Iran, U.S. waiting for other side to make nuclear compromise

The presidency of moderate cleric Hassan Rouhani has opened a window of opportunity in Iran's delicate nuclear diplomacy with the West but Tehran-watchers say that window could close as each side waits for the other to make the first move.

Cautious optimism about talks between Iran and six world powers due to restart in September is a stark contrast to the gloom over on-off negotiations under eight years of previous President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

In that time, ever more stringent U.N., U.S. and European Union sanctions on Iran's energy, shipping and banking sectors have helped weaken its currency, contributed to a steep rise in inflation and nearly halved oil exports since 2011.

Meanwhile the Islamic Republic has continued to enrich uranium, edging towards Israel's “red line” after which it says it will launch military strikes on Iranian facilities.

The leadership of Rouhani, who defeated more conservative rivals in a June 14 election with just over 50 percent of the vote, appears to offer the prospect of an alternative to the worst case scenario.

“We are prepared, seriously and without wasting time, to enter negotiations which are serious and substantive with the other side,” Rouhani said at his first news conference as president on Tuesday, and in answer to a question did not rule out direct talks with the United States.

The United States, which has said it would be a “willing partner” if Iran were serious about resolving the problem peacefully, was careful in its response.

“There are steps they need to take to meet their international obligations and find a peaceful solution to this issue, and the ball is in their court,” said State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki.


The fact that Rouhani has been able to reach out to Washington even in a limited way indicates he has at least the tacit support of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the most powerful figure in Iran's complex and often opaque power structure.

Khamenei has publicly voiced scepticism of the West's willingness to compromise, but for now appears to be giving Rouhani room to make a deal. If there is a lack of progress, that could easily change.

Western powers must demonstrate that they are willing to engage or Rouhani's ability to negotiate might be undercut by conservative elements at home, said Dina Esfandiary, a research associate at the International Institute for Strategic Studies.

“If faced with inertia or a blind insistence on increasing sanctions, then hardliners will discredit him and Iran will revert back to a policy of resistance,” Esfandiary told Reuters.

Rouhani's key appointment so far has been Mohammad Javad Zarif as foreign minister. Zarif has been involved in back-channel talks and behind-the-scenes negotiations with the United States dating back to the arms-for-hostages deal of the 1980s, and has had contacts with top U.S. officials, including U.S. President Joe Biden and Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel.

A new head of the Supreme National Security Council, who has traditionally acted as Iran's chief nuclear negotiator, has yet to be appointed. The delay has led some Iran-watchers to speculate Rouhani may want to the bring the job of nuclear negotiator under the foreign ministry, giving an even stronger signal that he wants to streamline the talks process.

The basis of a deal is just about visible.

The two governments appear closer to holding direct talks than they have been in many years, perhaps even reviving the idea of a “grand bargain” to resolve all the issues between them dating back to the overthrow of the U.S.-backed Shah in the 1979 Islamic Revolution.

Rouhani has signalled he would be willing to allow more transparency in Tehran's nuclear activities in return for the acceptance of Iran's right to enrich for peaceful purposes.


But both the United States and Iran appear to be waiting for the other side to make the first big concession, which is likely to stall any breakthrough.

Rouhani said on Tuesday Iran retained the “right” to enrich uranium, a position that has scuttled past talks and is likely to be a sticking point again.

World powers have demanded Iran cease the enrichment of uranium up to 20 percent and U.N. Security Council resolutions require Iran to suspend all enrichment.

“It was always going to be unlikely that Iran would happily give up enrichment – the Islamic Republic of Iran has painted itself into a corner by elevating the issue to one of national resistance and pride,” Esfandiary said.

And there are those on both sides arguing for their government to take a tougher stance.

Some in the United States believe it is the strict sanctions that have brought about Iran's new willingness to negotiate and the opportunity should not be lost to press the advantage home.

A large majority of U.S. senators urged President Barack Obama in a letter this week to step up sanctions to strengthen Washington's hand in talks. The House of Representatives also passed a bill aiming to choke off Iranian oil exports altogether last week. The full Senate is expected to debate the bill after the summer recess.

Rouhani blamed what he called a “war-mongering group” in U.S. Congress that he said was doing the bidding of Iran's sworn foe Israel.

“The key issue remains the insistence in both camps that the other side must make the first move,” said Jamie Ingram, Middle East analyst at IHS Country Risk.

“There is inherent mistrust between the U.S. and Iran and each are reticent to make any firm commitments on the back of what they fear may just be 'rhetoric',” he told Reuters.

“I think there is some willingness in the Obama administration which sees the potential to make a massive achievement in its final term – conversely, they will be wary of being seen to make a huge mistake.”

Additional reporting by Marcus George; Editing by Sonya Hepinstall

OPINION: President Obama’s diplomacy has been given a chance

According to Jewish tradition, prophecy ceased with the end of the Biblical era, but it doesn’t take a prophet to predict that Israel will not be attacking Iranian nuclear installations, at least not for a while.

The conventional wisdom had been that the Israelis had a window of opportunity to attack Iran prior to the American election. Electoral politics would force President Obama to support and Israeli attack, whether he would have wanted to or not and the presumptive nominee of the Republican Party Mitt Romney has already come out in support of such an attack should Israel so decide.

But there will be no such attack, at least not until October and perhaps far beyond.

My reasoning is simple. With an impending election this fall, the Netanyahu government will become a lame duck government and it would be unwise for the Prime Minister to risk his reelection on the unknown outcomes of an attack on Iran.

Were such an attack a failure, it would undermine his reelection campaign. Were such an attack successful but were it to trigger attacks on Israel from the North and the South, Israel might find itself besieged by rocket fire and the Israelis might feel themselves insecure and might hold the Prime Minister responsible for miscalculating the consequences of his government’s actions. Netanyahu well remembers that his first election as Prime Minister was assisted in no small part by terrorist attacks from the North that undermined Israel’s confidence in the Oslo Accords and sunk Shimon Peres’ hopes to election on his own following Yitzhak Rabin’s assassination. Peres’ poll numbers dropped precipitously and the rest was history.

