November 16, 2018

North Korean nukes: Has President Trump reached his “Leit Breirah” moment?

People walk in front of a monitor showing news of North Korea's fresh threat in Tokyo, Japan, August 10, 2017. REUTERS/Toru Hanai

Previous U.S. Presidents have kicked the proverbial North Korea nuclear can down the road. Now it appears that President Trump may soon have to choose between continued “deterrence and containment” or some form of military action to stop Kim Jong Un from having an arsenal of nuclear-tipped ICBM’s targeting America’s heartland.

During the Cold War, MAD (mutually assured destruction) worked to straitjacket nuke-laden adversaries. But who’s to say if mad Kim Jong Un can be deterred? Every president from Bill Clinton on thought they could make a deal with the Kim dynasty and in the end got played. That hasn’t stopped Republicans and Democrats alike weighing in with advice and warnings to President Trump.

Perhaps a good place to for Trump to look for perspective is the 1981 decision by the late Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin. Against prevailing world opinion and Middle East expertise, he ordered the Israeli Air Force’s incredibly daring raid to take out Saddam Hussein’s Osirak nuclear reactor. 

That damaged facility wasn’t totally destroyed until the U.S Air Force did it during the 1991 Persian Gulf War. Ironic, since earlier the Reagan Administration joined the rest of the UN Security Council in condemning Israel and even delayed delivery of new F-16s. Yet what Israel did in 1981 was a game changer. You don’t have to be a general to understand how different the world would have been in 1990 if a nuclearized Saddam invaded Kuwait.

Still, a recent front-page New York Times article evaluating Trump’s options quotes experts who, incredibly, criticize Begin’s bold move for two reasons: Jerusalem violated a UN Security Council resolution and the Israeli PM could have delayed any action until there was a verifiable “imminent threat.”

The President of the United States, cognizant of his oath of office to defend and protect the American people cannot take cover behind “experts” or sanctimonious UN resolutions in face of a looming existential threat.

Setting up “imminent threat” as the standard or litmus test for taking action sounds reasonable—but not when you are confronted by perpetrators of unimaginable evil. Back in the 1930s, experts and elites in England lined up behind Neville Chamberlain as he pursued just such an approach with “Herr Hitler.” Some of the appeasers were fascists, some on the left. Rationale people, remembering WWI carnage, even had every reason to avoid another war. The problem was, instead of taking early and painful action against the Nazis, Chamberlain and Company allowed the cunning Hitler to constantly move the goal posts until it was too late. Chamberlain’s unwitting “delay of game” strategy would lead to 55 million dead in the catastrophic WWII.

Let’s be honest. For years, the U.S. allowed the Kims to move the goalposts, constantly re-defining what is an “imminent threat.”

It’s now left to the Trump team, which includes seasoned military leaders to draw a real red line on Pyongyang to ensure that Americans wake up tomorrow to embrace the future, not confront a nuclear holocaust.

President Trump may also want to read up on Israeli Prime Minister Gold Meir who had to consider launching a nuclear weapon strike when the Jewish state—the victim of sneak attack by Egypt and Syria on Yom Kippur, 1973, was in danger of being overrun in the early stages of that bitter war. Meir later admitted that her “heart was very much drawn” to a preemptive strike—like Israel’s in 1967 against Egypt’s Nasser— but was scared: “1973 is not 1967, and this time we will not be forgiven, and we will not receive [American] assistance when we have the need for it,” Golda later testified.

Thankfully, Israel was able to prevail sans nuclear weapons—but at a very high cost of dead and wounded. Golda Meir made mistakes in the lead-in to the Yom Kippur War. Unclear after all these years is exactly what those “mistakes” were. Was she right—or wrong—to refrain from a preemptive strike? One thing is clear that Israel has always been willing to deploy “a secret weapon”—in Golda’s words— Leit Breirah”: “we have no choice but to act” when our survival is at stake.

Today, President Trump does have choices about the NK nuke threat—none easy. Has he arrived at a Leit Breira moment that could trigger preemptive action? Or can he afford—and for how long—to give diplomacy one more a chance?

And will more words and more sanctions convince Kim to back down or prove to him that the US lacks the guts to act.

The answers to these questions will have grave consequences not only for Koreans, Japanese, Chinese, and Americans, but also for the Gulf States, Egypt, and Israel who are being menaced by an aggressive Iran emboldened by sweetheart nuclear deal with the P5+1 led by President Obama.

Think and say what you may about Donald Trump’s presidential style or choice of words. At this moment, we should all pray that he and his team take the right path…

Rabbi Abraham Cooper is Associate Dean and Director of Global Social Action for the Simon Wiesenthal Center

Dr. Harold Brackman, a historian is a consultant to the Simon Wiesenthal Center

North Korea leader at drill orders nuclear weapons use at any time: KCNA

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un supervised the exercise of newly developed multiple rocket launchers and ordered his country to be ready to use nuclear weapons “at any time” in the face of a growing threat from enemies, its official media said on Friday.

Kim also said his country should turn its military posture to a “pre-emptive basis” because enemies are threatening the state's survival, its KCNA news agency said.

In UN speech, Netanyahu keeps focus on Iran

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, speaking to the U.N. General Assembly, urged the international community to “check your enthusiasm at the door” regarding the recently finalized agreement on Iran’s nuclear program.

On Thursday, Netanyahu also criticized Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas for saying in his General Assembly speech the previous day that Israel is not complying with accords. The Israeli leader repeated his willingness to enter negotiations with the Palestinian Authority without preconditions.

Netanyahu used most of his 40-minute speech to again warn the world of what he called the dangers of the nuclear deal reached in July between Iran and six world powers, including the United States. As he has throughout the negotiations leading to the deal and afterward, Netanyahu decried the agreement for giving Iran a flow of cash to fund terrorist groups. He also protested the 10- and 15-year expiration dates for some of the deal’s key provisions.

He called Iran a “rapacious tiger,” and at one point brandished a book by Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, which he called a “400-page screed,” about Iran’s plans to destroy Israel.

“Does anyone seriously believe that flooding a radical theocracy with weapons and cash will curb its appetite for aggression?” Netanyahu asked. “Do any of you really believe that a theocratic Iran with sharp claws and sharp fangs will be more likely to change its stripes?”

