Israel lobbies U.S. as another Iran nuclear deadline looms

Israel is lobbying the United States against any Iranian nuclear deal that would let Tehran retain potential bomb-making technology, a senior Israeli official said on Wednesday as another deadline for international diplomacy looms.

Iran, the United States and five other world powers hope for a comprehensive agreement by Nov. 24 under which the Islamic Republic, which denies seeking nuclear weaponry, would curb its disputed activities in exchange for sanctions relief.

The official, Strategic Affairs Minister Yuval Steinitz, acknowledged Israel had limited sway over the talks, to which it is not a party, but voiced hope the Obama administration would keep up sanctions against Iran rather than enter a “bad deal.”

Steinitz said in a radio interview he would head a delegation to Washington next week to press Israel's demand that Iran be stripped of all nuclear capacity – something Tehran has ruled out and many Western diplomats deem unfeasible.

Israel, believed to possess the region's sole atomic arsenal, feels threatened by the prospect of Iran gaining any bomb. It has threatened to launch a preemptive war if it believes diplomacy has failed to stop Iran's ambitions.

“Next week I will be leading a very large delegation to two days of talks in the United States ahead of the main, the central and possibly the last round of talks between the world powers and Iran,” Steinitz told Israel Radio.

The next round of talks is expected to take place late this month in New York, possibly on the sidelines of the annual United Nations General Assembly.

Steinitz said he saw no sign of Iran significantly scaling back enrichment, a process that can make fuel for nuclear warheads, despite diplomatic moves by President Hassan Rouhani.

“What Rouhani has done is concede on all kinds of secondary issues, partial concessions, but protected the project's core, which is what threatens us and the whole world,” Steinitz said.

“This means that in substance Iran's positions have remained as tough as before, and if there is no dramatic development in the coming month then either there will be no deal – or there will be a bad deal leaving Iran a nuclear threshold state, and this is of course something we are not willing to accept.”


Signaling it was holding course in the absence of an accord, the United States on Friday imposed more sanctions on companies that it said were helping Iran's nuclear program.

Rouhani said the sanctions were against the spirit of the negotiations, but added he was not pessimistic about the talks continuing.

In a separate interview before he briefed a parliamentary committee on Iran, Steinitz sounded more circumspect.

“We do not deceive ourselves that we will succeed in achieving all of our demands,” he told Army Radio, but predicted that the November deadline would go unmet “assuming Obama keeps to his clear statement that no deal is better than a bad deal”.

Zeev Elkin, chairman of the Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee which hosted Steinitz, said Israeli military intelligence believed Iran and the United States were growing closer – an apparent reference to their common concern at the spread of a Sunni Islamist insurgency in Iraq.

“This is another reason to be worried,” Elkin said, echoing Israeli concern that Washington could soften its stance in the nuclear talks.

The previous deadline, July 20, was missed amid disputes including over the scale of uranium enrichment world powers were willing to allow Iran to keep.

Editing by Alison Williams

White House talks Iran deal with Jewish groups

The White House held at least two phone calls with Jewish leaders to explain aspects of the interim sanctions-for-nuclear-rollbacks deal between Iran and major powers.

Among the speakers on the conference calls Monday with the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations and the Jewish Federations for North America were Tony Blinken, a deputy national security adviser, and David Cohen, the top Treasury official in charge of implementing sanctions.

The off-the-record calls were a signal of the importance that the administration attaches to keeping pro-Israel groups on board for the six-month interim deal achieved over the weekend in Geneva, however skeptical the groups may be of the deal.

Generally, according to participants, questioners pressed the U.S. officials on the degree to which the deal impacts sanctions and whether the concessions to Iran could be reversed should Iran renege.

The officials said the deal’s sanctions relief affected only the “margins” of the Iranian economy, and that the main sanctions, targeting Iran’s energy and financial sectors, would remain in place.

The White House officials acknowledged differences with Israel, where Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has described the deal as “very bad,” but said the endgame was the same: incapacitating Iran’s nuclear capacity, according to call participants.

Another White House call was held Tuesday for leaders of faith groups; Jewish leaders joined the call.

Separately, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee in a memo on Monday expressed concerns about the interim deal. AIPAC noted that the agreement allows Iran to keep enriching uranium, albeit at low levels, even though U.N. Security Council resolutions have called for a suspension of enrichment pending a final deal, and that it appears to preemptively allow Iran an enrichment capacity as part of a final status deal.

Also problematic, AIPAC said in the memo, is that the deal “includes an option to extend the negotiating window beyond an initial six-month period,” which “creates the possibility that the initial agreement will become a de-facto final agreement.”

The memo called on Congress to pass legislation that would impose penalties should Iran renege on the deal.

On Chanukah, four questions on Iran, Syria, the EU and peace

As the beginning of Chanukah and end of the year approach, where does lsrael stand?

The nuclear threat by lran, the continuing unrest and tragedy in Syria and the troublesome ongoing peace talks between lsrael and the Palestinians, as well as new pressures from the European Union (EU), which was a great shock to lsrael, are the center of the political debate in lsrael. These are all complex challenges that may, in fact, come to a head in the coming year. But in the spirit of the Passover Four Questions, I offer four questions we might all ask now in attempting to understand and address these issues.

lran: ls Tehran Gaining Time by Talking?

The replacement of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad by Hassan Rouhani seems to have been a step toward moderation. However, Rouhani considers lsrael, in his words, a “miserable country, a wound in the body of lslam.” That leaves Israel rightly concerned about the interim deal Iran signed on Nov. 23 with the P5+1 nations.

Israel’s leadership knows that when it comes to lran’s nuclear armament, the opinion of Rouhani is in no way different from those of the official lranian policy.

“You should measure lran on its exploits,” said lsraeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, “not on its smile. lran should be judged based on whether it adheres to the terms and conditions, which were provided by the international community, with a final stop of all uranium enrichment and the closing of the illegal nuclear facility in Quam. There are no signs of a freeze of the nuclear program in lran.”

Netanyahu is convinced that the only thing that an interim agreement between lran and the Western powers will achieve is to give Tehran more time. Economic sanctions have hit lran’s economy, but are not sufficient by far. Hopes that Rouhani will actually carry through on a deal tough enough to thwart lran’s nuclear ambitions are unrealistic — it’s not his decision to make. Revolutionary leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei is the strategic decision maker with regards to the lranian nuclear program anyway.

Syria: How Can We Thwart lran’s Aims in Syria?

ln addition to the resurgence of Al-Qaeda and the massive aid to the rebels by Saudi Arabia, there are new players with the Hezbollah militia supported by lran and the reemergence of the jihadist organization Al-Nusra Front in Syria in the already two years of carnage. Their “regional war strategy for the land of the Levant” states that Syria is the “key for the turnaround in the Levant” and “the Levant is the key for the turnaround in the Arab and the lslamic world.”

lran has invested billions of dollars and thousands of elite Hezbollah fighters, lranian supported militias in lraq and its own revolutionary guards to support the Assad regime, because it considers its survival strategically essential. America would have the military power to threaten lran, but Syria is the much simpler target.

It would be a disaster if the Assad regime emerged victoriously from the battle. Money and weapons from lran and the Hezbollah forces have become key factors of the fighting. A triumph of Assad would consolidate power and prestige of Shiite lran and the Hezbollah and thus pose a direct threat to lsrael. However, a victory for the rebels would be, as Edward N. Luttwak noted in The New York Times, dangerous as well.” lf the jihadists would win there,” he wrote, “ lsrael would not have any peace on its northern border.” ln other words, a fall of Assad would put an end to the lran/Assad/Hezbollah axis but it would bring radical lslamists to power, which could initiate a very tense situation for lsrael. The best solution: a very weakened Assad.

Unfortunately, the United States has already missed the best time frame to intervene, emphasized John J. Hamre, director of the Center for Strategic and lnternational Studies. The United States did not intervene when the Assad regime was most vulnerable and when the limited support for the then-moderate rebel groups very well could have driven Assad away from power. Meanwhile Assad is much stronger militarily.

The United States will only have sustained success with a military mission in Syria if it can provide a reasonable chance of a stability that specifically restricts the influence of lran and Hezbollah and helps to confront the enormous humanitarian crisis effectively.

The EU Guidelines: Will Germany Step Up?

According to its new guidelines, EU programs shall only apply to lsraelis who are not residents of the “occupied” territories of the borders before 1967, i.e. outside of the West Bank, the Golan Heights and East Jerusalem.

Being asked for an analysis, Netanyahu declared: “We have been attacked within the borders declared by the EU and were in mortal danger in 1967. The situation has changed dramatically in the past 40 years. There are hundreds of thousands of lsraelis in the neighborhoods of East Jerusalem, and it is out of the question to divide the city into two parts.” 

The EU’s decision could, for example, cause the prestigious Hebrew University of Jerusalem to be boycotted because it is located just beyond the green line. Jewish residents of the Old City of Jerusalem might be discriminated against, although the 1949 Armistice Agreement stated that the demarcation lines can never be regarded as territorial boundaries because they otherwise would be subject to exactly that prejudicing with regard to a peaceful settlement of the Palestinian problem, which the EU specifically targets with its plan.’

The lsraeli business community, which summarizes the anti-lsrael policy of the EU with the words “hypocrisy, hostility and crude prejudice,” points out that the unemployment rate in the West Bank and Gaza is already over 20 percent and that a fifth of its working population is employed in lsrael and the settlements. Anything that affects the lsraeli economy would negatively affect the Palestinian economy in an extreme way.

It needs to be pointed out that the amazing decision of the EU is based on no legally binding decision by the United Nations. There is no doubt that the scandalous new EU guidelines were substantially supported by its Minister for Foreign Affairs, Catherine Ashton, who is extremely negative toward lsrael, and finally rubber-stamped by a majority. The new EU directives clearly clash with lsraeli law: lt is legally impossible to separate, for example, the area of East Jerusalem, and to abolish lsraeli rights there, without two-thirds of the Knesset and the result of a referendum approving this.

The prospect of a change of the EU decision is based on Germany’s friendship with the State of lsrael. The foreign policy spokesman of Germany’s Christian Democratic Union (CDU) parliamentary group Philipp Missfelder has announced that the federal government will distance itself from the guidelines. Germany’s Foreign Minister Guido Westenruelle has asked for direct talks between lsrael and the EU to find pragmatic solutions that are acceptable to lsrael.

The loyalty of the German chancellor toward lsrael should contribute substantially. Angela Merkel was and is, of all the world’s leaders, most closely connected to the only democracy in the Middle East and shows exemplary understanding of its isolated situation.

The Peace Process: ls Progress Possible Now?

Poll after poll shows that lsraelis are tired of a process that consists only of a stream of lsraeli concessions, while the Palestinians refuse to give anything in exchange for it. Unfortunately the Arab side shows no willingness to live in peace with lsrael, the Jewish state. lnstead, it honors prematurely freed murderers and declares that no Jews should be allowed to live in a Palestinian state.

A so-called peace process, in which one side only gives and the other only takes is a priori hopeless.

Arthur Cohn is an international film producer whose films include “The Garden of the Finzi-Continis,” “Central Station” and “One Day in September.

Rob Eshman: What’s next for Iran?

By Monday morning, the Israeli reaction to the nuclear deal with Iran had changed from “What happened?” to “Now what?”

And that reaction makes a lot more sense.

The interim agreement signed by Iran and the group of negotiating nations known as P5+1 on Saturday night, Nov. 23,  Iran committed to halt uranium enrichment above 5 percent, to neutralize its stockpile of 20 percent enriched uranium, to suspend its installation of updated centrifuges and its plutonium enrichment, to suspend development of its Arak heavy water reactor and to allow for highly intrusive inspection and monitoring of its nuclear program.

In return, Iran will receive between $6 billion and $7 billion in sanctions relief, while still facing some $30 billion in lost oil revenue.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu can call the historic deal a “historic mistake,” but the ink is dry, and there’s no going back.  

The dogs bark, as the old Middle East proverb goes, the caravan moves on.

Critics are comparing the interim deal to the 1938 Munich Agreement—but, to be fair, the President’s critics compare everything he does to the 1938 Munich Agreement. 

The reality is far more complicated.  There are serious weaknesses in the deal, as well as strengths.  We can harp on the drawbacks or use the six-month window before the next planned agreement to secure a better deal.

The deal’s weaknesses are legion — the agreement barely shortens the time Iran needs to “break out” and develop a nuclear weapon. Iran can still maintain its 19,000 centrifuges. It still reserves the right to enrich uranium. The deal’s language is vague enough on this point and others for the signatories to become bogged down in interpretations over what the agreement means, rather than focus on its execution.  And relaxing  international sanctions makes it that much more difficult to set them back in place.