Were Netanyahu to miscalculate, there is enough domestic opposition from security heavyweights such as the former heads of the Mossad. the Shin Bet and the IDF and sufficient caution from the current Chief of Staff of the IDF to place the full burden of responsibility of Netanyahu’s shoulders.  It is highly likely that Defense Minister Ehud Barak will not be a major factor in the next government.

If Israeli elections are held in September, a new government will not be formed and functioning until after the holidays in October, just on the eve of the Presidential elections. The Prime Minister is quite skilled at reading the American political landscape. Were President Obama to win reelection and were he to oppose the bombing in private, a newly reelected President entering his second term and not having to face the voters again, might not quite appreciate the October surprise and his rocky relationship with the Prime Minister might only become more strained.

Were Mitt Romney to be elected, Netanyahu would be sorely tempted to wait the lame duck President out and see if over US support or a US initiated attack might be forthcoming under a new President who administration would not have its people fully in place and functioning until well after a January 20th 2013 inauguration It would take time to coordinate, time for a Secretary of Defense to work with his Generals for a National Security team to be in place and ready to attack. Were a October surprise to have unintended and unanticipated anti-American consequences, a newly sworn in President Romney would also not appreciate the circumstances in which he found himself.

So we are left to ask several questions:

I understand that all politics are local, but if Iran is truly an existential threat to Israel, then why are Israeli politicians not behaving as if it were such a threat?

Why do coalition politics and the opportunity or a significant electoral triumph trump a problem of such national urgency?

A skeptic might argue that the threat has been exaggerated. I frankly do not know enough to render a judgment, but wonder if the treat is as real why can’t unity be achieved within the government itself?

With this new time framework, we shall see if international sanctions, sabotage and targeted assassinations coupled with diplomacy will actually halt Iran’s march to develop nuclear weapons. Ten months if a far longer window of opportunity than 10 to 20 weeks? That is a significant challenge to American policy but an even more serious opportunity.

If the Netanyahu-Barak strategy to bringing Iran front and center and the purpose of raising the prospect of an imminent attack has been to focus the world’s attention of the problem of Iran obtaining nuclear weapons, it has been brilliant. If it is but a prelude to an actual attack then too much has been said to too many people and they would have been wiser to follow the advice of our sages: say little and do much – as Menachem Begin did in 1981 and Ehud Omert did in 2007 when they destroyed the nuclear capacities of Iraq and Syria—or follow what Vice President Joseph Biden said recently describing President Obama and quoting Teddy Roosevelt “Speak softly and carry a big stick.”

Obama: Diplomacy window shrinking

The window for Iran to resolve its differences with the West through diplomacy is shrinking, President Obama said.

“They should understand that because the international community has applied so many sanctions, because we have employed so many of the options that are available to us to persuade Iran to take a different course, that the window for solving this issue diplomatically is shrinking,” Obama said in a news conference Wednesday with British Prime Minister David Cameron, whom he was meeting in Washington.

Obama’s remarks come a week after he met with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who expressed his skepticism about the efficacy of sanctions and diplomacy.

Before meeting with Netanyahu, Obama in a speech to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee made his most explicit commitment as president to using military action to stop an Iranian nuclear weapon.

Obama and Cameron stressed that Iran still had time to make more transparent its suspected nuclear program, but that Iran could not use negotiations to delay sanctions.

“Tehran must understand that it cannot escape or evade the choice before it—meet your international obligations or face the consequences,” Obama said.

Iran’s supreme leader praises Obama’s emphasis on diplomacy

Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, welcomed President Obama’s emphasis on diplomacy to resolve tensions over the Islamic Republic’s nuclear program.

Iranian state TV reported Thursday that Khamenei had embraced Obama’s position that there was a “window of opportunity” to address the Iranian nuclear issue through diplomacy.

“This expression is a good word. This is a wise remark indicating taking distance from illusion,” Khamenei told a group of clerics, according to the Associated Press.

But Khamenei also accused the U.S. of forcing Iran to “bow through imposing sanctions,” which he said was an unrealistic approach.

“It will lead their calculations to failure,” he said.

In a Wednesday interview with Fox News, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said that war with Iran is not inevitable. He argued that a credible military threat was the best way of persuading Iran to abandon its nuclear push.

“So the paradox is that if they actually believe that they are going to face the military option,” the prime minister added, “then you probably will not need the military option.”

Khamenei has previously referred to Israel as a cancer that should be excised from the region.

“The Zionist regime is a true cancer tumor on this region that should be cut off,” he said in a February speech. “And it definitely will be cut off.”

New book: Iran sanctions only If coupled with diplomacy

News on the Iran front is getting more and more complicated. I am not referring to the situation at Iran’s nuclear facilities but to the one here in Washington, where Congress, deep into election-year fundraising and thinking about the March AIPAC policy conference, is crafting yet another sanctions bill. There is no reason to go into the details. But suffice it to say, this new set of sanctions, like the rest, will primarily hurt ordinary Iranians, not the government. As one Iranian citizen, writing under a pseudonym, described the situation this week in the New York Daily News:

These days, ordinary Iranians like my mother are becoming increasingly aware of a new economic reality in their lives. Sanctions already in place have plunged the country’s economy into a crisis; more robust sanctions that will be enacted come spring on our financial system and oil trade will cause even more pain for an already-suffering populace.

Isn’t life in Iran difficult enough under the regime of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei? Why punish ordinary people more?

Did we punish the Poles or the Bulgarians for living under communism? Did we punish the people of the Soviet Union because their government had a nuclear arsenal primed to destroy us? No. In fact, we gave the people of those countries food. As President Richard Nixon (like President Ronald Reagan later) liked to remind us, our adversary was the leadership of the Soviet Union, not the average citizens in the different Soviet republics.