Netanyahu castigated world leaders for not condemning Iranian statements threatening to destroy Israel. After admonishing the audience for this “deafening silence,” Netanyahu remained silent for a prolonged period, glaring at the crowd.

“Perhaps you can now understand why Israel is not joining in celebrating this deal,” he said. “If Iran were working to destroy your countries, perhaps you would be less enthusiastic about this deal.”

Netanyahu pushed supporters of the accord to remain vigilant about inspecting Iran’s nuclear facilities and to punish Iran should it violate its commitments. He also said that Israel would use any means necessary to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon and would defend itself if threatened.

“Israel will not allow Iran to break in, sneak in or to walk into the nuclear weapons club,” he said. “I know preventing Iran from developing nuclear weapons remains the official policy of the international community, but no one should question Israel’s determination to defend itself against those who seek our destruction.”

Netanyahu spent the beginning and end of the speech criticizing the United Nations for its criticisms of Israel. But Netanyahu praised the United States, and President Barack Obama, for supporting Israel. Netanyahu and Obama have had an often acrimonious relationship due to differences on Iran and the peace process, and sparred earlier this year over a speech that Netanyahu gave before Congress criticizing the impending nuclear deal. But Netanyahu called the U.S.-Israel relationship “unshakable.”

Near the end of the address, Netanyahu addressed Abbas, who blamed Israel for undermining the two-state solution through settlement expansion and thus the P.A. is therefore no longer bound by previous Israeli-Palestinian agreements. Abbas also accused Israel of changing the status quo on Jerusalem’s Temple Mount and preventing Muslims from praying there.

Netanyahu, in turn, blamed Abbas for rejecting Israeli peace offers and again called on him to enter negotiations without preconditions. Netanyahu also said that Israel is committed to maintaining the status quo on the Temple Mount and protecting freedom of religion.

“Israel stands out as a towering beacon of enlightenment and tolerance,” he said. “Far from endangering the holy sites, it is Israel that ensures their safety.”

Sander Levin statement on the Iran nuclear agreement

Rep. Sander Levin (D-MI), Ranking Member of the Ways and Means Committee, today released the following statement regarding his support for the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action to prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon:

“Consideration of the Iran nuclear agreement represents one of the most challenging and crucial foreign policy decisions for me during 33 years in Congress.  Iran represents a real danger – exponentially more so if it has a nuclear weapon.

“After earlier efforts to negotiate by the Bush Administration failed and Iran dramatically increased its number of centrifuges and nuclear material, it was critical that Iran's nuclear program not result in Iran's possession of a nuclear weapon.  I actively participated in increasing U.S. sanctions against Iran.  These sanctions were strengthened by their multi-lateral structure and broad adoption, and they helped produce the framework agreement and the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA).

“Currently, Iran is only two months away from the ability to produce enough material for one nuclear weapon.  The restrictions in the Agreement provide the world with a year to respond if Iran broke out of the Agreement and moved toward acquiring the material for a bomb.

“The Agreement requires Iran to reduce its stockpile of enriched uranium by 97 percent and refrain from enrichment above a 3.67 percent level for 15 years.  It cuts the number of installed centrifuges allowed by two thirds, while retaining only older model centrifuges. The Agreement also requires Iran to render its heavy water reactor inoperable, denying them a source of weapon-grade plutonium.  It requires Iran to convert the Fordow enrichment facility into a technology center and places limits on research and development.  It allows the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to monitor the uranium supply chain for at least two decades.

“Requirements are meaningless if they are not enforced and if violations cannot be detected. The JCPOA includes enhanced resources for the IAEA, including over 100 inspectors, and is buttressed by major U.S. and EU surveillance capabilities. As to all declared sites (those with known nuclear programs) there is continuous access.  If there is a suspicion of activities of Iran's obligations at any other location, the standard is to gain access with 24 hours notice.  If there is a dispute about access, there is a process that provides access within 24 days.  In our many briefings, Energy Secretary Moniz, a respected nuclear physicist, has been persuasive that any activities involving nuclear materials would leave traces detectable for at least that long. 

“Effective enforcement also requires that the multi-lateral sanctions currently in place can be quickly reinstated if Iran violates the Agreement.  The JCPOA contains a method to do so at the United Nations that could not by stymied by a veto from China or Russia.

“In my discussions with opponents of the Agreement, they have urged that Iran may well not cheat the first 10 or 15 years because Iran's main purpose is to become the dominant power in the Middle East and that sanctions relief during this period would provide Iran the funds to finance further terrorist actions.  In this regard, the U.S. retains its rights to take a full range of actions to prevent shipments of arms or missiles to Hezbollah or other terrorist groups, as it does to take other actions against aggressions elsewhere, unrestricted by the JCPOA.  

“It is also argued that if the Agreement is rejected by the Congress there would remain sufficient sanctions to deter Iran from a nuclear weapon and they could be increased. The much greater likelihood is that the sanctions regime would quickly fall apart.  Sanctions likely would not be continued even by our closest allies and the U.S. would be isolated trying to enforce our unilateral sanctions as to Iran's banking and oil sectors.

“If Iran broke out of the Agreement and proceeded to build a nuclear weapon, the U.S. and its allies would retain all options to stop it, including the military option.  If the U.S. rejects the Agreement, support from even our best allies if we move to the military option would be less likely.  As a result, the threat of military action would become less effective a deterrent to Iran’s building a nuclear bomb.  That is another reason I believe the Agreement offers the best option to prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon.

“We must also act to bolster the security of our ally Israel.  We should promptly conclude the next ten-year Memorandum of Understanding on Foreign Military Financing and accelerate the co-development by the U.S. and Israel of the Arrow-3 and David's Sling missile defense systems and increase funding for Israel's life-saving missile defense, the successful Iron Dome system.

“Each Member of Congress will bring both private and public life experiences to address this difficult issue. 

“I along with my brother and late sister when we were in our teens experienced with our parents great personal joy when President Truman announced U.S. recognition of Israel. It was something that we could take hold of amidst the unfolding horrors of the years before. Israel's security has and always will be of critical importance to me and our country.  I believe that Israel, the region, and the world are far more secure if Iran does not move toward possession of a nuclear weapon.  I believe the Agreement is the best way to achieve that.

“In my view, the only anchors in public life are to dig deeply into the facts and consult broadly and then to say what you believe.”