Worst of all, the accord puts us in business with a regime that crushes the rights of its people, sows havoc and terror from Gaza to Lebanon to Syria, and that has, of course, lied openly and consistently about the very existence of its nuclear weapons program. 

But there is good news here, too.  The interim agreement allows for the most intrusive inspections ever.    It stalls Iran’s otherwise relentless march toward nuclear capability.  And the sanctions are reversible— easier said than done, yes, but possible — especially if the world sees the alternative is war. 

The accords, by the way, do not limit a military response to Iranian nukes—which still remains the biggest threat hanging over the regime’s head. 

These positive developments are one reason the Israeli reaction was not all negative. The agreement, former Israeli Military Intelligence Chief Amos Yadlin said,  “was neither the dream agreement nor the fall of the Third Temple.”

“If this were the final agreement – then it would really be a bad agreement, but that’s not the situation,” Yadlin told Israeli reporters.

So, to repeat, now what?

Looking forward, not backward, these are the next steps to insure a much safer world.  Among them must be:

1. Parchin:  The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) believes Iran is using the Parchin military complex for secret nuclear weapons development.  Inspectors have to get in there and reveal the truth.

2. Fordo: Inspectors must be allowed access to the Fordo underground enrichment facility whose only possible purpose, experts say, is the development of nuclear weapons capability.

3. Sanctions:  Congress and the international community need to keep the pressure on by preparing a list of crippling sanctions that can be triggered with little more than a Skype call.  Critics say sanctions will be impossible to revive, but the original fear that led to the sanctions was the threat of a U.S. or Israeli military action.  As long as that doesn’t go away, neither will sanctions.

4. Treaties:  The United States can use this opportunity to strengthen its relationships with Israel and other Mideast allies.  That, UCLA Professor and Israel Policy Forum scholar Steven Spiegel wrote, would go a long way toward reassuring our allies and putting Iran on notice that it would face unified opposition to any provocations.

5.  A Final Deal:  This interim deal is for six months.   A final deal should come in month seven.  If the Iranians try to extend, weaken or back out of that – then Obama will know he’s been had.  After all, the outlines of a comprehensive deal aren’t mysterious: An end to Iran’s ability to build and deploy nuclear weapons.   For Yadlin, that means Iran will agree to maintain as few centrifuges as possible, preferably none at all. It will also agree to strict limits on the level of enrichment and the amount of enriched material.

Then, Yadlin said, “if the Iranians decide to violate the agreement, it will take them years rather than months.”

Six months from now is June 2014.  Critics of the interim accord need to stop barking, and start working.

Interim deal on Iran splits Congress on new sanctions

They want to brandish a new stick against Iran, but hawks in Congress aren’t going to use it — yet.

For all the disappointment they expressed following the deal on Iran’s nuclear program, skeptics in Congress appear to be willing to give the agreement brokered by the Obama administration space to breathe — albeit with tough new punitive measures in place should Iran fail to live up to its end of the bargain.

“I will continue working with my colleagues to craft bipartisan legislation that will impose tough new economic sanctions if Iran undermines this interim accord or if the dismantlement of Iran’s nuclear infrastructure is not underway by the end of this six-month period,” U.S. Sen. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.), a leader in passing Iran sanctions, said after the deal’s announcement on Saturday night.

That’s a shift from pre-deal statements in which Kirk was leading an effort to push through new sanctions not conditioned on the outcome of talks between the United States and other world powers and Iran.

Proponents of a tougher line against Iran say the sanctions talk wasn’t an empty threat and helped shaped the outcome of the interim deal. Moreover, Congress is not dropping the stick: Kirk and Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, are preparing new sanctions legislation to take effect if Iran violates the interim deal.

The two senators “will be working over the Senate recess to craft a bipartisan sanctions bill that establishes a mandatory fail-safe to this interim agreement, ensuring sanctions come back in spades if Iran cheats during the next six months or if Iran’s nuclear infrastructure is not being dismantled at the end of the six-month period,” a congressional aide told JTA in an email. “We should expect this legislation to go to the president’s desk for signature before the end of the year.”

But it’s not clear if pro-sanctions lawmakers have backing from the Senate leadership for new sanctions.

“I said when we come back, we’ll take a look at this to see if we need stronger sanctions, ” Sen. Harry Reid (D-Nev.), the majority leader, said Monday in an NPR interview quoted by Roll Call, a Capitol Hill daily.

Reid said Menendez and Sen. Tim Johnson (D-S.D.), the chairman of the Senate Banking Committee, will study the issue.

“They will hold hearings if necessary, and if we need more work on this, if we need to do stronger sanctions, I’m sure we will do that,” Reid said.

The majority leader’s emphasis on the role played by Johnson is significant.

Johnson, a moderate Democrat, thus far has resisted efforts to advance through his committee new sanctions passed over the summer by the U.S. House of Representatives. A former Johnson staffer told JTA that the senator, once thought of as a go-along-to-get-along senator, may feel freer to resist pressure from his colleagues and the pro-Israel community because he has decided not to run again next year.

Other pro-Israel Democrats in the Senate — among them Sens. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), the chairwoman of the Intelligence Committee, and Carl Levin (D-Mich.), the chairman of the Armed Services Committee — have made clear that they would oppose intensified sanctions kicking in while talks were taking place.

“I am baffled by the insistence of some senators to undermine the P5+1 talks,” Feinstein said in a Nov. 15 statement, referring to the six major powers — Russia, China, Britain, France and Germany in addition to the United States — involved in the Iran negotiations. “I will continue to support these negotiations and oppose any new sanctions as long as we are making progress toward a genuine solution.”

Iran hawks already are unhappy with the interim deal, which places some restrictions on Iranian uranium enrichment in exchange for some sanctions relief but allows Iran to keep enriching low-level uranium and keeps in place its existing enrichment infrastructure. The hawks are determined to make sure that a final deal incapacitates any weapons-making capability.

The deal must ensure that Iran ends “all nuclear weapons capability — all the enriched uranium, all the centrifuges,” Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), the third-ranking Democrat in the Senate, said Sunday at an event for Ohel, a Jewish social services provider.

Schumer told JTA he intends to explore new sanctions after Thanksgiving.

“A fairer agreement would have coupled a reduction in sanctions with a proportionate reduction in Iranian nuclear capability,” Schumer said. “The goal of the administration is to eliminate all of Iran’s nuclear weapons-making capability by the end of the final negations. It is still my hope they can achieve that goal.”

In addition to keeping up pressure on the Iranians to follow through on their commitments, new sanctions legislation could help shape the outcome of a final-status deal, a source at the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, or AIPAC, told JTA on condition of anonymity.

“Our fundamental goal is that in the final agreement, the United States must prevent a nuclear-capable Iran,” said the AIPAC source, who emphasized that such legislation is in the “conceptual” stage and would not be drafted until after the Thanksgiving break. The legislation “essentially will condition the environment for a final deal.”

Joel Rubin, a former Senate staffer, said Congress must tread carefully lest it be accused of scuttling the deal and driving away U.S. allies that have maintained the sanctions regime that helped bring Iran to the negotiating table. Rubin now works for the Ploughshares Fund, an anti-proliferation advocacy group that backs the deal brokered in Geneva on Saturday.

On Monday, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who over the weekend blasted the interim agreement as a “historic mistake,” appeared to be tamping down his rhetoric a notch.

“It is true that the international pressure which we applied was partly successful and has led to a better result than what was originally planned, but this is still a bad deal,” he told the Knesset. “It reduces the pressure on Iran without receiving anything tangible in return, and the Iranians who laughed all the way to the bank are themselves saying that this deal has saved them.”

Netanyahu said he was dispatching his national security adviser, Yossi Cohen, to Washington to consult on the deal.

“That agreement must lead to one result: the dismantling of Iran’s military nuclear capability,” Netanyahu said. “I remind you that only last week, during the talks, the leaders of Iran repeated their commitment to destroy the State of Israel, and I reiterate here today my commitment, as prime minister of Israel, to prevent them from achieving the ability to do so.”

Iran, six world powers clinch breakthrough nuclear deal

Iran and six world powers reached a breakthrough deal on Sunday to curb Tehran's nuclear program in exchange for limited sanctions relief, in what could be the first sign of an emerging rapprochement between the Islamic state and the West.

Aimed at ending a dangerous standoff, the agreement between Iran and the United States, France, Germany, Britain, China and Russia was nailed down after more than four days of negotiations in the Swiss city of Geneva.

The accord was designed as a package of confidence-building steps to ease decades of tensions and confrontation and banish the spectre of a Middle East war over Tehran's nuclear aspirations.

European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton, who has been coordinating talks with Iran on behalf of the major powers, said it created time and space for talks aimed at reaching a comprehensive solution to the dispute.

“This is only a first step,” Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif told a news conference. “We need to start moving in the direction of restoring confidence, a direction in which we have managed to move against in the past.”

In Washington, President Barack Obama said the deal was an important first step towards a comprehensive solution to Iran's nuclear programme.

The West fears that Iran has been seeking to develop a nuclear weapons capability. The Islamic Republic denies that, saying its nuclear programme is a peaceful energy project.

A senior U.S. official said the agreement halted progress on Iran's nuclear programme, including construction of the Arak research reactor, which is of special concern for the West as it can yield potential bomb material.

It would neutralise Iran's stockpile of uranium refined to a fissile concentration of 20 percent, which is a close step away from the level needed for weapons, and calls for intrusive U.N. nuclear inspections, the official said.

Iran has also committed to stop uranium enrichment above a fissile purity of 5 percent, a U.S. fact sheet said.

Refined uranium can be used to fuel nuclear power plants – Iran's stated goal – but also provide the fissile core of an atomic bomb if refined much further.

The deal has no recognition of an Iranian right to enrich uranium and sanctions would still be enforced, the U.S. official added.

Iran will get access to $4.2 billion in foreign exchange as part of the accord, and is also expected to receive limited sanctions relief on gold, petrochemicals and autos, a Western diplomat said.

British Foreign Secretary William Hague said in a Twitter message that it was an “important and encouraging” first-stage agreement with Iran, whose nuclear programme “won't move forward for 6 months and parts rolled back.”


French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said the deal only confirmed Iran's right to civil nuclear power.

“After years of blockages, the agreement in Geneva on Iran's nuclear programme is an important step to preserving security and peace,” Fabius said in a statement.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and foreign ministers of the five other world powers joined the negotiations with Iran early on Saturday as the two sides appeared to be edging closer to a long-sought preliminary agreement.

The Western powers' goal was cap Iran's nuclear energy programme, which has a history of evading U.N. inspections and investigations, to remove any risk of Tehran covertly refining uranium to a level suitable for bombs.

Tehran, whose oil-dependent economy has been severely damaged by tightening Western sanctions over the past few years, denies it would ever “weaponise” enrichment.

Diplomacy was stepped up after the landslide election of Hassan Rouhani, a relative moderate, as Iranian president in June, replacing bellicose nationalist Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

Rouhani aims to mend fences with big powers and get sanctions lifted. He obtained crucial public backing from Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, keeping powerful hardline critics at bay.

On a Twitter account widely recognised as representing Rouhani, a message said after the agreement was announced, “Iranian people's vote for moderation & constructive engagement + tireless efforts by negotiating teams are to open new horizons.”

The OPEC producer rejects suspicions it is trying covertly to develop the means to produce nuclear weapons, saying it is stockpiling nuclear material for future atomic power plants.

Before Sunday's agreement, Israel said the deal being offered would give Iran more time to master nuclear technology and amass potential bomb fuel.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told local media in Moscow on Thursday that Iran was essentially given an “unbelievable Christmas present – the capacity to maintain this (nuclear) breakout capability for practically no concessions at all”.

Additional reporting by Stephanie Nebehay, Fredrik Dahl, John Irish, Arshad Mohammed, Louis Charbonneau in Geneva, Katya Golubkova in Moscow, Isabel Coles in Dubai; Writing by Fredrik Dahl; Editing by Peter Cooney

Iran, six powers may be edging toward compromise nuclear deal

Iran and six world powers appeared closer on Friday towards clinching an elusive interim deal under which Tehran would curb its contested nuclear program, with diplomats saying a major sticking point may have been overcome.

A compromise deal over Iran's insistence that its “right” to enrich uranium be internationally recognized has been proposed, they said, possibly opening the way to a breakthrough in intensive negotiations that began in Geneva on Wednesday.

The United States and other Western powers say there is no such thing as a right to enrich – a process that can yield both electricity and nuclear bombs – but Iran views it as a matter of national sovereignty and crucial to any deal that would resolve a decade-old standoff over its nuclear intentions.

The Islamic Republic also wants relief from economic sanctions in return for any nuclear concessions that could allay the West's suspicions that its nuclear fuel-making program has military rather than its stated civilian goals.