But that is not how we have been approaching the Iran. Not by a long shot.

In A Single Roll of the Dice, a comprehensive new book about U.S.-Iran relations since President Obama came to office, Iran expert Trita Parsi examines the effect that the purely punitive approach (i.e., sanctions) can have on changing the Iranian government’s behavior.

Specifically, Parsi points out that “sanctions have become an alternative to policy” rather than an instrument of policy. He explains that “if diplomacy is pursued again” it must be “for the sake of resolving the conflict, not for the sake of creating an impetus for more sanctions.”

Abandoning a sole reliance on sanctions is Parsi’s first of six recommendations for establishing a diplomacy track with Iran that will succeed.

The second is “do not put unnecessary limitations on U.S. diplomats.” Diplomats should not be limited to one official channel but should engage in dialogue with the multiple power centers that exist throughout the country.

If direct engagement with these political centers and factions is not immediately possible, negotiators must be willing to give them time so as to neutralize these stakeholders’ inclinations to scuttle a deal of which they were not a part. Pressuring Iran’s fractured political system to give a quick “yes” usually results instead in “no.”

Unfortunately, Parsi’s advice on this score has already been contradicted in the recently passed AIPAC-drafted sanctions law, which not only circumscribes a diplomat’s ability to talk to Iranians but forbids any diplomacy without advance approval by congressional committees. (This patently unconstitutional provision is unlikely to withstand court challenge, although AIPAC certainly won’t bless such a challenge.)

Third, he says, the U.S. and its allies should accept that Iran will not abandon all enrichment of uranium, especially at levels that are necessary for medical reasons (radioactive isotopes) but are too low for use for weapons. Iran is already enriching uranium, so that train has already left the station. In fact, the United States has already accepted Iranian enrichment, but is under pressure from Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu to hold the line against any enrichment. Parsi writes:

At this stage the only feasible negotiations are those regarding how enrichment in Iran can be inspected, verified, limited and controlled.

Fourth, diplomacy cannot be limited solely to the nuclear issue but should also include the human rights situation:

A healthy, sustainable relationship with Iran cannot be built if the current reservoir of American soft power among the Iranian population is squandered for the sake of a nuclear deal. Just as Iranians’ respect and admiration for American achievements, values and culture would be jeopardized in the event of a military attack on Iran, silence on human rights will also likewise deplete this crucial strategic asset.

Fifth, take advantage of our NATO ally Turkey’s relationship with Iran:

While Washington has been uncomfortable with Turkey’s perceived leniency toward Iran, it has overlooked how Turkey’s maneuvering has checked Iran’s attempts to fill the vacuum caused by America’s decline in the region. … Instead of treating Turkey’s approach with suspicion, Washington and the EU should utilize Turkey’s ability to elicit Iranian cooperation.

Finally, “Washington must play the long game, with a focus on the long-term benefits of engaging Iran and the dangers of noncommunication.”

This is not a radical idea as is evidenced by the message delivered by Admiral Mike Mullen, former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who said last year, “We are not talking to Iran, so we don’t understand each other. If something happens, it is virtually assured that we won’t get it right — that there will be a miscalculation which would be extremely dangerous in that part of the world.”

All the recommendations on Parsi’s list can be summed up in one word: Talk.

I’ll add my own recommendation to the list: Do not back down when AIPAC barks or directs its congressional cutouts to scream bloody murder every time it suspects that the U.S. is considering diplomacy with Iran.

I remember from my days at AIPAC that the thing it was most afraid of was that a president would break with the policy it dictated and explain to the American people why. As the former (and most effective) executive director of AIPAC, Thomas Dine, often said to me, “If the president takes to the airwaves and explains why his position is in the U.S. interest and the position we are pushing isn’t, it will be us who folds, not him.”

I have only highlighted one section of Parsi’s book, but the rest is just as smart and incisive. To date, it is the best book there is on U.S.-Iranian relations in 2012. Warhawks in Iran and Israel and neocons in Washington won’t like this book (they will find Parsi’s propensity for dividing blame among Iran, the United States and Israel maddening) but, for the rest of us, it provides just what we need — a well-written history of how we got to the brink of war with Iran and how we can still avoid it. I hope President Obama reads it; I have no doubt that he agrees with Parsi that diplomacy, not more pain and killing, is the answer to the looming threat of war.

Obama: ‘All options’ – including diplomacy – still on with Iran

All options are on the table for Iran, but a diplomatic solution to the impasse over its nuclear weapons program is still a possibility, President Obama said in his State of the Union speech.

Obama said Iran was more isolated than ever because of the intensified sanctions he has introduced or encouraged.

“Let there be no doubt:  America is determined to prevent Iran from getting a nuclear weapon, and I will take no options off the table to achieve that goal,” he said.  “But a peaceful resolution of this issue is still possible, and far better, and if Iran changes course and meets its obligations, it can rejoin the community of nations.”

Obama also referred to the defense alliance with Israel, but did not mention—as he has in past speeches—his efforts to achieve an Israeli-Palestinian peace.

“Our iron-clad, and I mean iron-clad commitment to Israel’s security has meant the closest military cooperation between our two countries in history,” he said to a standing ovation.

Speaking of the “Arab Spring” wave of protests across the region, Obama said the outcome was still uncertain, and alluded to concerns about Islamist victories in elections in Egypt and Tunisia.

“While it is ultimately up to the people of the region to decide their fate, we will advocate for those values that have served our own country so well,” he said.  “We will stand against violence and intimidation. We will stand for the rights and dignity of all human beings – men and women; Christians, Muslims, and Jews.”  He predicted the demise of the Assad regime in Syria.

Much of Obama’s speech was focused on proposals to spur job creation.