Cartoon: Happy Birthday Nukes

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Obama’s Iran Framework – Dangerous to U.S., Israel & Mideast

The deal signed between the P5+1 and Iran last week over Iran’s nuclear weapons program represents a defeat for the cause of stopping Iran becoming a nuclear power, for heading off a Mideast nuclear arms race, for forestalling existential threats to Israel, even threats to America – not to mention that it will dramatically increase Iranian funding for terrorism.
 
The deal doesn’t dismantle Iran’s centrifuges or its nuclear facilities; doesn’t terminate Iran’s R&D on centrifuges and missiles, doesn’t provide for unimpeded inspections; doesn’t require Iranian disclosure of its weaponization program; doesn’t require the removal of Iran’s stockpile of enriched uranium; and doesn’t allow inspections of military installations, like Parchin, where many experts believe nuclear R&D is in progress.
 
To the contrary, Iran will be able to continue enrichment with 5,060 centrifuges for the next decade, an active infrastructure that can raise enrichment to weaponization levels in a matter of weeks. 
 
Even Barack Obama has conceded the deal’s likely result by describing it as a “relevant fear … that in year 13, 14, 15, they have advanced centrifuges that enrich uranium fairly rapidly, and at that point the breakout times would have shrunk almost down to zero,” allowing Iran to develop nuclear weapons.
 
Worse, even if this deal stopped Iran going nuclear, Iran will receive tens of billions of dollars in sanctions relief to increase funding to terrorist groups like Hamas, Hizballah and Syria’s Assad regime. 
 
Moreover:
 
  • President Obama says the Arak plutonium facility – something only required of a nuclear weapons program – will be re-purposed. But continued construction of facility components off-site is still not outlawed. Iranian Foreign Minister, Javad Zarif has stated that Iran has agreed only to Arak being “modernized.”
  • In December 2013, President Obama said, correctly, that the Iranian underground nuclear facility at Fordow was unnecessary to any genuinely peaceful Iranian nuclear energy program. Yet he has now acquiesced in Iran’s refusal to close it and it will keep its 500 Fordow centrifuges spinning – centrifuges which can be quicklyrecalibrated for uranium enrichment. 
  • President Obama’s claims that the deal will give us access “to the entire supply chain supports Iran’s nuclear program.” How can that be, when the deal doesn’t address military installations like Parchin?
  • President Obama claims the inspections regime is “robust” and enables “unprecedented verification.” But it does neither, while Iran says inspections are “voluntary” and “temporary.” Moreover, if during 1990–2003, the UN Security Council couldn’t enforce an genuinely intrusive regime of unfettered inspections, anywhere, anytime, without prior notice, backed by a Security Council-sanctioned threatened and sometimes actual use of force in the case of Saddam’s Iraq, what confidence can we have that it will be able to do so with Iran, which is not subject to any such apparatus of inspections and force? 
  • President Obama claims that “If Iran cheats, the world will know.” But this is unlikely. Without unfettered inspections, it can cheat free from any likelihood of discovery, utilizing new, improved centrifuges in secret facilities. Olli Heinonen, a former deputy director general of the IAEA, has observed that Russia’s centrifuge program “went for years without detection despite tremendous intelligence efforts” – as did those of Iraq, North Korea, Syria and others. Even when detected, violations take more than the 12-month break-out period to be established and international action orchestrated to deal with them.
  • In any case, knowing is different from acting and what President Obama didn’t say is that the responsibility to declare a violation will rest with the UN  Security Council. As we know from bitter experience dealing with Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, the Security Council is hostage to a single veto – for example, that of Russia’s Vladimir Putin.
  • For the same reason, President Obama claim that sanctions to be “snapped back into place” in the event of Iranian violations is absurd. Suspended sanctions can seldom be restored, especially if Security Council permanent members have other ideas. Even if, with hard work and good luck, certain sanctions are reinstated, it would take many months for this to occur and at least a year for them to take their toll on Tehran – more than the 12 months’ proposed break-out time.
  • Iran’s Inter-Continental Ballistic Missile (ICBM) program, whose only purpose is to carry nuclear warheads and would give Iran the capacity to strike the U.S., is no part of the deal.
 
Accordingly, this looks like a replay of the disastrous sequence of negotiations and international concessions with North Korea, which resulted in it becoming a nuclear power. Replaying such  negotiations, which would enable Iran to continue its internal repression and external aggression, its murder of journalists and dissidents, it funding of global terror, its efforts to eliminate Israel, do not represent an effort to stop Iran. They represent an effort to reach an agreement at any cost, including capitulation to Iran’s nuclear ambitions. Indeed, Obama’s opposition to a Senate vote on this agreement proves that it will be a dangerous agreement.
 
Morton A. Klein is National President of the Zionist Organization of America (ZOA). Dr. Daniel Mandel is Director of the ZOA’ s Center for Middle East Policy and author of H.V. Evatt & the Creation of Israel (Routledge, London, 2004).
 

Netanyahu sounds warning as Iran talks framework deal

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Israel “will take any action” to prevent the world powers from signing a “bad and dangerous” deal with Iran over its nuclear program.

Netanyahu made the remarks Sunday at the start of the regular weekly Cabinet meeting after Iran’s foreign minister said his country and world powers intend to complete a framework agreement by the end of March.

“From this stems the urgency of our efforts to try and block this bad and dangerous agreement,” Netanyahu told the Cabinet. “The major powers and Iran are galloping toward an agreement that will enable Iran to arm itself with nuclear weapons, which will endanger the existence of the State of Israel.”

Kerry and Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammed Javad Zarif met Friday and early Sunday on the sidelines of the Munich Security Conference.

Zarif called for the lifting of sanctions on Iran, calling them a “liability” and saying that “You need to get rid of them if you want a solution.” He said he did not believe an extension of the nuclear talks past the June 30 deadline would be “either necessary or useful.”

“I don’t think if we don’t have an agreement it will be the end of the world,” Zarif added.

The two sides when they extended talks in November set a March deadline for a framework agreement.

Zarif criticized Netanyahu, saying that Israel is hiding behind an existential Iranian threat.

“They cannot create a smokescreen to hide their atrocities against the Palestinian people, their continued violation of Palestinian human rights, their continued acts of aggression against Palestinian, Lebanese, Jordan and Syrian people under the guise of a hypothetical Iranian threat that is more hype than anything else,” Zarif said during a speech at the conference.