In another sign the sides could be edging towards an agreement, Western diplomats said U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry was tentatively planning to join the high-stakes talks in Switzerland although he had yet to confirm his plans.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov arrived in Geneva on Friday evening and planned to participate, spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said. “I can confirm that we are staying Friday and Saturday. That is the plan,” she told reporters. Zakharova did not rule out Lavrov staying even longer.

Foreign ministers from the six nations negotiating with Iran – the United States, Russia, China, France, Britain and Germany – waded into the previous talks on November 7-9 and came close to winning concessions from Iran which they count on to reduce the risk of Iran honing a nuclear weapons capability.

In the days running up to the talks, policymakers from the six powers said an interim accord on confidence-building steps could be within reach to start a cautious process of detente with Iran and douse the specter of a wider Middle East war.

Under discussion is Iranian suspension of some sensitive nuclear activities, above all medium-level uranium enrichment, in exchange for sanctions relief. That could involve releasing some Iranian funds frozen in foreign bank accounts and allowing trade in precious metals, petrochemicals and aircraft parts.

The United States might also agree to relax pressure on other countries not to buy Iranian oil. Tehran has made clear it wants more significant gestures diluting the stifling superstructure of sanctions blocking its lifeblood oil exports and use of the international banking and financial system.

Diplomacy on Tehran's nuclear aspirations has revived remarkably since the election of Hassan Rouhani, a relative moderate, as president in June on promises of winning sanctions relief and diminishing Iran's international isolation.


But the sides have struggled to wrap up a deal, bogged down in politically vexed details and still hampered by a long legacy of mutual mistrust.

Diplomats said new, compromise language of a deal being discussed did not explicitly recognize a right to produce nuclear fuel by any country. “If you speak about the right to a peaceful nuclear program that's open to interpretation,” a diplomat told Reuters without elaborating.

No other details were available, but Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, Tehran's chief negotiator, said earlier in the day that significant headway had been made.

“We are negotiating our differences and we have made considerable progress,” he said. “In some cases we have had results … but still we have three, four differences.”

The fate of Iran's Arak heavy-water reactor project – a potential source of an alternative bomb material, plutonium – and the extent of sanctions relief were among the other stumbling blocks, diplomats said.

The OPEC producer rejects suspicions it is covertly trying to develop the means to produce nuclear weapons, saying it is stockpiling nuclear material for future atomic power plants.

Asked whether he believed there would be an agreement this week, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov said: “I think it's a possibility. It's not final yet. I'm always optimistic. It depends on many factors.”


A senior European diplomat told reporters earlier that foreign ministers of the six states would come to Geneva only if there was a deal to sign. “We have made progress, including core issues,” the diplomat said, adding that “there are four or five things still on the table” that need to be resolved.

Zarif and European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton, who is coordinating the talks on behalf of the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council plus Germany, met throughout the day on Friday to explore ways to narrow differences on the outstanding sticking points.

There was no immediate word on what was the outcome of their meetings; Ashton's spokesman only described the meeting as “useful”. But one Iranian delegate said “this morning's session was better than the one last night”.

A senior Western diplomat said late on Thursday it would “not be a tragedy” if the third round of Geneva talks within a month adjourned without a deal and reconvened in a few weeks for another try.


Israel continued its public campaign of criticizing the offer of sanctions rollbacks for Iran, voicing its conviction that all it would achieve would be more time for Iran to master nuclear technology and amass potential bomb fuel.

“We think it's not a useful agreement, perhaps even damaging,” Deputy Foreign Minister Ze'ev Elkin told Israel Radio. “Even those who support the agreement say the only goal of the agreement is to play for time.”

He appeared to be referring to France, which has taken a harder line than other Western powers and repeatedly urged the six-power group not to make too many compromises with Tehran.

For the powers, an interim deal would mandate a halt to Iran's enrichment of uranium to a purity of 20 percent – a major technical step towards the bomb threshold, more sweeping U.N. nuclear inspections in Iran and an Arak reactor shutdown.

The United States has only limited flexibility during the talks, however, because of skepticism in U.S. Congress about the benefits of cutting any deal with Tehran.

U.S. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said on Thursday he was committed to pursuing a tougher Iran sanctions bill when the Senate returns from a recess early next month – even though President Barack Obama has warned that could derail diplomacy in Geneva.

The White House said on Friday it hoped a deal can be reached in Geneva. If a preliminary agreement is reached for a six-month suspension of some of Iran's most sensitive nuclear activity, the six powers and Tehran will use that time to hammer out a broader and longer-term accord.

Additional reporting by Justyna Pawlak, Fredrik Dahl and John Irish in Geneva, Marcus George in Dubai, Steve Gutterman in Moscow and Allyn Fisher in Jerusalem; Editing by Mark Heinrich

World powers, Iran in new attempt to clinch nuclear deal

Big powers resumed talks on Wednesday on a preliminary deal to curb Iran's nuclear program with Russia and Britain confident a breakthrough could be clinched and Iran spelling out “red lines” but saying it wanted friendly ties with all nations.

Keen to end a long standoff and head off the risk of a wider Middle East war, the United States, Russia, China, France, Britain and Germany came close to winning concessions from Tehran on its nuclear activity in return for some sanctions relief at negotiations in Geneva earlier this month.

Policymakers from the six nations have since said an interim accord on confidence-building steps could finally be within reach, despite warnings from diplomats that differences persist and could still foil an agreement.

British Foreign Secretary William Hague said the remaining gaps were narrow. “It is the best chance for a long time to make progress on one of the gravest problems in foreign policy,” he told a news conference during a visit to Istanbul.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said earlier: “We hope the efforts that are being made will be crowned with success at the meeting that opens today in Geneva.”

Chinese Deputy Foreign Minister Li Baodong, head of China's delegation in Geneva, told Reuters: “Things are on track.”

Western governments suspect Iran has enriched uranium with the covert aim of developing the means to fuel nuclear weapons, which Tehran denies. Refined uranium is used to run nuclear power stations – Iran's stated goal – but cam also constitute the core of a nuclear bomb, if enriched to a high degree.

Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said in a speech as Western negotiators gathered in the Swiss city that the Islamic Republic would not step back from its nuclear rights and he had set “red lines” for his envoys in Geneva.

But he added, according to his official website: “We want to have friendly relations with all nations and peoples. The Islamic system isn't even hostile to the nation of America, although with regards to Iran and the Islamic system, the American government is arrogant, malicious and vindictive.”

Khamenei also criticized France, which spoke out against a draft deal floated at the November 7-9 round, for “succumbing to the United States” and “kneeling before the Israeli regime”. France said the comments were unacceptable.


Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu flew to Russia on Wednesday to appeal for tougher terms in any accord with Iran after failing to convince the United States that the world powers are pursuing a bad deal.

Israel, assumed to have the Middle East's only nuclear arsenal, sees a nuclear-armed Iran as a mortal threat and wants its arch-enemy's uranium enrichment capabilities dismantled and its enriched uranium stockpile removed.

Israel worries that the interim deal being discussed in Geneva would buy Iran time to pursue nuclear weapons because it would not scrap its nuclear fuel-making infrastructure, while the six powers see it as placing a ceiling on Iran's nuclear activity as a stepping stone towards a broad final settlement.

White House deputy national security adviser Ben Rhodes sought to allay Israeli misgivings, saying negotiators needed the six months an interim solution would provide to strike an comprehensive agreement.

“What we have said to the Israelis is that we have this tactical difference with you on pursuing this first step, but we share the end goal, and that's the point of these whole negotiations, which is to prevent Iran getting nuclear weapons,” he told CNN.

The last meeting stumbled over Iran's insistence that its “right” to enrich uranium be explicitly recognized and over its building of a heavy-water reactor near Arak that could yield plutonium, an alternative bomb fuel, once operational.

Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif has since suggested a way around the first sticking point, saying Tehran has the right to refine uranium but is not now insisting others recognize that right.

A U.N. inspector report last week showed Iran had stopped expanding enrichment and had not added major new components at Arak since August, when moderate Hassan Rouhani replaced hardliner Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as president.

Nuclear analyst Ali Vaez of the International Crisis Group think-tank said the “body language” showed that the sides were ready for a deal, pointing to Iran slowing its nuclear push and Washington refraining, so far, from imposing more sanctions.

“(They) have demonstrated that they are looking to transform stumbling blocks into stepping stones,” Vaez said.


Zarif, Tehran's chief nuclear negotiator, said on the eve of the meeting there was “every possibility” of a successful conclusion provided there was good faith and the political will among all involved to resolve problems.

U.S. President Barack Obama sounded a more cautious note on Tuesday, saying prospects for an imminent deal were uncertain.

American lawmakers urged the Obama administration on Tuesday to take a tougher line with Iran.

The talks started on Wednesday with a meeting between Zarif and European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton, who coordinates contacts with Iran on behalf of the powers.

Zarif said their discussion was “good and useful” but gave no details. Senior diplomats from the six nations were due to join him and Ashton later in the day for a plenary session.

After years of confrontation, a shift towards meaningful diplomacy between Iran and the world powers took shape after Rouhani's landslide election victory on a platform to relieve the Islamic Republic's increasing international isolation and get sanctions strangling its oil-dependent economy lifted.

Rouhani wants to move quickly: Western sanctions have reduced Iran's daily oil export revenue by 60 percent since 2011 and caused its currency to collapse.

But diplomats say Iran has so far refused to meet all of the powers' demands. They include suspending enrichment of uranium to 20 percent fissile purity – a significant advance toward the threshold for bomb fuel – as well as limiting its enrichment capacity and mothballing the Arak reactor project.

Western diplomats have kept much of the details of a preliminary deal under wraps but said this would not win Iran relief from the most painful sanctions on oil trade and banking that many believe finally forced it into serious negotiations.

Under an initial deal the OPEC producer is likely to temporarily regain access to precious metals markets and trade in petrochemicals, an important source of export income, and could see the release of some of its oil revenues frozen in oversees accounts.

The Iranian assets that would be unfrozen as part of any deal this week would amount to less than $10 billion, U.S. national security adviser Susan Rice told CNN.

Additional reporting by Louis Charbonneau, John Irish and Fredrik Dahl in Geneva, Marcus George and Isabel Coles in Dubai, Steve Gutterman in Moscow, Dan Williams in Jeruselem, Sophie Louet in Paris, David Brunnstrom in Washington and Dasha Afanasieva in Istanbul; Editing by Mark Heinrich

U.S. suckers on the loose

When I see the earnest and eager John Kerry globe-trotting the world in his sharp business suits trying to convince mullahs not to build a nuclear bomb, I can’t help but have these politically incorrect thoughts that are loaded with stereotypes.

The most obvious stereotype is that of the golly-gee American sucker in long shorts and black socks getting ripped off by a wily merchant in a Middle Eastern souk.

The first question I ask myself is: Does Kerry realize what this is about? Does he realize that in a region where honor and glory are everything, a nuclear bomb represents precisely that, honor and glory? He’s hoping the Iranians will abandon the very program that would help them fulfill their dream of bringing back the powerful and glorious Shiite Persian Empire that would eradicate Zionism and dominate Arabs, Turks and Sunnis across the greater Middle East for the next century.

When you ask for that much, you’d better have plenty of leverage.

Right now, Kerry’s leverage is pain — economic pain. It is this pain that has brought the mullahs back to the table, not some epiphany that maybe a better way to regain their Persian glory would be to find the cure for cancer.

If Kerry better understood this leverage, he wouldn’t be offering deals that are so lame that, in the words of Middle Eastern expert Lee Smith, the United States  would give the Iranians “virtually everything they wanted for nothing but empty promises.”

In other words, deals where Iran would get sanctions relief but still be allowed, according to The New York Times, to “continue adding to its stockpile of low-enriched uranium.” 

The mark of a sucker is to act like an eager buyer — and Kerry looks like one very eager buyer.

He’s so eager, in fact, that he’s fighting against his own side – U.S. congressmen and senators — to convince them not to increase the sanctions so that he can decrease the sanctions. Apparently, it hasn’t dawned on him that there’s a third option: Using new sanctions as a negotiating tool and telling the mullahs, “In return for us not increasing the sanctions, what are you prepared to offer?”

As Jeffrey Goldberg writes on, “The Iranians have a history of expanding their nuclear program under the cover of negotiations; the least Western diplomats could do to avoid looking like suckers is to demand that Iran press the [nuclear] pause button.”

A shrewder Kerry, then, might propose this deal: We stop increasing sanctions if you stop enriching uranium. 

But even more important than the issue of U.S. shrewdness in deal-making is the issue of U.S. seriousness.

It’s well known that if you’re really serious about getting Iran to abandon its nuclear dream, you must back sanctions with a credible military threat. How credible is the U.S. threat? In a piece in Politico titled “Obama’s Fight With Israel: This Time It’s Serious,” Robert Satloff writes that President Barack Obama’s military threat is “tarnished” and that he needs to take “urgent steps … to make the threat more believable.”