The State of the Union marked one of the last appearances in Congress of Rep. Gabby Giffords (D-Ariz.), who is still recovering from a shooting attack a year ago and who is resigning from Congress as of tomorrow to focus on her recovery.

Giffords was cheered walking into the chamber, accompanied by her close friend, Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, and Obama sought Giffords out for a hug before he began his speech.

Why Obama is better than McCain for Israel

I wouldn’t gamble with Israel’s future. Why would you?

Most arguments in favor of Sen. John McCain and his approach to Israel rest on his greater experience and knowledge. Yet, put simply, McCain is a gambler — in practice, in personality and in judgment.

No supporter of Israel should want Israel’s future placed in the hands of an unpredictable and temperamental gambler, whose actions and phrases cannot be anticipated. And why would a supporter of Israel want to place the Jewish state’s future in the hands of an inexperienced, ideological, unpredictable, unknowledgeable and barely known President Sarah Palin in the event of a tragedy that would elevate her to the presidency?

With a reputation for fiery verbal outbursts against associates at home and abroad, McCain’s fundamental approach to policy-making is based on snap decisions and quick, emotional judgments. Some examples include picking Palin in the first place, rushing back to Washington to “help” in the bailout and flip-flopping on regulation, Bush and his tax policy.

While both candidates have strong records backing Israel, there are differences. McCain benefits from having been in public life longer than Sen. Barack Obama, but his global policies are more likely to harm the Jewish state. He stresses a belligerent confrontationalism even more stark than President Bush’s, seemingly closer to Palin’s.

When McCain doesn’t approve of another country’s policies, he sees its government as an actual or potential foe, as in the case of Russia or even apparently NATO member Spain. He follows in the Bush tradition of unilateralism and an America going its own way.

He celebrates Iraq as central to the war on terror, which differs radically from the views of most of our allies. His policy on Iran is similar to the failed approach of Bush — talk loudly but without a clear policy, only drifting. Regarding Russia, McCain has been clear in his determined opposition to the Putin regime, but Israeli leaders are asking for U.S. consultations with Moscow over Iran. How can McCain’s Cold War-style Moscow policy possibly produce that kind of dialogue?

Take a look at Israel’s security today and compare it to eight years ago. Is Israel better off now than when Bush assumed office in 2001?

Eight years ago, Iran, Hezbollah, Hamas and Syria were all weaker, and the Palestinians were less divided, more stable and more capable of dialogue with Israel. As well, Jordan, critical to Israel’s security, is now threatened from within and without.

Although Bush has been seemingly friendly in his attitude toward Israel, his policies, or lack thereof, have consistently eroded Israel’s defensive strength. If McCain continues to pursue these same policies that have already failed, as he claims to be prepared to do, then the situation Israel confronts will only deteriorate further.

In the Middle East — on Iraq, on Iran and on Arab-Israeli relations — McCain offers more of the same policy that has led to Bush’s repeated failures in the region. Indeed, in recent months even Bush has come close to accepting Obama’s policies on an Iraq timetable, on promoting Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, on Pakistan and Afghanistan and even on the idea of possibly talking to Iran. Lately, it seems McCain is often more Bush than Bush.

Israel’s security would be enhanced with a fresh post-Sept. 11 approach by a new leader with a better pro-Israel perspective. It is not words but actions that will make the difference for Israel.

The policy framework Obama offers has a much better likelihood of producing positive results than McCain’s. For example, on Iran, Obama would talk to lower-level officials and increase dialogue as Iran demonstrates its seriousness to make concessions. On the contrary, McCain is opposed to dealing directly with leaders in Tehran until they stop enriching uranium — the classic, unproductive Bush policy.

Both campaigns, particularly Obama’s, have been vociferous in advocating intensified sanctions against Iran and maintaining the military option on the table.

Obama envisions a regional policy that takes into account America’s competing challenges, first and foremost with the complexities of the Iraq-Afghanistan-Iran-Pakistan quadrangle, yet also addresses simultaneously Israel and its neighbors, Syria, the Palestinian Territories, Hamas and Hezbollah. (It is worth noting that Obama has consistently said he will explore talking to rogue regimes like Iran and Syria but not to nongovernmental threats like Hamas and Hezbollah). Of course in the tough Mideast, Obama’s policy may not completely succeed, but we already know that McCain’s will definitely fail.

America’s financial crisis also strengthens the argument for Obama. As the stark events of late September have made only too clear, it is the Democrat, with a fresh, experienced and savvy team, who is far more likely to reverse the U.S. economic meltdown.

For an Israel integrally tied to America and its fortunes, a continued U.S. economic decline will only affect its military security and economic standing adversely and dangerously. The candidate who can better fix the economy must be seen as a stronger advocate of Israel than his opponent, no matter how long the latter has made friendly statements toward the Jewish state.

McCain has admitted that he sometimes makes quick and unexpected decisions and then has to live with the consequences. But one wonders why any American should want to live with these kinds of outcomes, but more importantly, why should any supporter of an embattled Israel want to risk the future of the Jewish State on a president known for the temperamental, quixotic and unpredictable whims that guide his decision making?

The Jewish state would be far better off for the next four years with the cool, careful, considered decisions of a strong supporter — Obama.

Steven L. Spiegel is Director of the Center for Middle East Development and a professor of political science at UCLA.

Why I support Barack Obama

It is highly unusual for me to be speaking out politically.

I have worked for Republican and Democratic presidents alike. I was a political appointee during the Reagan administration, serving on the National Security Council staff in the White House. I held a senior position in the

State Department during George H. W. Bush’s presidency. And, I was Bill Clinton’s Middle East peace negotiator — also a senior appointee position.

I have been largely nonpartisan, living the ideal that politics stopped at the water’s edge, and foreign policy should somehow be above politics. So why am I now speaking out and calling on others to support Sen. Barack Obama?