“Iran is not threatening anybody. We are not threatening to use force, we are not saying that all options are on the table.”

Explosion viewed in vicinity of Tehran site linked to nukes

An explosion at or near an Iranian military complex believed to be a site for nuclear testing created a large orange flash over Tehran.

The New York Times reported that the explosion on Sunday night came from the direction of the Parchin complex, where Iran has been accused of testing nuclear weapons.

Iranian officials denied the explosion originated there.

Iran’s Defense Industries Organization said that two people were missing after “an ordinary fire” caused by “chemical reactions of flammable material” at an unspecified location, the Times reported.

Witnesses near the site said that windows had been shattered in the vicinity and that all trees in a hundred-yard radius of two villages on the outskirt of the military facility were burned.

The United Nations’ International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors visited Parchin in 2005, but since then have not been allowed to return, despite repeated requests.

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.”

MISSED DEADLINE

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

Iran says does not seek indefinite power for Assad

Iran, Syria's main regional ally, does not see President Bashar Assad staying in power indefinitely but neither does it want “extremist forces” to replace him, a senior Iranian diplomat said on Wednesday.

Amir Abdollahian, deputy foreign minister for Arab and African Affairs, added in an interview Iran hoped to have talks in a month or so with Saudi Arabia, Tehran's regional rival, to address their differences about the Middle East.

Asked about Iranian activities in several Arab countries, he told Reuters that stability, peace and development “in Yemen, Bahrain, Syria and any other country in the region will help the interests and security of the Islamic Republic of Iran”.

Abdollahian, on a tour of some Gulf Arab states for talks about regional issues, said: “In order to answer your question in another way: We have a deep relation with Syria. It's a strategic ally against Israel.”

He added: “We aren't seeking to have Bashar al-Assad remain president for life. But we do not subscribe to the idea of using extremist forces and terrorism to topple Assad and the Syrian government.”

Syria's conflict has drawn in thousands of foreign fighters who fight either for the mostly Sunni Muslim rebels, which include radical Islamist militias aligned to al Qaeda, or for Assad, whose Alawite sect is an offshoot of Shi'ite Islam.

Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey back some groups fighting Assad's forces. In turn, Assad gets political support from Iraq and Algeria, weapons from his old ally Russia, and military backing and advice from Iran, diplomats say.

POLITICAL SOLUTION

Abdollahian insisted Iran's aid to Syria was limited to humanitarian goods such as food and medicine and said military aid would not end the three-year-old war, which has cost an estimated 140,000 lives and uprooted millions.

“The situation vis-à-vis Syria has changed regionally,” he said, adding it was necessary now for a “parallel track” to failed peace talks held in Switzerland earlier this year.

He did not elaborate on that or on what he has previously described as a four-part plan for Syria developed by Tehran and U.N. Special Representative for Syria Lakhdar Brahimi.

But he said Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Turkey “have all started to believe in a diplomatic process and are now more than ever working towards a political solution.”

Diplomatic efforts, focused on the political rather than religious factors driving Syria's conflict, have made no headway..

Abdollahian was speaking after talks with United Arab Emirate's Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Anwar Gargash, which he said covered Syria, as well as Bahrain, Yemen and Egypt. He held talks in Kuwait on Tuesday.

“MISUNDERSTANDINGS” WITH SAUDI

Abdollahian expressed readiness to meet his counterparts in Saudi Arabia, but said Iran was waiting for Saudi Arabia to specify the exact date.

“Misunderstandings” between Saudi Arabia and Iran about Syria, Iraq and Bahrain could be solved through discussions, he said, adding: “We are hopeful to having discussions in the next month, or at the earliest possible moment.”

Turning to efforts to resolve a long-running dispute over Iran's disputed nuclear programme, Abdollahian expressed hope that negotiators for Iran and major powers would reach a final settlement by a deadline of July 20.

The talks were hard but “important steps” had been taken, he said.

The Islamic Republic has long denied accusations from Israel, Western powers and their allies that it has tried to develop the capability to produce atomic weapons under cover of a civilian nuclear energy program.

In November, Iran and the six powers struck an interim deal under which Tehran shelved higher-grade uranium enrichment and agreed to other constraints in exchange for modest relief from punitive economic sanctions.

The next set of nuclear negotiations are slated to take place in Vienna on April 7-9.

Abdollahian added that Noor Ahmad Nikbakht, an Iranian embassy official kidnapped in the Yemeni capital last year, was alive and in good health. “We have formed a joint committee with the Yemen security forces and their foreign ministry,” he said without elaborating.

In January, another Iranian diplomat was fatally wounded when he resisted gunmen who tried to kidnap him.

Kidnappings of foreigners in Yemen are common, often carried out by al Qaeda-linked militants or by disgruntled tribesmen seeking to put pressure on the government to free jailed relatives or to improve public services.

Editing by William Maclean and Tom Heneghan

Obama, Netanyahu discuss Iran, Middle East talks by phone

President Barack Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu spoke by phone on Monday and discussed recent developments on Iran, Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, and other regional issues, the White House said on Monday.

“The two leaders agreed to continue their close coordination on a range of security issues,” the White House said.

Reporting by Roberta Rampton; editing by Christopher Wilson

Lew: Sanctions relief may be ‘proportionate’

U.S. Treasury Secretary Jack Lew suggested that sanctions relief could come before Iran fully suspends its suspected nuclear weapons program — a tactic rejected by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Lew, speaking Sunday on NBC’s “Meet the Press,” said the United States would not ease sanctions until Iran took tangible steps to suspend its nuclear program, but said sanctions could be “proportionate,” suggesting that interim steps might occasion partial sanctions relief.

“We need to see what they’re going to actually do,” Lew said just days after talks renewed between major powers and Iran over its nuclear program, which Iran insists is peaceful.

“We need to see rolling back their nuclear program,” he said. “And I can tell you that when the time comes, when those movements come, any changes will have to be proportionate.”

In any case, talk of sanctions easing at this stage was “premature,” Lew said.

Netanyahu, appearing on the same show, rejected any partial repeal of sanctions, saying it would signal to other countries that they also could ease sanctions.

“There are a lot of countries that are waiting for a signal, just waiting for a signal, to get rid of their sanctions regime,” he said. “And I think you don’t want to go through halfway measures.”

Netanyahu also rejected as an interim measure unfreezing Iranian assets in the United States, a tactic mooted last week by anonymous U.S. officials who spoke to The New York Times.

