran Khan; back story: Al Monitor)
  • Iran bans women from watching public screenings of Euro 2012 soccer games (AFP) Continue reading