Put simply, because the stakes are so high. For one thing, the financial meltdown has huge implications for our place in the world. We cannot be strong internationally if we are weak at home, with an economy in crisis. Our next president must understand the global economy and financial markets — and be able to inspire confidence at home and abroad. But he must do so at a time when our standing in the world has, at least in my memory, never been lower.

While we must never rely on anyone else to do for us what we must do for ourselves in national security, there are multiple threats today that we cannot resolve without the cooperation of others. In fact, when it comes to preventing the worst weapons from falling into the worst hands or defeating apocalyptic terror groups or coping with global health challenges or stopping global warming or avoiding an international depression, we cannot do everything on our own. We need others internationally to accept our objectives and be prepared to join their means to ours.

When I was with Obama in Berlin and more than 200,000 people turned out in the heart of Europe to wave American flags, this was an extraordinary development. It reminded us that an American leader who is admired can lead not only our country but also make it easier for others to follow our lead. And, when I look at the Middle East — where we face our greatest threats today — we need others to follow our lead in stopping Iran from going nuclear and discrediting radical Islamists.

Today, we are in trouble in the Middle East. Everywhere we look — whether in the Gulf, Iraq, Lebanon or Gaza and the West Bank — we see Iran challenging American interests and allies. Iran uses coercion and intimidation — using groups like Hezbollah and Hamas — to weaken existing regimes and to employ terror. It is Iran that arms these groups and threatens Israel on a daily basis.

Consider what has happened to Israel’s strategic position during the course of the Bush administration. In 2001, Iran was not a nuclear power, but it is today. It could not enrich uranium then but it does so now and has already stockpiled several-hundred kilos of low-enriched uranium — about half of what it would need for its first nuclear bomb. The Bush policy on Iran has failed, and unless the next president can change Iranian behavior, Israel will face an existential threat. It already faces a dramatically different threat from what it faced seven years ago from both Hezbollah and Hamas.

Hezbollah now has a veto power over any decision the Lebanese government can make and possesses 40,000 rockets — and those rockets are not only three times as many as it had only two years ago but are more accurate and have longer range than the ones that hit Israel in the summer of 2006. Hamas has taken over Gaza, creating a miniterror state there and today has over 2,000 rockets.

Israel cannot afford four more years of seeing the threats grow against it. It cannot afford four more years of U.S. policies that are tough rhetorically but soft practically. It cannot afford four more years of America being on the sidelines diplomatically.

When I was in Israel a few weeks ago, President Nicolas Sarkozy of France, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey and Sheikh Hamid of Qatar were all visiting Damascus, and Israelis asked me who was there watching out for Israel’s interests? Similarly, who was there to watch out for Israel’s interests when Qatar brokered the understanding that gave Hezbollah a veto over any Lebanese decision after the fighting in May? Israel can surely watch out for its own interests in the indirect negotiations that Turkey is mediating between Israel and Syria, but will Turkey be as concerned for Israel’s interests as America would be?

It should come as no surprise that when America sits on the sidelines in the Middle East, it creates a diplomatic vacuum, and others invariably fill it. Since the Bush administration would not engage Iran, the Europeans have taken the lead on the diplomacy. While their efforts have been serious and genuine, it is clear that they have not generated the pressure that America in the lead might have produced — and absent that pressure and absent the Iranians being forced to make a choice, Iran will not change its behavior.

I was with Obama in Israel and in Europe, and I saw how he focused on the urgency of the Iranian threat. I saw how he used his discussions in Israel to remind the European leaders that Israelis are justified in seeing Iran with nuclear weapons as an existential threat — and that for Israel’s sake and our own we must put far more pressure on Iran if we are to stop it from going nuclear.

Obama understands that weak sticks and weak carrots — the current policy — can’t work. We need strong sticks to concentrate the Iranian mind on what they stand to lose, and we need strong carrots, conveyed directly, to show the Iranians they have something to gain by giving up their nuclear weapon pursuit. And, if in the end diplomacy fails, the fact that we engaged directly and Iran was unwilling to alter its behavior creates a very different context for tougher options.

Engaging without illusions might be one way to describe how diplomacy would be conducted in an Obama administration. Just like with Iran, he would engage on Arab-Israeli peace. Not because he knows it will produce peace, but because he again understands the consequences of disengagement. Who gained when the Bush administration walked away from peace making for more than six years and then in its last years pursued it incompetently? Hamas, because like all radical Islamists, they gain when there is hopelessness and frustration. Who lost? Those in the Arab and Palestinian world who favor a two-state solution but need the possibility of peace to make their case and to have the political space to build their authority.

It is my Middle Eastern hat and my attachment to Israel that ultimately inspires my support for Obama. I saw first hand his appreciation for Israel’s predicament, its needs and his instinctive and emotional commitment to the relationship. But more than this, I know he understands that neither Israel nor America can afford four more years of Iran and the radical Islamists gaining strategic leverage in the Middle East. Slogans won’t prevent that. A fixation on Iraq won’t prevent that. But a leader who understands how to use all the elements of American power, revitalize that power and influence and get others to follow us in order to ensure we win the battle for hearts and minds will be able to do so.

In this election, it is clear to me that Obama is that leader.

Dennis Ross served as President Bill Clinton’s Middle East negotiator and President George H.W. Bush’s head of policy planning in the State Department. He gives advice to the Barack Obama presidential campaign and recently accompanied Sen. Obama on his trip to the Middle East and Europe.

Rep. Lantos’ call for sanctions and diplomacy puzzles L.A. Iranians

Tom Lantos, chair of the House Foreign Relations Committee, made headlines last April when he reiterated his desire to travel to Iran for informal talks with Iranian officials. And yet one month later the Democratic congressman from San Mateo introduced a tough Iran divestment bill with Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.) that the House overwhelmingly passed last week.

The seemingly contradictory approach in dealing with Iran’s regime has many in the local Jewish and Iranian American communities scratching their heads. But Lantos says the approach is consistent because his proposed restrictions and sanctions may discourage the Iranian regime from pursuing its nuclear weapons program.