He continued to insist on Iran fully dismantling its centrifuges and suspending enrichment before any sanctions relief kicks in.

“The international community adopted very firm resolutions by the [U.N.] Security Council,” he said. “And here’s what those resolutions said: They said Iran should basically dismantle its centrifuges for enrichment. That’s one path to get a nuclear weapon. And stop work on its plutonium heavy water reactor. That’s the other path for nuclear weapons.”

Netanyahu, along with some leading congressional lawmakers, has called for intensified sanctions until Iran meets its Security Council obligations.

The renewed talks between Iran and the Western powers follows the presidential election this summer of Hassan Rouhani, a relative moderate who has called for greater nuclear transparency.

On Sunday, speaking to his Cabinet, Rouhani said Israel was trying to sabotage the new talks.

Freshman congressmen call on Obama to enforce Iran sanctions

A bipartisan group of freshmen congressmen called on the Obama administration to use all the sanctions passed by the House of Representatives against Iran to stop it from obtaining nuclear weapons.

Many of the 78 legislators who signed the Oct. 4 letter returned recently from the Middle East and “are deeply concerned about the prospects of a nuclear-armed Iran,” they said in the two-page letter.

“We write to share with you our view that time is running out,” the lawmakers wrote. They called on the Obama administration to enforce the sanctions, but added that “we stand ready to use force if necessary.”

The congressmen noted that they saw no changes in Iran’s nuclear weapons policy despite the recent election of President Hassan Rouhani, who has made gestures about making his country’s nuclear weapons program more transparent.

“History will judge our actions with Iran by one simple question: Did we prevent it from acquiring a nuclear weapon?” said Rep. Brad Schneider (D-Ill.), who along with Rep. Luke Messer (R-Ill.) organized the letter, which is backed by the American Israel Public Affairs Committee. “While recent diplomatic progress is encouraging, actions are what matter ultimately.”

“America cannot accept a nuclear-armed Iran,” Messer said. “I welcome a dialogue with Iran, but America must continue the pressure of sanctions and be clear force is an option unless Iran dismantles its nuclear program.”

Netanyahu warns: If necessary, Israel will stop Iran on its own

If Iran is poised to obtain a nuclear weapon, Israel is prepared to strike it on its own, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told the United Nations General Assembly.

“Israel will not allow Iran to get nuclear weapons,” Netanyahu said Tuesday in his speech, the last address at this year’s opening of the General Assembly. “If Israel is forced to stand alone, Israel will stand alone, but in standing alone Israel will know we are defending many, many others.”

In a reply, an Iranian official said that Iran’s nuclear program was peaceful but also warned Netanyahu not to attack.

“The Israeli prime minister had better not think about attacking Iran, let alone planning it,” said the official speaking for Iran from its desk in the General Assembly.

Netanyahu’s pledge to act alone if necessary was notable for coming a day after his meeting with President Obama, in which the prime minister sought assurances that the United States would maintain a credible military threat against Iran even as it opens up diplomatic engagement with the Islamic Republic.

Netanyahu urged the international community not to believe the professions of moderation offered by Iran’s newly elected president, Hassan Rouhani.

“When it comes to Iran’s nuclear weapons program, here’s my advice: distrust, dismantle and verify,” Netanyahu said.

Netanyahu delivered a mixed message in addressing the principle disagreement between him and the Obama administration, over Iranian uranium enrichment.

On the one hand, Netanyahu kept emphasizing that he wanted to see the “weapons” or “military” program ended, which may have hinted at a degree of flexibility on his part. Successive U.S. administrations have accepted the concept of an Iranian civilian nuclear program.

On the other hand, Netanyahu maintained his opposition to any Iranian uranium enrichment.

Western powers reportedly are ready to allow Iran to enrich to 3.5 percent, well short of the 20 percent it now enriches to and the 90 percent required for weaponization.

After U.N. speeches, Israel strikes wary tone on Iran

The good news for Israel in President Barack Obama’s speech at the United Nations was his insistence that any steps Iran might take to solve the standoff over its nuclear program must be transparent and verifiable.

The bad news was that Obama wasn’t clear about what those steps should be.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, in a one-minute video posted online Tuesday after the Obama speech to the General Assembly, welcomed the parameters outlined by the president and made clear he wanted to know more.

But he also reiterated Israeli skepticism that conciliatory gestures by the recently elected president of Iran, Hassan Rouhani, reflects anything more than a skillful charm offensive aimed at easing Western pressure while the pursuit of nuclear weapons continues unimpeded.

“Like North Korea before it, Iran will try to remove sanctions by offering cosmetic concessions while preserving its ability to rapidly build a nuclear weapon at a time of its choosing,” Netanyahu said. “Israel will welcome a genuine diplomatic solution that truly dismantles Iran’s capacity to develop nuclear weapons, but we will not be fooled by half-measures that merely provide a smokescreen for Iran’s continued pursuit of nuclear weapons, and the world will not be fooled either.”

As in recent years, the U.S.-Iran diplomatic drama commanded center stage at the annual September gathering of world leaders at the United Nations. In his speech, Obama devoted much time to discussing Iran, expressing his willingness to reach a diplomatic settlement that would permit the Islamic Republic access to peaceful nuclear energy while ensuring that it does not acquire a nuclear weapons capability.

“To succeed, conciliatory words will have to be matched by actions that are transparent and verifiable,” Obama said.

Netanyahu, who is scheduled to meet Obama at the White House on Sept. 30 — the day before the Israeli leader speaks to the General Assembly — said he welcomed Obama’s insistence on verifiability.

“I look forward to discussing this with the president in Washington next week,” Netanyahu said.

Netanyahu’s reference to “half-measures” alludes to a key Israeli concern about any possible deal. Western diplomats reportedly are ready to allow Iran to carry low levels of uranium enrichment. Israel wants the enrichment capacity removed completely.

“We insist that the Iranian government meet its responsibilities under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and U.N. Security Council resolutions,” Obama said in his speech.

Neither provision includes a total ban on uranium enrichment, although the Security Council resolutions do call for a suspension of enrichment pending fuller transparency.

There were signals in Obama’s speech that he was listening to pleas by Netanyahu for a robust posture ahead of any Iranian deal-making.