The real question is: Does Obama want to make this threat more believable?

Skeptics (myself included) will tell you that President Obama was never serious about a military option. As we saw with his flip-flopping on Syria and his infamous “leading from behind” doctrine, Obama has shown neither the stomach nor the inclination to start another Mideast war. That’s why he’s dialed down the threats — he’s hoping his man in Geneva can strike a deal so that Iran won’t call his bluff.

And, now that he’s embroiled in the Obamacare fiasco — which has severely undermined his credibility and threatened to taint his legacy — Obama has even less reason to start a war and even more reason to strike a deal, even a lame one.

The wily mullahs of Persia seem to grasp all this. They may hate sanctions, but they understand leverage.

Israelis who are rightly worried about another Holocaust understand that without a credible military threat, the Iranians will just continue to buy time until it’s too late to stop their nuclear program, which could be only months away.

As French President François Hollande urgently reminded everyone when he was greeted like a hero in Israel, “The Iranian nuclear program is a threat to Israel, and it is clearly a threat to the region and the world,” and, he added, France will be uncompromising until it is “completely sure that Iran has given up nuclear weapons.”

In that same spirit, another world leader once said: “The Iranian regime supports violent extremists and challenges us across the region. … The danger from Iran is grave, it is real, and my goal will be to eliminate this threat.”

Those words were spoken in 2008 by candidate Barack Obama, the same man who would promise his nation five years later that “if you like your health care plan, you can keep your health care plan.”

If President Obama is now wobbling on his promise to eliminate the Iranian threat, that might explain why Kerry is looking like a sucker in the souks of the Middle East: It’s not so much that he’s naïve but that his boss has lost the stomach for the fight.

Israel doesn’t have that luxury.

David Suissa is president of TRIBE Media Corp./Jewish Journal and can be reached at

Senators, after Obama meeting, ready to delay new sanctions

Senate leaders appeared ready to delay intensified sanctions targeting Iran while President Obama seeks a deal to roll back that country’s nuclear program, although several warned not to yield on demands that Iran end its uranium enrichment.

In comments after the meeting, Sens. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), the chairwoman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), the ranking member on the Foreign Relations Committee, and John McCain (R-Ariz.), one of the fiercest critics of Obama’s Iran policy said they did not expect sanctions to go through soon.

“You always have to listen to the president of the United States when he asks you to do something,” McCain told the Washington Examiner. “Of course we want to seriously consider doing what he wanted, especially in the midst of some serious negotiations.”

A statement from the White House said that in the meeting Obama said he was “grateful” to Congress for passing “the most effective sanctions regime in history” but asked them to hold off on more sanctions.

“He indicated that new sanctions should not be enacted during the current negotiations, but that they would be most effective as a robust response should negotiations fail,” the White House said.

Negotiations resume Wednesday in Geneva between Iran and the major powers to make Iran’s nuclear program more transparent in exchange for sanctions relief.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has been arguing forcefully for enhanced sanctions, saying that they are likelier to extract concessions from Iran that would disable its suspected nuclear weapons.

Obama in the meeting with Senators also pushed back against claims by Israeli officials that the major powers were offering Iran sanctions relief valued at between $20 and $40 billion saying these reports were “inaccurate.”

Analysts close to the administration have said the likely impact of sanctions relief on the $100-120 billion Iran suffers in sanctions each year is likely to be more in the region of $10 billion.

Separately, a number of senators – including three who were in the meeting with Obama – on Tuesday wrote U.S. Secretary John Kerry urging him to ensure that Iran abides by U.N. Security Council resolutions as part of any deal, and suspends all uranium enrichment.

“While the interim agreement may suggest that Iran could be willing temporarily to slow its pursuit of a nuclear weapons capability, it could also allow Iran to continue making some progress toward that end under the cover of negotiations,” said the letter. “This does not give us confidence that Iran is prepared to abandon unambiguously its nuclear weapons pursuit altogether, as it must.”

The letter also expressed reservations at reports that sanctions relief could amount to $10 billion.

“We regard this as a major concession on our part that would not be justified by the concessions the Iranian regime would be required to make in return,” the letter said.

The letter, which was backed by the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, was signed by Sens. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.), Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), McCain, Bob Casey (D-Pa.) and Susan Collins (R-Maine).

In addition to McCain, Menendez, the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and Schumer, the third ranking Democrat in the Senate, had attended the White House meeting.

Israel’s Peres warns against feud with U.S. over Iran

President Shimon Peres urged Israelis on Friday to show respect for the United States, seeking to soothe relations with the country's most powerful ally that have been strained over Iran.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has condemned a proposal, endorsed by Washington, to reduce sanctions if Iran suspends parts of its nuclear program. Several ministers have also harshly criticized Washington, prompting Peres to intervene.

“We must not underestimate the importance of this friendship. There can be disagreements, but they must be conducted with a view to the true depth of the situation,” Peres said in comments released by his office.

“If we have disagreements we should voice them, but we should remember that the Americans also know a thing or two. We are not the only ones,” he said.

Although Peres's position as president is largely ceremonial, he is a widely-respected elder statesmen and his comments will be welcomed by Washington.

Netanyahu and U.S. President Barack Obama have often tussled over Tehran, but tensions flared last week when Israel discovered the terms of a deal that world powers are due to discuss again with Iran in Geneva next Thursday.

Israel says tough sanctions must remain until Iran dismantles its entire uranium enrichment program, arguing that anything less would enable it to develop nuclear bombs.

Iran denies it is seeking nuclear weapons and accuses Israel, believed to be the Middle East's only nuclear armed state, of hypocrisy.

Backers of the nuclear talks see the diplomatic push as a way to resolve a decade-long nuclear standoff that both Israel and Washington have said could lead to war.

U.S. Secretary of State Kerry said Netanyahu was over-reacting to the proposed deal and a State Department spokeswoman dismissed an Israeli estimate of its impact on sanctions as “inaccurate, exaggerated and not based in reality”.

Netanyahu has said he would not be bound by the terms of the Iran deal and reiterated that Israel would take military action if it thought Iran was close to getting an atomic bomb.

Relations with Washington have also been strained over the lack of progress in peace talks with Palestinians, with Kerry calling Israeli settlement building “illegitimate”.

A minister in Netanyahu's inner security cabinet, Naftali Bennett, flew to Washington this week to urge members of Congress, many of whom are very close to Israel, to reject the proposed Iran deal.

“I think more and more members of the House and Senate understand now … that the deal being formed is a deal that removes the sanctions without dismantling the Iranian nuclear machine,” Bennett told Israel Radio on Friday.

Some Israeli analysts have warned Netanyahu not to try to play Congress off against the U.S. president, and Peres made a point of praising Obama's efforts on behalf of Israel.

“There has not been an Israeli request which the Obama administration has not responded to,” he said.

Editing by Robin Pomeroy

Sanctions easing can be reversed if Iran does not deliver, Obama says

President Barack Obama sought to reassure skeptical U.S. lawmakers on Thursday that any easing of sanctions on Iran that emerges from negotiations could easily be reversed and “ramped back up” if Tehran fails to curb its nuclear program.

In his most direct appeal yet for more time to pursue a diplomatic deal with Iran, Obama urged Congress to hold off on imposing any new sanctions despite concerns on Capitol Hill and among U.S. allies Israel and Saudi Arabia that he is giving away too much.

Obama spoke a day after Vice President Joe Biden, Secretary of State John Kerry and other top U.S. officials warned senators that implementing new sanctions could scuttle the delicate negotiations between Iran and six world powers due to resume in Geneva on Nov. 20.

Some lawmakers said after Wednesday's meetings they were not convinced, and there was no immediate sign that Obama – seeking better ties with Iran after more than three decades of estrangement – had won converts on Thursday either.

“If we're serious about pursuing diplomacy, then there's no need for us to add new sanctions on top of the sanctions that are already very effective, and that brought them (the Iranians) to the table in the first place,” Obama told a White House news conference.

“Now, if it turns out they can't deliver, they can't come to the table in a serious way and get this issue resolved, the sanctions can be ramped back up … and we've got that option,” he said.

An initial agreement seemed close last week, when Kerry made an unexpected trip to the talks in Switzerland. But the negotiators failed to reach a deal and are returning for another round of talks.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu warned on Wednesday that a “bad deal” with Iran on its nuclear program could lead to war. His aides challenged U.S. assertions that Iran was being offered only limited relief from sanctions.

Underscoring the many obstacles, U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel staunchly defended the Obama administration's approach in the face of complaints from friends and foes alike.

“I felt sorry for Secretary Kerry because so many people have jumped into this (saying), 'Well he didn't get anything and he didn't get a deal.' Wait a minute!” Hagel told a defense conference in Washington.

“We have political issues. Our partners have political issues,” he said. “So this is going to take time if we're going to be able to move to somewhere onto a higher … plain of possibility.”


At the White House, Obama sought to answer critics who accuse him of preparing to ease sanctions prematurely.

He said that in return for Iran's agreement in a “short-term, phase-one” deal to halt its nuclear advances, “we would provide very modest relief at the margins of the sanctions that we've set up.”

“But importantly, we would leave in place the core sanctions that are most effective and have most impact on the Iranian economy, specifically oil sanctions and sanctions with respect to banks and financing,” he added.

Obama said this would give world powers a chance to test how serious Tehran is about negotiating a final deal to dispel Western suspicions that it wants to develop a nuclear weapon, something Tehran denies it is seeking.

“It also gives us an assurance that if it turns out six months from now that they're not serious,” he said, “we can dial those sanctions right back up.”

Obama reiterated that he was leaving “all options on the table” for dealing with Iran – diplomatic code for possible military action. But he warned of “unintended consequences” from any military conflict.

“No matter how good our military is, military options are always messy, are always difficult, always have unintended consequences – and in this situation are never complete in terms of making us certain that they (the Iranians) don't then go out and pursue even more vigorously nuclear weapons in the future,” he said.

But Obama is facing resistance from lawmakers wary of letting up the pressure in negotiations with Iran.

“Sanctions remain the best way to avoid war and prevent a future of Iranian nuclear weapons,” said Senator Mark Kirk, a Republican from Illinois. “The American people should not be forced to choose between military action and a bad deal that accepts a nuclear Iran.”

Senator John McCain, an Arizona Republican and frequently harsh critic of Obama's foreign policy, expressed deep skepticism about the Geneva talks and said the Senate Banking Committee should move ahead with consideration of a new round of sanctions.

However, he told Reuters: “I'm not so hell-bent on enacting additional sanctions (by the full Senate), although I think they're entirely called for. But I am willing to give them a period of time.”

The Republican-controlled House of Representatives passed its version of a new sanctions bill on July 31, just days before Iran's new president, Hassan Rouhani, took office. Rouhani was elected in June on a platform of conciliation, saying he wanted to ease Iran's international isolation.

Senators have been debating behind closed doors their version of the bill, which could slash Iran's oil exports to no more than 500,000 barrels a day and reduce the ability of the Obama administration to waive sanctions.

However the banking committee acts, some senators said they might sidestep the panel and insert a tough new Iran sanctions measure into the annual defense authorization bill, which Obama might find hard to veto.

Additional reporting by Steve Holland, Jeff Mason, Roberta Rampton, Susan Heavey, Patricia Zengerle and David Alexander; Editing by Mohammad Zargham

Iran, powers aim to seal deal on ending nuclear standoff

Iran and six world powers were closing in on a long-elusive deal on Friday aimed at allaying international fears about Tehran's atomic aims and reducing the risk of a new war in the volatile Middle East.

After the first day of a November 7-8 meeting, they said progress had been made towards an agreement under which the Islamic state would curb some of its nuclear activities in exchange for limited relief from sanctions that are damaging its economy.

Negotiators cautioned, however, that work remained to be done in the coming hours in very complex negotiations and that a successful outcome was not guaranteed. Iran rejects Western accusations that it is seeking the capability to make nuclear weapons.

Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister Abbas Araqchi said it was too early to say with certainty whether a deal would be possible this week, though he voiced cautious optimism.

“Too soon to say,” Araqchi told reporters after the first day of talks between Iran and the United States, Russia, China, Britain, France and Germany. “I'm a bit optimistic.”

“We are still working. We are in a very sensitive phase. We are engaged in real negotiations.”

The fact that an agreement may finally be within reach after a decade of frustrated efforts and mutual hostility between Iran and the West was a sign of a dramatic shift in Tehran's foreign policy since the election of a relative moderate, Hassan Rouhani, as Iranian president in June.

The United States and its allies are aiming for a “first step” deal that would stop Iran from further expanding a nuclear program that it has steadily built up in defiance of tightening international pressure.