“I am an unqualified proponent of dialogue that has nothing to do with the nature of my legislation,” Lantos told The Journal. “I go to countries which we have very bad relations or no relations with whatsoever, because my purpose is to put things on a diplomatic track and hopefully improve relations. Iran is no exception.”

Lantos pointed to his past efforts in opening lines of communications through meetings with officials in Libya, North Korea and the former Soviet Union as proof of his ability to make diplomatic progress.

“In the 1980s I took delegations from Congress to the Soviet Union when that was not the popular thing to do,” Lantos said. “It didn’t prevent me from going to the Soviet Union and talking to them when they had nuclear weapons pointed at us.”

In 1998, Lantos was unsuccessful in his request for a meeting with Mohammad Khatami after the moderate Iranian president called for an exchange of writers, scholars and artists between the United States and Iran. Lantos last visited the country in 1978 as a San Francisco State University economics professor.

Lantos, a Jewish Holocaust survivor, would not discuss whether he would address statements of Holocaust denial made by Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad if he were to travel to Tehran. Still, local Jewish leaders said a possible journey to Iran by Lantos could make a significant symbolic statement.

“The regime is officially at war with the memory of the Shoah, and Congressman Lantos’ mere presence exposes the big lie without even saying a word,” said Rabbi Abraham Cooper, of the Simon Wiesenthal Center in West Los Angeles.

Rep. Brad Sherman (D-Sherman Oaks), who also serves on the House Foreign Relations committee, said such a visit could improve U.S. chances of winning international support for American policies toward Iran.

“What greater proof that Ahmadinejad is a Holocaust denier and liar than to be confronted by Tom Lantos, a Holocaust survivor,” Sherman said. “Lantos’ position is that the discussions with the Iranians are not a special gift to them, but rather would improve our image in the world and help us mobilize the world against the Iranian program.”

Local Jewish leaders also said they were confident that Lantos would be one of the best U.S. officials to deal with Iran based on his longstanding record during his tenure in Congress.

“He is aggressive and out front to stand up for human rights, to stand up for Israel and stand against anti-Semitism without any apologies,” Cooper said. “At the same time he would be able to leverage his position to see if there is a way to mitigate those flash points through personal involvement in the issues.”

White House officials declined to comment on Lantos’ legislation, which passed the House on Sept. 25 in a 397-16 vote; the bill’s companion in the Senate is stalled and likely won’t be considered this year.

Some Middle East experts said they were skeptical of Lantos’ past diplomatic efforts in the region, as countries like Libya have not improved human rights conditions.

“The more Lantos has traveled to Tripoli, the more Qadhafi has cracked down on dissidents and dissent,” said Michael Rubin, a resident Middle East scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank in Washington D.C. “Take the case of Fathi El-Jahmi, Libya’s leading peaceful secular dissident. He was put in prison after Lantos’ first trip and his visitation and medical care have been stripped with each passing Lantos visit.”

Southern California Iranian Jewish leaders said that while Lantos has been a close friend to the community and he has sought their advice on issues of Iran, his proposed visit to Iran might not yield any diplomatic breakthroughs.

“I don’t believe talking with the Islamic Republic would yield much benefit to the United States. Instead, it could disenfranchise the people of Iran who consider the United States to be their allies,” said Sam Kermanian, secretary general of the L.A.-based Iranian-American Jewish Federation. “It will allow the Islamic Republic more time to continue with its nuclear weapons program.”

Several Iran experts said that while Lantos and other politicians have good intentions to resolve problems with the Iranian regime through dialogue, such strategies carried out by European leaders between 2000 and 2005 have proven to be unfruitful.

“Dialogue turned out to be a sham,” said Rubin, a longtime scholar of Iran’s regime. “Rather than embrace the West, we now know that the Iranian government invested 70 percent of its hard currency windfall into its covert [nuclear] programs.”

Calls made to the Mission of the Islamic Republic of Iran at the United Nations were not returned.

Other Iran experts said that if Lantos were to travel to Iran on a diplomatic mission, he would have some success persuading moderate Iranian officials.

“It would be particularly useful if Mr. Lantos could meet with the more reform-minded members of parliament, in order to show that he is not proposing some deal with the regime which sells out the democratic cause,” said Patrick Clawson, deputy director for research at the bipartisan Washington Institute for Near East Policy in Washington D.C.

Bush flirts with peace talks but won’t commit to Palestinians

The rug that Syrian President Bashar pulled out from under his widely reported but vaguely defined peace offensive last week was a Persian weave.

He had been talking for months about unconditionally resuming negotiations with Israel over the Golan Heights, and it seemed like Israel, under American pressure, was the disinterested party. Then roles were quickly reversed in a week filled with feints and false starts, but so far there’s been more motion than movement.

President George W. Bush kicked off the week by reaffirming his vision of a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but it was widely seen as an attempt to divert attention from his debacle in Iraq rather than a commitment to sustained diplomacy.

That view was reinforced by a White House mailing to Jewish leaders recommending an article by historian Michael Oren quoting Israeli officials as satisfied “there were no changes in Bush’s policies.”

White House aides also quickly shot down any notion that the “international meeting” Bush announced would be a peace conference. Just a meeting, they said, chaired by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice; Bush may not even show up. And don’t look for many Arab leaders to be there, either. The price of admission will be recognition of Israel, Bush said. That leaves out all those who should be there, like Syria, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, the Gulf States and Iraq.

That’s right, Iraq. Bush’s icon of Arab democracy where leaders have repeatedly denounced the Zionist enemy and have no more interest in peace than that other benefactor of Bush’s democracy crusade — Hamas.

Assad’s shift hardly seemed coincidental, coming on the eve of a visit by his Iranian benefactor, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. According to a London-based Arabic newspaper, Ahmadinejad signed a strategic agreement with Syria promising increased military, political and economic assistance conditioned on a refusal to make peace with Israel.