The president was explicit that the United States was prepared to use military force to secure its interests in the Middle East. He also repeatedly cautioned against the “development” of nuclear weapons, adopting an Israeli rhetorical device implying that action to stop a nuclear weapon could come well before Iran is poised to get one.

In the past, Obama has spoken of keeping Iran from “acquiring” a weapon.

Still, the administration acknowledged daylight between the Israeli and U.S. perspectives.

“They’re skeptical of Iranian intentions — which is understandable, given their history with Iran — but we do see the potential for progress, certainly more so than we have in the last several years, since we had a negotiation with them in 2009,” said a senior administration official in a background briefing, a transcript of which was released Tuesday by the White House. “And we’re going to test that in the weeks ahead.”

Pro-Israel groups have taken up Netanyahu’s demand, made Sept. 17, that any diplomatic deal must include an end to enrichment and the removal of enriched uranium. A memo Monday from the American Israel Public Affairs Committee called for intensifying sanctions unless Iran suspends enrichment and removes its already enriched uranium.

In his U.N. speech, Rouhani emphatically embraced the transparency sought by Obama and, just as emphatically, rejected the idea that Iran would suspend all uranium enrichment.

“Iran’s nuclear program — and for that matter, that of all other countries — must pursue exclusively peaceful purposes,” Rouhani said. “I declare here, openly and unambiguously, that notwithstanding the positions of others, this has been, and will always be, the objective of the Islamic Republic of Iran.

“Nuclear weapon and other weapons of mass destruction have no place in Iran’s security and defense doctrine, and contradict our fundamental religious and ethical convictions. Our national interests make it imperative that we remove any and all reasonable concerns about Iran’s peaceful nuclear program.”

Achieving a peaceful nuclear program, Rouhani added immediately, is only possible by accepting Iran’s right to enrichment.

“Nuclear knowledge in Iran has been domesticated now and the nuclear technology, inclusive of enrichment, has already reached industrial scale,” he said. “It is, therefore, an illusion, and extremely unrealistic, to presume that the peaceful nature of the nuclear program of Iran could be ensured through impeding the program via illegitimate pressures.”

Western diplomats reportedly are ready to accommodate enrichment at between 3.5 and 5 percent — well short of the 20 percent Iran says it needs for medical research and the 90 percent required for weaponization.

Stephen Rademaker, a nuclear negotiator during the President George W. Bush administration and now a lobbyist with the Podesta Group, said that given Iran’s past record of obfuscations, any deal that includes enrichment should be treated with great skepticism.

“In theory, if they enrich only to the 3.5 percent level and respect that, it could work,” Rademaker said. “But the fear is that if they accumulate more and more 3.5 percent material and they employ more efficient centrifuges, then their ability to get close to nuclear weapons state increases exponentially.”

Israel’s insistence on ending such enrichment is a non-starter, said Alireza Nader, an Iran expert at the Rand Corp., a think tank with close ties to the U.S. defense establishment.

But the international community could take steps to limit Iran’s capability to weaponize its nuclear technology, including limiting the number of centrifuges operating in the country, removing stockpiles of enriched uranium from the country and a rigorous inspections regime.

“I don’t think the Iranian regime is bent on assembling weapons no matter what the cost,” Nader said. “They will not risk the regime’s existence to do this.”

David Makovsky, an analyst at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, a think tank with close ties to both the Obama and Netanyahu governments, says it makes sense to test Rouhani’s rhetoric.

“We should see if Iran’s urgency to get out under sanctions matches Israel’s urgency to slow the pace,” he said.

Netanyahu: Talking with Iran must result in dismantled nukes

A diplomatic solution to tensions with Iran must “dismantle” its capacity to develop nuclear weapons, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said in response to President Obama’s U.N. address.

Following Obama’s authorization of engagement with the Islamic Republic in his speech Tuesday to the General Assembly, Netanyahu responded in a 59-second video posted on YouTube.

“Israel will welcome a genuine diplomatic solution that truly dismantles Iran’s capacity to develop nuclear weapons, but we will not be fooled by half measures that merely provide a smokescreen for Iran’s continued pursuit of nuclear weapons and the world will not be fooled either,” Netanyahu said in the video.

Netanyahu began by welcoming Obama’s call for Iran’s recent “conciliatory words” to be “matched by actions that are transparent and verifiable.”

However, Netanyahu’s insistence on dismantling any Iranian nuclear capacity could signal a major difference with the Obama administration as the U.S. engagement with Iran advances.

Israel has insisted on ending any Iranian capacity to enrich uranium, while the United States and other Western nations reportedly are ready to accommodate enrichment at low levels of up to 5 percent.

In the video, Netanyahu said he would discuss the issue with Obama when they meet next week at the White House.

No ‘half measures’: Bibi’s video message to Iran

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu threw down the gauntlet on Iran in a video message for the opening of the U.N. General Assembly.

“Israel will welcome a genuine diplomatic solution that truly dismantles Iran’s capacity to develop nuclear weapons, but we will not be fooled by half measures that merely provide a smokescreen for Iran’s continued pursuit of nuclear weapons and the world will not be fooled either,” Netanyahu said in the video.

The cost of doing nothing in Iran

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Iran, world powers ‘far apart’ after new nuke talks

The world powers will pursue further talks with Iran over its nuclear program, but will not continue them indefinitely, John Kerry said a day after another round of talks failed to produce any new proposals.

The talks between Iran and six world powers – the United States, Britain, China, France, Germany and Russia, ended Saturday in Almaty, Kazakhstan.  Kerry made the statement Sunday in Istanbul.

The world powers waited for Iran's response to a proposal under which Iran would halt production of nearly weapons-grade enriched uranium in exchange for the easing of economic sanctions.

In return, Iran said it made a “comprehensive proposal” to “establish a new bedrock for cooperation,” similar to a proposal rejected by the powers in June.

The announcement by Ali Baqeri, deputy head of the Iranian delegation, came following the opening session of talks in Kazakhstan.

Baqeri said that Iran had more than met demands from American and European officials that his country offer a concrete show of willingness to address international concerns about its nuclear program.

“These steps are referred to as confidence-building measures, but they are part of a comprehensive set of measures,” Baqeri said.

European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton, who led the talks, said the sides “remain far apart on the substance.” No new talks were scheduled.

At the last round of talks in February, the world powers offered a modest easing of international sanctions if Iran takes steps to limit its supply of dangerous enriched uranium. The proposal required Iran to shut its enrichment plant at Fordow.