The Islamic Republic, which holds some of the world's largest oil and gas reserves, wants them to lift increasingly tough punitive measures that have slashed its daily crude sales revenue by 60 percent in the last two years.

Both sides have limited room to maneuver, as hardliners in Tehran and hawks in Washington would likely sharply criticize any agreement they believed went too far in offering concessions to the other side.


Lending urgency to the need for a breakthrough soon, a U.S. Senate committee said it would pursue a package of tough new sanctions on Iran after the current Geneva talks end on Friday.

President Barack Obama has been pushing Congress to hold off on more sanctions against Iran, demanded by its arch-enemy Israel, to avoid undermining the diplomacy aimed at defusing fears of an Iranian advance towards nuclear arms capability.

A spokesman for the European Union foreign policy chief – who is presiding over the talks – said on Thursday evening that the powers and Iran were “making progress” towards easing the decade-long standoff.

Michael Mann said EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton would meet Iran's foreign minister and chief negotiator, Mohammad Javad Zarif, on Friday morning “to allow more time to work through some issues”. Diplomats from the six nations would also meet early on Friday to prepare Ashton's talks with Zarif.

Zarif told Reuters earlier in the day: “I'm hopeful that we can move forward. We are making progress, but it's tough.”

In an interview with CNN later, Zarif suggested that a partial suspension of Iran's contested uranium enrichment campaign might be possible – a concession it ruled out before moderate Rouhani's landslide election.

“There won't be a suspension of our enrichment program in its entirety,” Zarif said, rejecting Israel's central demand.

But he said he hoped the sides would agree a joint statement on Friday stipulating a goal to be reached “within a limited period of time, hopefully in less than a year”, and a series of reciprocal actions they would take “to build confidence and address their most immediate concerns.

Iran says it is enriching uranium only to fuel future nuclear power stations and for medical purposes. But its refusal to halt activity which can also have military applications has drawn the increasingly tough sanctions.

The United States said it also held “substantive and serious” bilateral talks with Iran in Geneva – direct dialogue inconceivable before Rouhani took office pledging to build bridges abroad and end a slide towards conflict with the West.

Iran and the United States have had no diplomatic ties since soon after the 1979 Islamic Revolution that overthrew the U.S.-backed monarchy, and their mutual mistrust and enmity has posed the biggest obstacle to any breakthrough nuclear accord.

White House spokesman Jay Carney said that in exchange for “concrete, verifiable measures” of restraint by Iran, the six powers “would consider limited, targeted, and reversible relief that does not affect our core sanctions architecture”.

The broader sanctions regime would stay pending a “final, comprehensive, verifiable” accord, Carney told reporters In Washington. If Iran did not follow through towards this end, modest sanctions relief could be reversed and stiffer penalties imposed.


The U.S. Senate Banking Committee chairman declared the panel was moving forward on a proposal for new sanctions, a step likely to please Israel which has campaigned against compromise proposals under discussion in Geneva, describing them as potentially “a mistake of historic proportions”.

Senator Tim Johnson, a Democrat, said Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid instructed him to bring the bill closer to a vote by the full Senate by calling for a debate on it.

Araqchi, the Iranian deputy foreign minister, said after the morning meetings that he hoped a deal could be struck but “the differences are widespread and deep. This is undeniable”.

The Iranian delegation held a series of meetings – one with all three European delegations, then, separately, with the Russians, the Chinese and the Americans.

Araqchi met for an hour with U.S. delegation chief Wendy Sherman, under secretary of state for political affairs, in a meeting that a senior State Department official described as a “substantive and serious conversation”.

The United States and its allies say they are encouraged by Tehran's shift to softer rhetoric since the election of Rouhani. But Western allies say Iran must back its words with action and take concrete steps to scale back its atomic work.

Washington says that would buy time for Iran and the powers to reach a broader diplomatic settlement and avert any war that could cause global economic upheaval.

“It remains our assessment that Iran would need at least one year to acquire one nuclear weapon from the time that Iran decides to pursue one,” Carney said, describing the U.S. view of a potential “breakout move” by Tehran toward building an atomic bomb. “In other words, we would be essentially buying time.”

The exact nature of a possible first step remain unclear. But the six global powers are unlikely to agree on anything less than a suspension of enrichment of uranium to 20 percent fissile purity, a level that constitutes a technical milestone not far from the threshold for a nuclear warhead.

They want Iran to convert its stockpile of 20 percent uranium to an oxide form suitable for processing into reactor fuel, and take other measures to slow the program.

A U.S. official said Iran at this stage must address important aspects of its nuclear activity, including more intrusive U.N. inspections. Iran's construction of a research reactor near the town of Arak is also a growing concern for the West because of its potential to yield plutonium for bombs.

A senior aide to a U.S. senator briefed by the White House and State Department said Washington would offer to work with Iran in a six-month confidence-building period. During that time Washington would offer Tehran, among other things, relaxed restrictions on Iranian funds held in overseas accounts.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said he disliked the outlines of an initial deal being hinted at in Geneva since it would allow Iran to keep a nuclear capability.

“Israel totally opposes these proposals,” he said in a speech. “I believe that adopting them would be a mistake of historic proportions. They must be rejected outright.”

Widely assumed to be the Middle East's only nuclear power, Israel views Iran as a threat to its existence and has warned it could carry out pre-emptive strikes on Iranian nuclear sites if diplomacy fails to restrain the program.

Additional reporting by Justyna Pawlak and Yeganeh Torbati in Geneva, Timothy Gardner in Washington,; Marcus George in Dubai, Michelle Nichols in New York; Editing by Mohammad Zargham

Adelson: Nuke Iran to get it to talk business

Sheldon Adelson, a top backer of Republican and right-wing pro-Israel causes, advocated bombing Iran with a nuclear device as a means of negotiation.

“You pick up your cell phone and you call somewhere in Nebraska and you say ‘OK, let it go,’ and so there’s an atomic weapon goes over, ballistic missiles in the middle of the desert that doesn’t hurt a soul, maybe a couple of rattlesnakes and scorpions or whatever,” Adelson, a casino magnate, said in a rare public appearance on Oct. 22 at Yeshiva University in New York. “And then you say, ‘See? The next one is in the middle of Tehran.’ ”

Video of the event was posted on the Mondoweiss website.

Adelson, a lead backer of Republican candidates in the 2012 presidential campaign, was criticizing the Obama administration’s readiness to negotiate with Iran’s leaders toward undoing the country’s suspected nuclear weapons program.

“So, we mean business, you want to be wiped out? Go ahead, take a tough position and continue with nuclear development,” said Adelson, who owns a major Israeli newspaper considered close to the government of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

“You want to be peaceful, just reverse it all and we will guarantee that you can have a nuclear power plant for electricity purposes, energy purposes,” he said.

Adelson and his wife, Miriam, are major contributors to the Birthright Israel program.

Time to enter the Iranian bazaar on the nuclear issue

Netanyahu urges action on Iran after meeting Putin

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said on Monday it was time to ramp up sanctions against Iran to try to curb its nuclear program after discussing the matter with visiting Russian President Vladimir Putin.

In his first public comments on the inconclusive round of talks in Moscow last week between world powers and Iran, Netanyahu repeated Israel’s three core demands.

“I believe two things must be done now: strengthening the sanctions and also boosting the demands,” Netanyahu said, without mentioning the possibility of Israeli military action should diplomacy fail.

The international community must call for the cessation of all uranium enrichment in Iran, the removal of all enriched uranium from the country and the dismantling of the Furdow underground nuclear facility, he added.

At the Moscow talks, Russia, the United States, China, Britain, France and Germany set no date for further political negotiations.

Last month, and again in the Russian capital, world powers asked Iran to close the Furdow facility where uranium is being enriched to 20-percent fissile purity, and to ship any stocks out of the country, demands that come close to those of Israel.

Israel wants all Iranian uranium enrichment to stop, but is uneasy about the West’s current focus on halting only higher-percentage enrichment close to a level needed to produce material for nuclear bombs.


European governments on Monday formally approved an embargo on Iranian oil to start on July 1. Debt-ridden Greece had pushed for a delay because it relies heavily on Iranian crude to meet its energy needs, but EU governments said the embargo would go ahead as planned.

“We had an opportunity to discuss the negotiations under way between the international community and Iran,” Netanyahu said of his meeting with Putin.

“We agree that nuclear weapons in the hands of Iran represents a grave danger, first of all to Israel, but also to the region and to the entire world,” he said.

Putin, in his own comments to reporters at Netanyahu’s residence, said they discussed Iran’s nuclear program and the situation in Syria “in great detail”. He did not elaborate.

Russia takes a softer tack than the Western nations and opposes any further sanctions against Iran. Putin has said Russia has no proof that Tehran, which denies it is seeking atomic weapons, intends to become a nuclear-armed power.

His trip to Israel, the Palestinian Territories and Jordan is seen as an effort to increase Russia’s clout in the region at a time when the West and some Arab nations have criticized Moscow for opposing their efforts to force out Syrian President Bashar Assad.

The visit, officially billed as an opportunity to dedicate a memorial in central Israel to the Red Army’s battles against Nazi Germany in World War Two, began a day after the Muslim Brotherhood’s Mohamed Morsi was declared the winner of Egypt’s presidential election.

The outcome of the poll in Egypt, which signed a peace treaty with Israel in 1979, has raised concerns in Israel.

On Syria, Russia has brushed aside U.S. and Arab calls to stop sending weapons to the government there, saying it supplies only defensive arms. It has also used its veto power in the United Nations Security Council to protect Syria.

Assad has helped Russia keep a foothold in the Middle East by buying billions of dollars worth of weapons and hosting a maintenance facility for the Russian navy, its only permanent warm-water port outside the former Soviet Union.

Writing by Jeffrey Heller; Editing by Andrew Osborn

Amid new Iran nuke rumors, Barak and Panetta to meet

Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak will meet with his U.S. counterpart, Leon Panetta, in Washington amid reports that Iran may have achieved the capability to build a nuclear bomb.

Israel has said that such a capability is a “red line” that could trigger military action.

The defense chiefs are scheduled to meet Thursday.

The Associated Press reported this week that it had obtained a drawing of an explosives containment chamber said to exist on an Iranian military site. The chamber’s only known use would be to test nuclear weapons.

Iran has denied reports that it is seeking a nuclear weapon. Western experts have said the Islamic Republic appears to be moving closer to such a capability.

The Obama administration has endeavored to keep Israel from striking while it pursues sanctions and diplomatic pressure as a means of getting Iran to retreat from its suspected nuclear weapons program.

Are Netanyahu and Barak bluffing on Iran?

Has Israel’s game of chicken with Iran jumped the shark?

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak in recent months have been more explicit than ever about the likelihood of an Israeli strike on Iran to keep it from obtaining nuclear weapons capability.

A number of current and former top military officials are now suggesting that the duo has gone too far, turning what was meant to be a calculated bluff into a commitment to a strike that could accelerate Iran’s nuclear program and engulf the region in war.

Are Barak and Netanyahu merely posturing, or are they really intent on waging war?

Last week, Barak marked Israeli Independence Day with a speech dismissing the likelihood that Iran will succumb to diplomatic pressure to end its suspected nuclear weapons program. He said that while the likely success of an Israeli military strike was not “marvelous,” it was preferable to allowing Iran to press forward.

A week earlier, Netanyahu had made a searing Holocaust Remembrance Day speech in which he likened Iran to Nazi Germany and stressed his commitment to Israel’s self-defense.

Such posturing is not novel: Israel, like other parties to longstanding conflicts, for years has used brinksmanship to ward off actual warfare. Statements from its military ending with the threat “we will know how to respond” are routine.

The target of such pronouncements is not only Iran but also the international community, said Steve Rosen, a former foreign policy director for the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) who maintains close ties with some of Netanyahu’s top advisers. Western leaders are likelier to act to isolate Iran when they are faced with the real prospect of Israel going it alone, he said.

“It’s no secret that American and European interest starts with Israel doing something,” Rosen said.

Eitan Barak, a Hebrew University expert on international relations (and no relation to the defense minister), described the tactic as one of brinksmanship.

“There is a possibility that Barak is saying in a closed forum, ‘The military option is not on the table, but let’s say it in public in order to keep this position of brinksmanship,’ ” the professor said.

The problem might be that the “closed forum” now encompasses only Barak and Netanyahu, he said.

“If this is a diplomatic game, the game should be stopped when you discuss this with people like the Mossad and the Shabak,” Eitan Barak said, using the Israeli acronym for the Shin Bet internal security service. “But it could be that Netanyahu and Barak decided it’s such an important issue, they should make themselves really warlike even in the Cabinet, so that there will be no doubt in [the] eyes of foreigners and diplomats that they are ready to launch a military attack.”