To press his point, Ahmadinejad also met in Damascus with leaders of Hezbollah, Hamas, Islamic Jihad and other terror groups, encouraging them to unite in armed struggle against Israel, and he pledged Iran’s support.

Reversing his recent rhetoric, Assad announced he would resume talks with Israel only through a third party and only with advance written Israeli “guarantees” to meet all his demands, including a full return of the Golan Heights.

That came on the heels of a tactical shift by Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, who after months of dodging Assad’s probes, told Al-Arabiya television last week that he is ready for direct talks without preconditions.

Olmert had been under pressure from Washington to rebuff Assad’s peace feelers on the assumption the Syrian leader was just trying to deflect American pressure to stop aiding the Iraqi insurgents. As a condition for talks, Olmert had demanded Assad withdraw his backing for Hezbollah, Hamas and other anti-Israel Islamic extremist groups prior to any talks.

American sanctions have had little impact on Assad’s behavior, and the Syrian dictator apparently concluded threats of military action were a bluff in light of American problems in Iraq and Israel’s poor performance against Hezbollah in Lebanon last year.

Iran, according to Israeli analysts, has been trying to raise regional tensions by telling Assad that Israel is planning a war against Syria to block Hezbollah’s takeover of Lebanon and to erase last year’s failures. Ahmadinejad’s real goal may be to discourage American or Israeli attacks on Iranian nuclear facilities, they say.

The other prominent visitor to the region this week, with a totally opposite agenda, is former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, the new Middle East envoy for the Quartet (United States, European Union, United Nations and Russia). His assignment is to help the Palestinians rebuild their institutions and economy, but he’d like to expand that and be an active peace negotiator as well.

That’s not what President Bush had in mind when he outsourced Middle East diplomacy to his old friend and loyal Iraq war partner. Blair has been a longtime advocate of accelerating the peace process and has the backing of three quarters of the Quartet.

His greatest obstacle might be Rice, who doesn’t want him treading on her turf. She’s made it clear that he should stick to his official mandate. That’s the way Ehud Olmert wants it, too; he’s no more ready than the Americans for the final status negotiations that Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas wants.

But it’s more than just territorial for Rice; her boss likes to talk about peace but has been unwilling to do the heavy lifting needed to get negotiations off the ground.

Initially he didn’t want to be seen following the failed footsteps of his predecessors –Poppy and Bill Clinton — but Iraq overtook that. Bush paid lip service to Middle East peace because the Arabs, his allies and the Baker-Hamilton Commission said showing movement on that front was essential to convincing others to help rescue him from his Iraq morass.

Bush will hear that again this week when Jordanian King Abdullah II comes to the White House to tell him he’s not moving aggressively enough on the Palestinian front. The president will assure his royal visitor of his sincere desire for peace, but the reality is Bush’s desire to be the father of Palestinian statehood hasn’t gone beyond the flirtation stage. Wishes don’t beget results.

From Damascus to Jerusalem to Ramallah to Washington, these days of summer sizzle are looking like a time of peace fizzle.

Douglas M. Bloomfield, a former staff member of AIPAC, writes about the Mideast and politics of Jewish life in America.

Cooling down the the Iran rhetoric can help get real results

The Jewish community is just as concerned as ever about the menace of a nuclear Iran, but it is starting to temper its red-hot rhetoric on the issue.

The reason: a growing sense that calling Iran the new Nazi Germany, its madman leader Mahmoud Ahmadinejad Hitler reborn, is hurting the community-wide effort to ratchet up the diplomatic and economic pressure on the Tehran regime.

Few are sanguine about the Iranian threat, but there is a growing realization that a war-weary nation may be hypersensitive to political arguments that sound a lot like calls for yet another war.

Talk to a random sampling of Jewish leaders and one thing leaps out: There is almost wall-to-wall agreement that a nuclear Iran represents a major threat to nations across the Middle East and Europe, to U.S. interests around the world and in particular to Israel, a country Ahmadinejad thinks should be erased from the globe.

The prospect of nuclear weapons in the hands of the anti-Israel terrorist groups Iran has so recklessly supported is terrifying; so is the specter of that country’s growing missile arsenal.

But is the suggestion that this is the worst Israel has ever faced justified? Does a nuclear Iran automatically mean atomic war in the Middle East and a death sentence for the Jewish state? Probably not, but that’s the impression conveyed by major Jewish groups.

The experts aren’t so sure. Many say that despite Ahmadinejad’s threats, the Iranians are not, in fact, suicidal. Even Ahmadinejad understands that any nuclear attack against Israel, with its assumed second-strike capability, would result in his country’s utter destruction.

That leads to this question: When does high-octane rhetoric work, and when does it become counterproductive?

It may be true that the Nazi comparisons from Israeli leaders such as former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu effectively mobilized Jewish activists across the political spectrum.

Israel has overcome so many dire threats over the years that there is complacency among many American Jews; framing Iran’s nuclear quest as a likely precursor to a new Holocaust rallied disparate organizations to the cause.

And let’s be honest; sounding the air raid sirens about Iran is good for fundraising, a unifying factor in a Jewish community torn by many questions of Mideast policy.

But that rhetoric has risks. Once started, it tends to build on itself as leaders and organizations try to outdo each other.

It also tends to isolate the Jewish community, especially in the current anxious political environment.

Americans have soured on the war in Iraq — which, after all, started with exaggerated claims involving weapons of mass destruction and misrepresentations about Iraq’s role in Sept. 11.

Apocalyptic talk about Iran may sell in Washington, which is used to verbal overkill, but it doesn’t work well in state legislatures and city councils across the country, where the ever-growing Iraq body count is more real and immediate.

And increasingly, that’s where the most effective action is taking place, as local and state governments take up selective divestment resolutions aimed at Iran.