While Iran says its nuclear program is exclusively for civilian purposes, American, Israeli, European and other Western officials suspect that Tehran is seeking the technology for nuclear weapons.

Remarks by Vice President Joe Biden to the AIPAC Policy Conference [FULL TEXT]

Thank you, Mr. President.  (Applause.)  It’s great to be here.  It’s great to be here.  (Applause.)  Hey, Debbie.

Ladies and gentlemen, oh, what a difference 40 years makes.  (Laughter.)  I look out there and see an old friend, Annette Lantos.  Annette, how are you?  Her husband, Tom Lantos, a survivor, was my assistant, was my foreign policy advisor for years.  And Tom used to say all the time, Joe — he talked with that Hungarian accent — he’d say, Joe, we must do another fundraiser for AIPAC.  (Laughter.)  I did more fundraisers for AIPAC in the ‘70s and early ‘80s than — just about as many as anybody.  Thank God you weren’t putting on shows like this, we would have never made it.  (Laughter.)  We would have never made it.

My Lord, it’s so great to be with you all and great to see — Mr. President, thank you so much for that kind introduction.  And President-elect Bob Cohen, the entire AIPAC Board of Directors, I’m delighted to be with you today.  But I’m particularly delighted to be with an old friend — and he is an old friend; we use that phrase lightly in Washington, but it’s real, and I think he’d even tell you — Ehud Barak, it’s great to be with you, Mr. Minister.  Great to be with you.  (Applause.)

There is a standup guy.  There is a standup guy.  Standing up for his country, putting his life on the line for his country, and continuing to defend the values that we all share.  (Applause.)  I’m a fan of the man.  (Applause.)  Thanks for being here, Ehud.  It’s good to be with you again.

Ladies and gentlemen, a lot of you know me if you’re old enough.  (Laughter.)  Some of you don’t know me, and understand I can’t see now, but in the bleachers to either side, I’m told you have 2,000 young AIPAC members here.  (Applause.)  We talked about this a lot over the years.  We talked about it a lot:  This is the lifeblood.  This is the connective tissue.  This is the reason why no American will ever forget.  You’ve got to keep raising them.  (Applause.)

Ladies and gentlemen, we’ve stood shoulder to shoulder, a lot of us in this auditorium, defending the legitimate interest of Israel and our enduring commitment over the last 40 years.  And many of you in this hall — I won’t start to name them, but many of you in this hall, starting with Annette Lantos’s husband, who is not here, God rest his soul — many of you in this hall have been my teachers, my mentors and my educators, and that is not hyperbole.  You literally have been.

But my education started, as some of you know, at my father’s dinner table.  My father was what you would have called a righteous Christian.  We gathered at my dinner table to have conversation, and incidentally eat, as we were growing up.  It was a table — it was at that table I first heard the phrase that is overused sometimes today, but in a sense not used meaningfully enough — first I heard the phrase, “Never again.”

It was at that table that I learned that the only way to ensure that it could never happen again was the establishment and the existence of a secure, Jewish state of Israel.  (Applause.)  I remember my father, a Christian, being baffled at the debate taking place at the end of World War II talking about it.  I don’t remember it at that time, but about how there could be a debate about whether or not — within the community, of whether or not to establish the State of Israel.

My father would say, were he a Jew, he would never, never entrust the security of his people to any individual nation, no matter how good and how noble it was, like the United States.  (Applause.)  Everybody knows it’s real.  But I want you to know one thing, which some of you — I’ve met with a lot of you over the last 40 years, but the last four years as well.  President Obama shares my commitment.  We both know that Israel faces new threats, new pressures and uncertainty.  The Defense Minister and I have discussed it often.  In the area of national security, the threats to Israel’s existence continue, but they have changed as the world and the region have changed over the last decade.

The Arab Spring, at once full of both hope and uncertainty, has required Israel — and the United States — to reassess old and settled relationships.  Iran’s dangerous nuclear weapons program, and its continued support of terrorist organizations, like Hezbollah and Hamas, not only endanger Israel, but endanger the world.  (Applause.)  Attempts of much of the world to isolate and delegitimize the State of Israel are increasingly common, and taken as the norm in other parts of the world.

All these pressures are similar but different, and they put enormous pressure on the State of Israel.  We understand that.  And we especially understand that if we make a mistake, it’s not a threat to our existence.  But if Israel makes a mistake, it could be a threat to its very existence.  (Applause.)  And that’s why, from the moment the President took office, he has acted swiftly and decisively to make clear to the whole world and to Israel that even as circumstances have changed, one thing has not:  our deep commitment to the security of the state of Israel.  That has not changed.  That will not change as long as I and he are President and Vice President of the United States.  (Applause.)  It’s in our naked self-interest, beyond the moral imperative.  (Applause.)

And to all of you, I thank you for continuing to remind the nation and the world of that commitment.  And while we may not always agree on tactics — and I’ve been around a long time; I’ve been there for a lot of prime ministers — we’ve always disagreed on tactic.  We’ve always disagreed at some point or another on tactic.  But, ladies and gentlemen, we have never disagreed on the strategic imperative that Israel must be able to protect its own, must be able to do it on its own, and we must always stand with Israel to be sure that can happen.  And we will.  (Applause.)

That’s why we’ve worked so hard to make sure Israel keeps its qualitative edge in the midst of the Great Recession.  I’ve served with eight Presidents of the United States of America, and I can assure you, unequivocally, no President has done as much to physically secure the State of Israel as President Barack Obama.  (Applause.)

President Obama last year requested $3.1 billion in military assistance for Israel — the most in history.  He has directed close coordination, strategically and operationally, between our government and our Israeli partners, including our political, military and intelligence leadership.

I can say with certitude, in the last eight Presidents, I don’t know any time, Ehud, when there has been as many meetings, as much coordination, between our intelligence services and our military.  Matter of fact, they’re getting tired of traveling back across the ocean, I think.  (Laughter.)

Under this administration, we’ve held the most regular and largest-ever joint military exercises.  We’ve invested $275 million in Iron Dome, including $70 million that the President directed to be spent last year on an urgent basis — to increase the production of Iron Dome batteries and interceptors.  (Applause.)

Not long ago, I would have had to describe to an audience what Iron Dome was, how it would work, why funding it mattered.  I don’t have to explain to anybody anymore.  Everybody gets it.  (Applause.)  Everybody saw — the world saw firsthand why it was and remains so critical.