On April 27, the day after Barak spoke, Yuval Diskin, the former head of the Shin Bet, said he believed Barak and Netanyahu are serious in contemplating an attack on Iran — and that they are driving Israel into a strike that likely would have severe consequences.

“They create a sense that if the State of Israel does not act there will be a nuclear Iran,” Diskin said. “That part of the sentence, let’s say there’s an element of truth to it — but the second part of the sentence, they tell the public, the ‘idiot’ public, if Israel acts there won’t be an Iranian nuclear bomb. And that’s the part of the sentence that is wrong. After an Israeli attack on Iran, there may well be a dramatic acceleration of the Iranian nuclear program.”

Diskin, speaking to a town hall-type meeting in Kfar Saba, the central Israeli town where he lives, continued: “I do not have confidence in the current leadership of the State of Israel that could bring us into a war with Iran or into a regional war.”

Diskin’s attack was the bluntest so far on Barak and Netanyahu, but he is not alone.

Meir Dagan, the former chief of the Mossad, Israel’s intelligence service, last year delivered similar warnings, and the current military chief of staff, Lt. Gen. Benny Gantz, last week said he believed the Iranian leadership was rational and that the country did not pose an existential threat to Israel.

Rosen noted that many of the critics now speaking were either disgruntled or may entertain political ambitions.

“A lot of them feel snubbed,” he said. “There’s a cadre of security professionals who feel that their views were not adequately taken into account.”

Dagan wanted to stay on as Mossad chief and Diskin had ambitions of replacing him. Ehud Olmert, a former prime minister who over the weekend joined the chorus criticizing Netanyahu, is a longtime rival of Netanyahu’s who is facing a corruption trial in Israel that could bury his comeback prospects.

David Makovsky, a top analyst at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said it was not unusual for the military establishment to exercise greater caution than the political establishment, noting such tensions surfaced in 1981, before Israel took out the Osirak nuclear reactor in Iraq.

“This will be decided by the political echelon, and the security establishment will weigh in, but they won’t necessarily be decisive,” Makovsky said.

None of the officials criticizing Barak and Netanyahu has broken with the Israeli consensus that an Iranian bomb is something to be prevented and not accommodated or “contained.”

The issue concerning the Israeli defense establishment, according to a number of Israeli experts, is whether Barak and Netanyahu have lost sight of the utility of threats to strike Iran — to rally the international community toward stopping Iran from acquiring the bomb.

“The threat of an attack remains a tactical measure which has achieved results,” said Shlomo Aronson, a political scientist who was the Schusterman Visiting Professor of Israel Studies at the University of Arizona from 2007 to 2009. “It should not be pursued in practical terms.”

Aronson said that until now, the tactic has helped focus the international community, led by the Obama administration, on isolating Iran through sanctions and diplomatic pressure.

The concern now permeating the Israeli defense establishment is that Barak and Netanyahu are no longer bluffing, said Avraham Sela, a research fellow of the Harry S. Truman Institute for the Advancement of Peace who served as an intelligence officer under Barak when he was military chief of staff in the 1990s.

He noted that in the 1970s his former commander and Netanyahu were both members of the General Commando Squad, and had preserved from that training the tendency to play one’s cards close to one’s vest.

Barak “remains that commando officer, which means I don’t know to what extent he is calculating and to what extent he is willing to take the risk for such an operation — in the best case, a temporary achievement that will maybe give Israel some time and which could eventually instigate Iran even more to get this weapon, even if they haven’t until now sought it,” Sela said.

Sela noted that during his term as chief of staff, during the 1991 Gulf War, Barak had to credibly threaten to strike Iraqi targets in order to get the U.S.-led alliance to take out Iraqi batteries launching missiles. The George H. W. Bush administration feared that an Israeli strike would shatter the coalition of western and Arab states it had cobbled together.

Barak said recently that Israel would suffer no more than 500 deaths in the event of a war following a preemptive strike on Iran.

Gabriel Sheffer, a professor of political science at the Hebrew University who also served under Barak in the military, said the prediction was greeted with much skepticism and derision by the Israeli media and defense establishment.

“It is pretty sure that the people who will be killed, that the number will be much greater,” he said. “I think that this was part of his attempt to persuade everybody Israel should attack Iran.”

Makovksy said Barak and Netanyahu must convey seriousness of intent in order to have the West pay attention.

“Israel is the only country being threatened with its existence, so it has to take it seriously because they’re not a superpower and their window for action closes early,” he said. “They want to get America’s attention.”

Kerry tells Peres: Obama is committed to keeping nukes from Iran

U.S. Sen. John Kerry told Israeli President Shimon Peres that there is “no doubt” about President Obama’s commitment to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon.

Kerry (D-Mass.), the chairman of the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, met Tuesday morning in Jerusalem with Peres. Kerry is on an official visit to the Middle East.

“If I can just say to you and to the people of Israel: I hope there is no doubt about President Obama’s seriousness and commitment that Iran should not have and cannot have a nuclear weapon,” Kerry said during the meeting, according to Peres’ office. “The president has made it clear that he is not talking about containment, he is talking about prevention.”

Peres replied that he has complete confidence in Obama and his commitment to prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon. The Israeli leader suggested during their discussion that neither Israel nor the Palestinians can afford to wait until after the U.S. elections in November to make advances toward peace.

“The following months are critical,” he said, “and we must navigate through this period with care and wisdom.”

Kerry congratulated Peres on being named a recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom, among the highest honors presented by the United States.

Divided by common foe, Israel and U.S. tangle over Iran

Ever since their first awkward encounter – a hastily arranged meeting in a custodian’s office at a Washington airport in 2007 – Iran has been one of the few issues on which Barack Obama and Benjamin Netanyahu have been able to find some common ground.

Nearly five years ago, neither man was yet in power but both hoped to be, and though they were very different politicians they grabbed the opportunity to size each other up when their paths crossed.

The Israeli right-winger came across, at first, as strident in his views, while the newly declared Democratic presidential candidate seemed wary. But when Netanyahu insisted on the urgent need to do more to isolate Iran economically and Obama said “tell me more,” the mood suddenly brightened, according to one account of the meeting.

It was part of what Netanyahu, who first served as prime minister from 1996 to 1999, has described as a 15-year personal effort to “broaden as much as possible the international front against Iran,” a foe that has called for Israel’s destruction.

Obama, then a first-term senator, would go on to introduce an Iran divestment bill in Congress on the way to winning the White House in the 2008 election.

Now, with Obama and Netanyahu due to meet in Washington on March 5, the Iranian nuclear standoff will again top the agenda. But this time, a trust deficit between the two leaders could make it harder to decide what action to take against the Islamic Republic over its nuclear program.

The Obama administration, increasingly concerned about the lack of any assurance from Israel that it would consult Washington before launching strikes on Iran’s nuclear sites, has scrambled in recent weeks to convince Israeli leaders to give sanctions and diplomacy more time to work, U.S. officials say.

Israel has been listening – but after a series of high-level U.S. visits there is no sign it has been swayed.

Defense Minister Ehud Barak, who along with Netanyahu met U.S. National Security Adviser Tom Donilon last week, complained privately afterward that Washington is lobbying for a delay in any Israeli attack on Iran while time is running out for such a strike to be effective, Israeli political sources said.

Barak has spoken publicly of an Iranian “zone of immunity” to aerial attack, a reference to the start of additional uranium enrichment at a remote site believed to be buried beneath 80 meters (265 feet) of rock and soil near the city of Qom.

Donilon’s visit to Israel coincided with a cautionary note from General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the U.S. joint chiefs of staff, who told CNN it would be “premature to exclusively decide that the time for a military option was upon us.”

The United States, Dempsey said, has counseled Israel “that it’s not prudent at this point to decide to attack Iran.” He said sanctions were beginning to have an effect and it is still unclear whether Tehran would choose to make a nuclear weapon.

Obama and top aides have said they do not believe Israel has made a decision to attack Iran even as they caution about devastating consequences in the Middle East – and potentially around the globe – if it does so.

U.S. intelligence sources say they would expect little or no advance notice from Israel, except possibly as a courtesy call when any bombing mission is at the point of no return. But one line of thinking within the Obama administration is that this might be best for the United States since any sign of complicity would inflame the Muslim world.

“When it comes to something that the Israeli government considers essential to Israel’s security, they will take whatever action they deem necessary, even if there is a level of disagreement with other countries, including the United States,” said Michael Herzog, a former chief of staff to Barak and now an international fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East policy.

Senators to urge Obama to make Iranian nukes ‘capability’ a red line

A bipartisan slate of U.S. senators will present a resolution calling on the Obama administration to make a “nuclear-weapons capability” by Iran a red line.

The non-binding resolution, to be introduced Thursday by Sens. Robert Casey (D-Pa.), Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) and Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), “urges the President to reaffirm the unacceptability of an Iran with nuclear-weapons capability and to oppose any policy that would rely on containment as an option in response to the Iranian nuclear threat.”

Israel and the United States have differed since the last Bush administration over what should trigger a military strike: Iran’s acquisition of a nuclear weapon, which has been the American red line, or the capability to build and deliver such a weapon, which has been the Israeli red line.

However, in recent months there have been signs that the Obama administration is drawing closer to how Israel sees the point of no return.

In a little-noticed joint statement issued in December following a session of the U.S.-Israel security dialogue, William Burns, the deputy U.S. secretary of state, and his Israeli counterpart, Daniel Ayalon, said that “continued efforts by the international community are critical to bringing about change in Iranian behavior and preventing Iran from developing a nuclear weapons capability.”

Israeli officials at the time welcomed as significant the use of the word “developing” as opposed to “acquiring.” 

Within weeks, U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta also was using the term.

“Our red line to Iran is to not develop a nuclear weapon,” he told CBS on Jan. 8. “That’s a red line for us.”

Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak has said that Iran could achieve capability before the end of this year.

Panetta: Iranian nuke is a ‘red line’

An Iranian nuclear weapon would be a “red line” for Israel and the United States, U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said.

“We share the same common concern,” Panetta told CBS News in an interview broadcast Monday. “The United States does not want Iran to develop a nuclear weapon. That’s a red line for us and that’s a red line, obviously, for the Israelis. If we have to do it we will deal with it.”

The remarks seemed aimed at concerns by Israeli and pro-Israel officials that the Obama administration would seek to contain a nuclear Iran as opposed to stop it from having nuclear weapons altogether.

“If they proceed and we get intelligence that they are proceeding with developing a nuclear weapon, then we will take whatever steps necessary to stop it,” Panetta said.

Pressed as to a military option, he said, “No options are off the table.”

Panetta had dismayed Israelis earlier this month when he said that a strike would set Iran’s nuclear program back by two years maximum; the remark was seen as in line with thinking that such a program is inevitable.

In his CBS interview, Panetta said Iran may be capable of producing a nuclear weapon within a year.

Dump Iranian minister, German foundation told

Iran critics are calling on a German foundation to cut ties with a board of trustees member who has called for Israel’s destruction.

The Stop the Bomb campaign has called for the ouster of Mostafa Dolyata, Iran’s acting vice minister, from the board of the Schloss Neuhardenberg Foundation, a German banking group foundation.

According to the campaign, which pushes for stronger sanctions against Iran to curb its nuclear ambitions, Dolatya told an Iranian news agency in June 2010, “We hope that the prophecy of the Imam [Khomeini] regarding the downfall of this regime [Israel] will occur very soon and that we will be witnesses of it.”

Michael Spaney, a spokesman in Germany for Stop the Bomb, said in a news release that “An anti-Semite who welcomes the annihilation of Israel is simply out of place as a board member in a democratic foundation.

Spaney also said that no one who represents a regime that oppresses its own people should be acceptable for a German foundation whose founder was moved by “ethically grounded resistance against a dictatorial, unjust regime,” according to the foundation’s website.

A foundation spokesman told The Jerusalem Post that the foundation would examine whether its longstanding contacts with Iran would continue following the restructuring of the board. Jorg Kronsbein said Mostafa’s anti-Israel comment “was not known” to the foundation” and called it “entirely unacceptable.”

Report: Increased activity at suspected Iranian nuke site

Satellite pictures reportedly are showing increased activity at an Iranian site suspected of housing secret work on the country’s nuclear weapons program.

The disclosure was made Monday by The Associated Press, which cited officials from member countries of the United Nations nuclear watchdog organization, the International Atomic Energy Agency.

Iran is trying to hide its actions, the report said, by removing evidence of nuclear research and development.

The increased activity includes many vehicles coming and going, according to the AP, which is viewed as evidence that Iran is trying to sanitize the area.

Iran has said it is only producing nuclear power but has not allowed representatives of the IAEA in the country for the past three years.

Earlier this month, the IAEA issued a report saying there was “credible” evidence that Iran was working on a nuclear weapon.