International sanctions are too easily punctured by a handful of countries eager to reap profits in dealing with Iran, but targeted divestment against companies that work in Iran’s oil sector is a way to hit the Iranians where it hurts.

Some Jewish leaders say that what local politicians want to learn about is how Iran threatens U.S. interests, and how local bodies can act to help reduce that threat while also reducing the chances of another war.

And they say the hyperbole of Nazi comparisons, which imply that war is the only answer, turn off potential coalition partners and make it harder to build political support for local and state divestment efforts.

Polls show a strong majority of American Jews is opposed to U.S. military action to stop Iran. But that doesn’t come across when Jewish leaders talk about the new Nazis in the Middle East, since only those who have taken leave of their senses believe diplomacy would have stopped Adolf Hitler.

Still, the strident rhetoric keeps coming from Jewish boardrooms — in part because of uncertainty over what Israel’s leaders want.

Officials in Jerusalem are not pumping for U.S. military action, but they have made it clear they do not want the Bush administration’s hands tied when it comes to that option — the reason pro-Israel groups have generally opposed congressional efforts to force President Bush to come back to them for additional authorization before any Iran strike.

And in a recent Anti-Defamation League poll, 71 percent of Israelis surveyed said the U.S. “should use force” to destroy Iranian nuclear facilities if diplomacy and economic sanctions fail.

But around the country, local Jewish leaders are starting to realize that a measured, pragmatic and rhetorically temperate approach to Iran may be the best way to win allies in the effort to generate effective economic pressure on Iran.

Enforce cease-fire terms for peaceful New Year

The Jewish people have a tradition of reflecting on the past as a tool to move forward. Never is this custom more significant than at the start of each New Year.

This Yom Kippur, we have a lot to bear in mind. At the end of summer a year ago, just before the beginning of 5766, Israel had faced what at the time seemed to be its most difficult summer with the disengagement from Gaza. A rift was created within Israeli society, one that the people of Israel were still dealing with until just before this summer began.

The thriving economy and booming tourist industry seemed a promising end to a trying year and hopeful beginning of the coming year. Unprecedented numbers of Hollywood celebrities were calling Tel Aviv their summer hotspot, and Israeli teens were trampling all over each other to buy tickets for some of the biggest acts in the world — performing in Israel.

School was out and summer camp was in. The pools had been properly chlorinated, and everyone was ready to show off their brand new bathing suits. For the kids all over Israel, this was the moment they’d been waiting for since September.

Following the deaths of 10 Israeli soldiers in two terrorist attacks, which resulted in the kidnapping of Gilad Shalit on June 25 as well as Udi Goldwasser and Eldad Regev on July 12, Israel set aside its summer plans and prepared to face once again what we have faced so many times in the past — war.

By mid-July the residents of northern Israel were being bombarded on a daily basis by deadly Katyusha missiles fired by Hezbollah. Innocent civilians were being targeted and killed. Hezbollah was exhibiting a new ruthlessness, placing ball bearings in the missile heads with the sole purpose of inflicting maximum injury and suffering on anyone within its reach of one mile.

Northern Israel took a harsh beating, bustling Israeli landmark cities like Haifa, Tzfat, Nahariya, Kiriyat Shmona and Tiberias were nearly deserted. Buildings were destroyed, the lush green landscape was in flames, and many lives were lost. With more than a third of Israel’s population in the line of fire, residents either fled south or huddled together in bomb shelters, transforming the animated north into a ghost town.

By the time a cease-fire was reached, 160 Israelis had been killed by Hezbollah terrorists. More than 4,000 missiles landed in Israel during the war, hitting 6,000 homes, leaving 300,000 Israeli’s displaced and forcing more than a million to live in bomb shelters.
Had the United Nations implemented Security Council Resolution 1559, the war would probably have been averted. Now, with the adoption of Security Council Resolution 1701, the international community has been given a second chance to make things right.

Resolution 1701 brought an end to the military struggle, but while the bombs have stopped falling and the focus is to regroup and rebuild northern Israel, we must remain cautious and guarded.

The clear agenda of the president of Iran, a fundamentalist regime that gives financial support and operational directives to terrorist organizations such as Hezbollah, has not changed. Mahmoud Ahmadinejad continues to sponsor terrorism and strives to achieve nuclear capabilities, while at the same time reiterating his call for the destruction of the Israel and denying the Holocaust.

Iran and Syria remain the driving force behind Hezbollah, a fact that strengthens the argument that the arms embargo addressed in Resolution 1701 must be enforced.
The culture of hatred that has grown strong in the unstable region surrounding Israel affects the Jewish people worldwide. Today, however, the Jewish people are stronger than they have ever been. That strength stems, among other things, from Eretz Israel, the one country in the world every Jew is free to call their home.

This summer, as Israel was under fire, the Jews of the world spoke together and stood together. It is well known that as Jews we band together in times of hardship. Never was that more true than during this past summer. Jews in Israel and around the world understood the stakes and made standing with Israel their first priority.

In accepting Resolution 1701, Israel has once again shown its commitment to peace by giving diplomacy a chance to succeed. It is now essential that this commitment to peace be echoed by the international community, starting first and foremost with the implementation of this important resolution.

As we continue the battle to free our abducted soldiers and secure our borders, Israel remains strong. Looking forward to a new year, we are strengthened by the lessons of our past. The Jewish people have overcome countless obstacles since the beginning of our history 5767 years ago, and we will continue to prevail against all odds and all enemies for a long time to come.

With this year ending and a new one beginning, I want to take this opportunity to thank the Jewish community for its undying support of Israel.

I pray that God continues to give us all the strength to face the many challenges that lie ahead.

I wish all of you a healthy, happy, peaceful New Year and may all of your hearts’ desires be fulfilled.

Am Yisrael Chai!

The people of Israel will live for eternity.

Chag Samech, Shana Tova and Gmar Chatima Tova.

Ehud Danoch is Israel’s consul general in Los Angeles.