Israel test-fires ballistic missile: Israel Radio

Israel test-fired a ballistic missile on Wednesday, Israel Radio said, amid a heightened public debate over the possibility of an Israeli attack against Iran’s nuclear program.

“Israel today carried out the test-firing of a rocket propulsion system from the Palmachim base (in central Israel),” a Defense Ministry statement said.

“This had been planned by the defense establishment a long time ago and has been carried out as scheduled.”

A Defense Ministry official declined to comment on the type of rocket tested. But Israel Radio’s military affairs correspondent, who is regularly briefed by top officers on defense matters, said a ballistic missile was launched.

Israel, considered to be the Middle East’s only nuclear power, successfully test-fired a two-stage, long-range ballistic missile in 2008.

It is widely believed to have Jericho missiles capable of carrying nuclear warheads, civilian “Shavit” rockets used to launch satellites and the Arrow missile interceptor.

The launch coincided with mounting speculation in Israel that its leaders could be preparing a military attack on Iran to curb a nuclear program they say is aimed at producing atomic weapons. Iran says its nuclear activities are peaceful.

The public debate was sparked at the weekend when a newspaper commentator suggested Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak may have decided, without seeking wider cabinet approval, to attack Iranian nuclear facilities.

In a policy speech opening parliament’s winter session on Monday, Netanyahu again voiced his view that a nuclear Iran would pose a serious threat to Israel and to the world.

But he stopped short of making any direct threat of Israeli military action. Israel has said repeatedly that all options are on the table in trying to curb Iran’s nuclear ambitions.

Writing by Jeffrey Heller; editing by Andrew Roche

Anger greets Olmert’s concessions on Golan, West Bank, Iran

JERUSALEM (JTA)—A Rosh Hashanah-eve interview in which outgoing Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said Israel should give up the Golan Heights for peace with Syria and nearly all of the West Bank for peace with the Palestinians has sparked a political storm in Israel.

Prime minister-designate Tzipi Livni, who is set to succeed Olmert as soon as she forms a coalition government, quickly distanced herself from most of Olmert’s key pronouncements, which included an assertion that it would be megalomaniacal for Israel to attack Iran unilaterally.

Politicians on the right lambasted Olmert for his dovish message, and left-wingers slammed him for not going public with his vision before he was a lame duck.

Some Israeli analysts saw evidence in Olmert’s transformation from one-time super-hawk to unmitigated dove of a final collapse of the ideology of Greater Israel, which advocates holding on to as much conquered territory as possible.

Olmert, who is stepping down amid a corruption investigation, in the interview published last week by the Israeli daily Yediot Achronot made the following points:

* It is presumptuous to think Israel can stop Iran’s nuclear drive when powers such as the United States, Russia, China, Britain and Germany seem unable to do so.

* Israel has a very short window of time in which it can take “historic steps” in its relations with the Palestinians and the Syrians.

* For peace with the Palestinians, Israel will have to withdraw from most of the West Bank, including eastern Jerusalem, and grant compensation on a one-to-one basis for whatever land it keeps. “Without this, there won’t be peace,” he insisted.

* For peace with Syria, Israel will have to return the Golan Heights.

* Israel is very close to agreement both with the Palestinians and Syria, and if Olmert had stayed on he would have had a good chance of closing the deals.

* The main security problem Israel faces today is missiles, and having the border a few hundred yards one way or the other won’t make any difference.

* Years of conservative thinking by the Israeli establishment have undermined peace prospects.

“When I listen to you, I know why we didn’t make peace with the Palestinians and the Syrians for 40 years and why we won’t make peace with them for another 40 years,” he recalled saying at a recent forum with the country’s top policymakers.

If the interview was meant to constitute Olmert’s political legacy, his presumptive successor was quick to reject it.

Livni, the foreign minister, said Olmert was wrong to go public with Israel’s final negotiating positions while she is in the midst of intensive negotiations with the Palestinians.

“We agreed negotiations should take place in the negotiating room, not on the pages of a newspaper,” she said at a Foreign Ministry conference in Jerusalem after Rosh Hashanah.

Olmert also was roundly criticized on the right for saying too much and on the left for doing too little.

Yuval Steinitz of the Likud Party took issue with Olmert’s contention that in an age of missiles, Israel could afford to give up hundreds of yards on its borders.

“Ignoring the difference between rockets fired from long distances and an enemy perched on hills above Jerusalem shows just how little he understands basic security issues,” Steinitz said.

Yossi Beilin of the Meretz Party castigated Olmert for “revealing his true position on the national interest only when he has nothing to lose.”

Those sentiments were echoed overseas, where Olmert’s conciliatory positions were welcomed but with wonderment at why he hadn’t said as much earlier.

An editorial in The New York Times summed up the sentiment in an editorial Saturday titled “Mr. Olmert’s Belated Truths.”

“It is tragic that he did not do more to act on those beliefs when he had real power,” the editorial said.

Olmert is the fourth Israeli prime minister to start his political life as a hawk in the vein of the Likud or its predecessor, Herut, and then to surprise observers later with the extent of his willingness to make far-reaching concessions.

Herut founder Menachem Begin returned the Sinai to Egypt; Benjamin Netanyahu withdrew Israeli forces from Hebron, concluded the Wye River agreement with the Palestinians and negotiated with Syria over withdrawing from the Golan; and Ariel Sharon pulled back unilaterally from the Gaza Strip.

Olmert, it seems, has now set the stage for an Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank and the Golan Heights.

Olmert confidants argue that the frank expression of his views has positive elements for future peacemaking and diplomacy. They say it has created a strong incentive for the various Arab parties to negotiate peace and shown the international community how far Israel would be willing to go—a possible public relations advantage if peace efforts fail.

Moreover, they say, Olmert has put peacemaking and its time constraints squarely on the public agenda.

Critics, however, reject these claims. They point out that Olmert’s stated readiness for full withdrawal on all fronts encourages Arab parties to cling to maximalist positions, not compromise. It also puts the next Israeli prime minister on the spot: If peace moves break down, they say, the next prime minister will be blamed for not going as far as Olmert would have.

Livni bristled at the implication that peace would be achievable under Olmert if he could have stayed on, and if she failed to achieve peace during her tenure as prime minister, she would be to blame.

Most importantly, Livni, Olmert’s likely successor, also came out against the substance of Olmert’s key positions.

In a meeting Sunday in Jerusalem with French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner, Livni said she opposed the framework of Olmert’s offer to the Palestinians. She said she was against making far-reaching proposals for a quick fix and that negotiations should be allowed all the time they needed to ripen into a well-constructed and lasting deal.

Livni was critical as well of Olmert’s position on Iran. In the Yediot interview, Olmert dismissed as “megalomania” the notion that Israel would or should unilaterally attack Iran. Olmert said the international community, not just Israel, should take the steps necessary to arrest Iran’s suspected nuclear weapons program.

Livni said Olmert’s remarks sent the wrong message to Tehran and that Israel should be sending the message to the Iranians that all options are on the table.

Despite her sharp criticism, Foreign Ministry officials said Livni does not think Olmert’s comments will have a serious impact on the peace process.

“Olmert is not relevant anymore,” a senior ministry official told JTA. “What he says doesn’t matter.”

Ahmadinejad spews same old hate at U.N.

NEW YORK (JTA)—Iran’s president delivered a scathing attack on Zionists at the United Nations.

In an address replete with classical anti-Semitic motifs, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said Tuesday that Zionists are criminals and murderers, are “acquisitive” and “deceitful,” and dominate global finance despite their “minuscule” number.

“It is deeply disastrous to witness that some presidential nominees have to visit these people, take part in their gatherings and swear their allegiance and commitment to their interests in order to win financial or media support,” Ahmadinejad said.

“These nations are spending their dignity and resources on the crimes and threats of the Zionist network against their will.”

Ahmadinejad said the “Zionist regime” was on the path to collapse and that a messianic age of peace and brotherhood is soon to arrive.

The Iranian president also sounded a defiant note with respect to his country’s nuclear program, which he described as peaceful but which Western nations suspect of pursuing weapons capability. Ahmadinejad called nuclear power his country’s “inalienable” right and accused “a few bullying powers” of opposing Iran’s progress.

“It is very natural that the great Iranian people, with their trust in God and with determination and steadfastness, and with the support of its friends, will resist the bullying and will continue to defend its rights,” he said. “We will not accept illegal demands.”

Ahmadinejad also included the “underhanded actions of the Zionists” as among the causes of the recent unrest in the former Soviet republic of Georgia.

In an interview with the Los Angeles Times published Tuesday, Ahmadinejad said Israel’s demise would benefit everyone, especially the United States.

“The regime resembles an airplane that has lost its engine and is kind of going down. And no one can help it,” he said. “This will benefit everyone.”

Thousands protest Ahmadinejad in New York — no Clinton, no Palin [VIDEO]

NEW YORK (JTA)—Thousands of protesters filled Dag Hammarskjold Plaza opposite the United Nations for a rally against Iran’s president, who came to town to address the General Assembly.

“The message to him is please go home,” Nobel laureate Elie Wiesel said at Monday’s demonstration. “Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, go home and stay home. We don’t want you here.”

Wiesel called for U.N. members to declare Ahmadinejad persona non grata and to exit the General Assembly hall in protest when he speaks Tuesday afternoon.

“In truth, the proper place of Iran’s president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, is not in the U.N.,” Wiesel said. “His place is before an international tribunal which will charge him with inciting crimes against humanity.”

The Jewish-sponsored rally was meant to highlight the Iranian regime’s threats to Israel and the rest of the world with its pursuit of nuclear weapons, as well as its Holocaust denial, and to send a message to Ahmadinejad, organizers said.

Rally speakers stayed on message, slamming the visiting Iranian leader and warning of the threat a nuclear Iran would pose to the United States, Israel and the world.

There was little sign of the

Politicizing Iran: GOP spikes Obama sanctions bill, Dems scuttle Palin’s rally gig

WASHINGTON (JTA)—Just when you thought it was safe to put the issue of Iran back in the bipartisan closet, out it roars into a food fight between the Republicans and Democrats.

The two parties are tussling over who should have appeared at a Jewish-sponsored anti-Iran rally next week and who is responsible for the failure of sanctions legislation in Congress.

Each side accused the other of using a life-and-death issue to politick. Republicans said Democrats got the GOP running mate disinvited from the rally to keep her out of the public eye; Democrats said Republicans trashed the sanctions legislation to keep the Democratic presidential candidate from scoring a major legislative victory.

Caught in the middle are the Jewish organizations that hoped presidential politicking would push forward—not hinder—efforts to shine a spotlight on the nefariousness of the Iranian regime and sanction the Islamic Republic in the hopes of getting it to stand down from its suspected nuclear weapons program.

Just days ago, Jewish groups appeared to have secured two major victories: The Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations and the other groups behind the rally had scored a superstar from each party to appear at their New York demonstration next Monday, timed to coincide with the visit of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad for the opening of the U.N. General Assembly.

Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-N.Y.), whose bid for her party’s nomination dogged Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) until June, had agreed to appear weeks ago, and on Monday, JTA learned that Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, the running mate to Republican presidential nominee Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), would take up the Republican mantle.

Meanwhile, far-reaching legislation in Congress that would facilitate divestment from Iran and enhance existing sanctions had overcome Republican objections in the Senate and was ready for passage.

But within a couple of days, nicey-nice gave way to oh-no-you’re-not: Clinton pulled out of the rally with a plaint that Palin’s participation cast a partisan pallor over the proceedings, setting off a chain reaction culminating in the decision Thursday to move ahead without Palin and any of the other elected officials who had been invited to speak at the event. And on Wednesday night Republicans pulled the rug out from under a sanctions package that had been assured passage in the Senate.

In both cases, presidential campaign politics appeared to have gotten in the way of good will.

The rally flap grabbed the headlines, but the bigger policy setback for Jewish groups came in the Senate.

For months, Democrats have been trying to push through two bills passed overwhelmingly last year in the U.S. House of Representatives. One would lock up loopholes that allow foreign subsidiaries of U.S. companies to deal with Iran, shut down dealings with any company that conducted substantial business with Iran’s energy sector and cut off Iran’s banking system from any U.S.-controlled markets. The other, authored by Obama, would enable pension plans to disinvest from Iran by protecting them from investor lawsuits and publishing a list of companies that deal with Iran.

Republicans had pushed back against the bills for a variety of reasons. The Bush White House jealously guards its foreign policy prerogatives and saw both bills as undercutting delicate negotiations with European nations, Russia and China to coordinate Iran’s isolation; U.S. business interests see the sanctions as a gift to overseas companies; and, according to pro-Israel insiders, Republicans did not want to hand Obama an election-year legislative victory, especially as they try to depict him as lacking experience.

Pro-Israel lobbyists, led by the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, wore down the objections, and by this week Sen. Chris Dodd (D-Conn.), a close ally of Obama, had wrapped both bills into an amendment to be attached to the Defense Authorization Bill, which must pass this congressional term. Dodd had virtual wall-to-wall backing for the legislation, as well as a Republican co-sponsor, Sen. Richard Shelby (R-Ala.).

Bush still threatened a veto.

“The bills would also serve, if enacted, to divide the multilateral coalition that has come together to oppose Iran’s nuclear programs, by requiring the Administration to submit ‘blacklists’ of foreign companies investing in Iran’s energy sector,” said a Sept. 9 statement from the Office of Management and Budget, an arm of the executive branch.

Still, the legislation was guaranteed a veto-proof majority in the Senate and the House – a victory that would have handed Obama a significant boost just weeks before election day.

Then, Wednesday night, Republicans added several more last-minute amendments to the package, which Democrats saw as a delaying tactic and rejected. In retaliation, Republicans blocked all amendments to the bill, including the one on Iran.

Dodd, undeterred, took the Iran sanctions legislation to the Senate floor in a last-minute plea to allow his Iran amendment, if not the 100 or so others to which both sides had agreed.

“This is the one opportunity for this body to embrace an economic sanctions proposal which would give us tremendous leverage in our efforts to bring Iran to “negotiations to end its weapons program, Dodd said. “To lose that opportunity would be a serious loss of opportunity for this country.”

Sen. John Warner (R-Va.), who is retiring at year’s end and thus faces no political repercussions, rose to exercise his prerogative to block the amendment. He made sure to say he supported the amendment, leaving unanswered the question of why he killed it.

“I, personally, approved of putting in the amendment,” Warner said in a disavowal of his own action—unusual even under the Senate’s arcane traditions. “It had been my hope, I say it is now no longer my hope, my disappointment, that that could not be achieved.”

The Obama campaign cried foul.

“John McCain had a real opportunity today to stand up for Israel’s security, but he refused to stand up to his own party,” it said within hours of Warner’s block. “Instead of supporting Barack Obama’s legislation to pressure Iran by accelerating state and local divestment initiatives, John McCain ignored the very real threat to Israel and took a pass. We cannot afford four more years of this kind of failed judgment that has left Israel endangered and America less secure.”

When asked about the claim that the GOP was sinking the bill for political purposes, McCain’s campaign said it would not accept criticism on the sanctions front, noting that the GOP nominee long had advocated the strategy, if not the specific legislation in question.

“Senator Obama is again playing politics with the truth to cover up his weak and inconsistent record when it comes to Iran,” said campaign spokeswoman Crystal Benton. “While Senator McCain has been calling for divestment from Iran since early 2007, Senator Obama has pledged to meet unconditionally with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and opposed the Kyl-Lieberman amendment that would have designated the Iranian Revolutionary Guard as a foreign terrorist organization.”

Obama has backed away somewhat from his pledge in 2007 for an unconditional meeting with Ahmadinejad and has backed separate legislation labeling the Iranian Revolutionary Guard a terrorist group. Obama also repeatedly has said he objected to the amendment by Sens. John Kyl (R-Ariz.) and Joseph Lieberman (I-Conn.) because it included language that linked Iran to attacks on U.S. forces in Iraq—language that some Democrats said could be misused by the Bush administration to justify military action against Iran.

Left unexplained was why McCain, whose indeed has vociferously backed sanctions, did not support Dodd’s amendment.

Dodd blamed politics.

“Clearly, the idea of giving Barack Obama credit for having authored a critical section of the amendment was on the minds of some,” he told JTA. “I guarantee that was part of it.”

At the same time that the sanctions deal was breaking down in the Senate, the high-profile plans for the New York rally also were unraveling.

On Monday, Clinton pulled out, with her aides saying she was blindsided by Palin’s booking for the same event. Palin, the first woman on a Republican ticket, has been hankering after the women who had pledged allegiance to Clinton; the New York senator was not about to hand over that photo op.

Additionally, Clinton had been invited as a lawmaker and Palin as a candidate—an imbalance that Democrats said would tip the rally from a nonpartisan event to a partisan rally.

Democrats were furious with the Conference of Presidents, accusing the Jewish group of being manipulated in a bid by Republicans to shine some foreign policy experience on Palin.

The political accusations flew back and forth, all but burying the aim of the rally.

Palin spokeswoman Tracey Schmitt said Palin “believes that the danger of a nuclear Iran is greater than party or politics.”

Democrats countered that it was the Republicans that seeded the partisanship by offering a candidate and not another lawmaker. Officials at the Conference of Presidents said they had tried to get Republican lawmakers to come to the rally but had been rebuffed.

Ann Lewis, a close adviser to Clinton who was a key figure in her Jewish outreach operation during the Democratic primaries, told JTA that “the way to keep it non-partisan, in our mind, is you invite both candidates.”

On Wednesday morning, following Clinton’s decision to back out and in the face of mounting criticism over the decision to tap Palin, the Presidents Conference did just that, extending an invitation to the Obama campaign. The Obama camp agreed to send Rep. Robert Wexler (D-Fla.), one of the Democratic nominee’s top Jewish backers.

By Thursday afternoon, the conference had withdrawn the invitation to Palin and all other elected officials.

One of the impetuses: 20,000 Jews signed a petition organized by J Street, the dovish pro-Israel lobby, urging the conference to ask Palin to pull out. The National Jewish Democratic Council issued a similar call after its own executive director, Ira Forman, criticized the top professional at the Presidents Conference, executive vice chairman Malcolm Hoenlein.

Hoenlein and others involved in planning the rally insisted that they simply had been motivated by a desire to focus as much attention as possible on the rally against Ahmadinejad—while also keeping the event bipartisan.

On Thursday, the Conference of Presidents acknowledged a shift in planning was needed.

“In order to keep the focus on Iranian threats and to ensure that this critical message not be obscured, the organizers of the rally have decided not to have any American political personalities appear,” the group said in a statement. The organization also announced that Nobel laureate Elie Wiesel and Israeli Knesset Speaker Dalia Itzik would address the demonstration.

Following the announcement, McCain’s campaign lashed out at Democrats.

“Gov. Palin was pleased to accept an invitation to address this rally and show her resolve on this grave national security issue,” it said in a statement. “Regrettably that invitation has since been withdrawn under pressure from Democratic partisans.”

McCain and Obama campaigns focus on sanctions as Iran threat looms

WASHINGTON (JTA) — The mounting anxiety over Iran’s nuclear program is sparking campaign chatter over a possible Israeli strike and prompting a bipartisan effort to revive long-stalled sanctions legislation in the U.S. Congress.

Time is running out, say advocates of new congressional sanctions against Iran, with some wondering if a nuclear deadline for the Islamic Republic looms as early as next year. But an election or three — in the United States, Israel and Iran — seem to stand in the way of coordinated action, and conventional wisdom posits that a U.S. president who is perhaps the lamest duck in decades is hardly in a position to carry through with meaningful action.

Against this backdrop, attention has turned increasingly to the possibility of Israel launching a pre-emptive strike, with reports claiming that U.S. officials have told Jerusalem not to take such action. At the same time, however, both vice-presidential candidates have said in recent weeks that the United States should respect any Israeli decision on the matter and both campaigns were planning this week to discuss their Iran policies with Jewish communal leaders.

In the Congress, escalating concerns about Iran have prompted Democrats and Republicans to set aside sharp election-year differences to coordinate with Israel and the pro-Israel lobby to push through sanctions legislation before year’s end, including the Iran Sanctions Enabling Act sponsored by Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.).

The measure would mandate the publication every six months of a list of companies invested in Iran’s energy and defense sectors in order to facilitate divestment from Iran by state pension funds. It also protects from lawsuits fund managers who divest from Iran.

Obama’s bill and the Iran Counterproliferation Act are under consideration for attachment to a defense authorization measure that must be passed this term.

The bills have been held up until now because of resistance from the Bush administration and congressional Republicans for myriad reasons: Some business interests have opposed the counterproliferation bill because it would close loopholes that have allowed American companies to continue working with Iran through foreign-owned subsidiaries.

Additionally, the Bush administration has aggressively opposed limitations on its executive prerogative in foreign policy. Pro-Israel insiders say that some Republicans have opposed the sanctions-enabling legislation because they don’t want to give Obama, the Democrats’ presidential nominee, a legislative victory in an election year.

But many of those differences have been set aside in recent weeks, pro-Israel insiders told JTA.

Dan Shapiro, an Obama foreign policy adviser and top Jewish outreach coordinator, confirmed to JTA that Obama’s bill, which would offer tort protections to pensions that divest from Iran, is likely to be part of the defense authorization measure that is set to pass.

“It has the support of several dozen senators,” Shapiro said.
He would not, however, count out resistance from the White House.

Earlier sanctions have had an impact: Businesses increasingly are reluctant to invest in Iran in part because of sanctions Bush has implemented on Iranian banks through executive order.

The perceived need for some kind of action has been exacerbated by the lame-duck status of Bush, who is exiting office as one of the least popular presidents in modern history, and Wednesday’s primaries in Israel. The Israeli vote is likely to be followed by weeks or months of political realignments ahead of new general elections.

In addition, Iran is set to hold presidential elections next June, raising hopes of ousting Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, whose fiery rhetoric has fanned much of the anxiety about a nuclear Iran.

According to experts, the next president — whether it is Obama or U.S. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) — is likely to ramp up the pressure on Iran. But differences persist in how each man would go about increasing the pressure.

A bipartisan slate of five former secretaries of state — including Henry Kissinger, now a McCain adviser — met this week under CNN auspices and agreed that talks with Iran would likely be on the agenda next year, whoever is president. McCain repeatedly has criticized Obama’s willingness to talk with Iranian leaders and painted the Democratic candidate as dangerously naive on the matter.

Obama is considering how best to establish an international commitment to further isolate Iran; McCain is considering ways to encourage internal Iranian dissent toward regime change.

Both campaigns are making their case on Iran this week to segments of the Jewish community. On Wednesday, McCain’s senior advisers were to meet with Jewish backers in Arlington, Va., while Obama himself was to take part in a conference call with rabbinical leaders.

“This is an extremely important issue, an extremely serious issue, and an extremely urgent issue,” Tony Lake, Obama’s top national security adviser, said at an event organized by the Center for U.S. Global Engagement in Denver during the Democratic National Convention last month. “It could well lead to the worst crisis that we will see over the next five years because the development of an Iranian nuclear weapon will present a huge threat to the security of Israel, to others in the region, to the Europeans, including the Russians, and many others.”

Obama wants to see “progress between now and next January,” Lake said, but already is planning action “as soon as he takes office.”

Dennis Ross, the former top Middle East negotiator under Bush’s father and Bill Clinton, and now a senior Obama adviser, said the candidate’s preferred approach would be “serious sticks and serious carrots” — in that order.

“You’ve got to change the formula from weak sticks and weak carrots, which is not enough to concentrate the Iranian mind in terms of the negotiations and make them change behavior,” Ross told JTA.

An Obama administration would rally the international community to cut off refined petroleum exports to Iran, hitting almost half of its gas supply, and end investment in the Islamic Republic’s antiquated energy infrastructure.

The obstacles to such a strategy remain China and Russia, which maintain extensive business contacts in Iran. Ross described a strategy of first targeting China, which depends heavily on Iran for its oil supply. China, he noted, is even more dependent on Saudi oil, yet no serious effort has been made to recruit Saudi Arabia into leveraging the Chinese into isolating Iran, even though the Saudis have even more to fear from a nuclear Iran than Israel.

Ross said Obama also became interested, after touring Israel in July and meeting top security officials there, in targeting the five major re-insurers — the companies that underwrite insurance companies. A re-insurance boycott would go a substantial way toward crippling Iran’s energy sector.

The McCain campaign is similarly exercised about Iran, but is mapping a different approach focused on supporting internal political resistance to the regime.

“I think you’ll see John McCain, diplomatically, working very aggressively with countries throughout the Middle East who feel, and properly so, a threat from the rise of the Shi’a extremist regime, and try to get a larger condominium to address them,” said Richard Williamson, the Bush administration’s envoy to Sudan who also is advising the McCain campaign, earlier this month in Minneapolis.

McCain campaign officials did not return requests for interviews on the topic, but Williamson advocated a “soft” campaign of encouraging democratization within Iran as well as building up a regional front that would isolate the regime.

“There has to be a recognition that that regime has its own fissions, and divisions within it,” he said, before rattling them off: “The balance of power between the president, Ahmadinejad, and the supreme leader, constituencies, it has economic growth problems, it has an increasingly dissatisfied younger population and the majority of the country is under 30 years of age, and it has stresses with neighbors.”

Williamson added: “I think you’re going to see John McCain utilizing the instruments he has been involved in, all over the world, in over 90 countries, in trying to help civil society, endemic democratic institutions grow.”