For too long, when those sirens blared in the streets of the cities bordering Gaza, the only defense had been a bomb shelter.  But late last year, Iron Dome made a difference.  When Hamas rockets rained on Israel, Iron Dome shot them out of the sky, intercepting nearly 400 rockets in November alone.  It was our unique partnership — Israel and the United States — that pioneered this technology and funded it.

And it is in that same spirit that we’re working with Israel to jointly develop new systems, called Arrow and David’s Sling, interceptors that can defeat long-range threats from Iran, Syria and Hezbollah — equally as urgent.  (Applause.)  And we are working to deploy a powerful new radar, networked with American early warning satellites, that could buy Israel valuable time in the event of an attack.  This is what we do.  This is what we do to ensure Israel can counter and defeat any threat from any corner.  (Applause.)

But that’s only the first piece of this equation.  Let me tell you — and I expect I share the view of many of you who have been involved with AIPAC for a long time.  Let me tell you what worries me the most today — what worries me more than at any time in the 40 years I’ve been engaged, and it is different than any time in my career.  And that is the wholesale, seemingly coordinated effort to delegitimize Israel as a Jewish state.  That is the single most dangerous, pernicious change that has taken place, in my humble opinion, since I’ve been engaged.  (Applause.)

And, ladies and gentlemen, it matters.  It matters.  To put it bluntly, there is only one nation — only one nation in the world that has unequivocally, without hesitation and consistently confronted the efforts to delegitimize Israel.  At every point in our administration, at every juncture, we’ve stood up on the legitimacy — on behalf of legitimacy of the State of Israel.  President Obama has been a bulwark against those insidious efforts at every step of the way.

Wherever he goes in the world, he makes clear that although we want better relations with Muslim-majority countries, Israel’s legitimacy and our support for it is not a matter of debate.  There is no light.  It is not a matter of debate.  (Applause.)  It’s simple, and he means it:  It is not a matter of debated.  Don't raise it with us.  Do not raise it with us.  It is not negotiable.  (Applause.)

As recently as last year, the only country on the United Nations Human Rights Council to vote against — I think it’s 36 countries, don't hold me to the exact number — but the only country on the Human Rights Council of the United Nations to vote against the establishment of a fact-finding mission on settlements was the United States of America.

We opposed the unilateral efforts of the Palestinian Authority to circumvent direct negotiations by pushing for statehood and multilateral organizations like UNESCO.  We stood strongly with Israel in its right to defend itself after the Goldstone Report was issued in 2009.  While the rest of the world, including some of our good friend, was prepared to embrace the report, we came out straightforwardly, expressed our concerns and with recommendations.

When Israel was isolated in the aftermath of the Gaza flotilla in 2010, I was in Africa.  We spent a lot of time on the phone, Ehud and — the Defense Minister and I.  (Laughter.)  And Bibi and I spent a lot time on that phone with my interceding, going to the United Nations directly by telephone, speaking with the Secretary General, making sure that one thing was made clear, Israel had the right — had the right — to impose that blockade.  (Applause.)

Ladies and gentlemen, that's why we refuse to attend events such as the 10th anniversary of the 2001 World Conference on Racism that shamefully equated Zionism with racism.  (Applause.)  That's why we rejected anti-Semitic rhetoric  from any corner and from leaders of any nation.  And that's why I’m proud to say my friend, the new Secretary of State, John Kerry, spoke out against the kind of language in Ankara just this Friday.  (Applause.)  By the way, he’s a good man.  You're going to be happy with Kerry.

And it was in the strongest terms that we vigorously opposed the Palestinian bid for nonmember observer status in the General Assembly, and we will continue to oppose any effort to establish a state of Palestine through unilateral actions.

There is no shortcut to peace.  There is no shortcut to face-to-face negotiations.  There is no shortcut to guarantees made looking in the eyes of the other party.

Ladies and gentlemen, Israel's own leaders currently understand the imperative of peace.  Prime Minister Netanyahu, Defense Minister Barak, President Peres — they've all called for a two-state solution and an absolute  secure, democratic and Jewish State of Israel; to live side by side with an independent Palestinian state.  But it takes two to tango, and the rest of the Arab world has to get in the game.  (Applause.) 

We are under no illusions about how difficult it will be to achieve.  Even some of you in the audience said, why do we even talk about it anymore?  Well, it's going to require hard steps on both sides.  But it's in all of our interests — Israel's interest, the United States' interest, the interest of the Palestinian people.  We all have a profound interest in peace.  To use an expression of a former President, Bill Clinton, we've got to get caught trying.  We've got to get caught trying.  (Applause.)

So we remain deeply engaged.  As President Obama has said, while there are those who question whether this goal may ever be reached, we make no apologies for continuing to pursue that goal, to pursue a better future.  And he'll make that clear when he goes to Israel later this month.

We're also mindful that pursuing a better future for Israel means helping Israel confront the myriads of threat it faces in the neighborhood.  It's a tough neighborhood, and it starts with Iran.  It is not only in Israel's interest — and everybody should understand — I know you understand this, but the world should — it's not only in Israel's interest that Iran does not acquire a nuclear weapon, it's in the interest of the United States of America.  It's simple.  And, as a matter of fact, it's in the interest of the entire world. (Applause.)

Iraq's [sic] acquisition of a nuclear weapon not only would present an existential threat to Israel, it would present a threat to our allies and our partners — and to the United States.  And it would trigger an arms race — a nuclear arms race in the region, and make the world a whole lot less stable.

So we have a shared strategic commitment.  Let me make clear what that commitment is:  It is to prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon.  Period.  (Applause.)  End of discussion.  Prevent — not contain — prevent.  (Applause.)

The President has flatly stated that.  And as many of you in this room have heard me say — and he always kids me about this; we'll be in the security room — and I know that Debbie Wasserman Schultz knows this because she hears it — he always says, you know — he'll turn to other people and say, as Joe would say, he’s — as Joe would say, big nations can't bluff.  Well, big nations can't bluff.  And Presidents of the United States cannot and do not bluff.  And President Barack Obama is not bluffing.  He is not bluffing.  (Applause.)
 
We are not looking for war.  We are looking to and ready to negotiate peacefully, but all options, including military force, are on the table.  But as I made clear at the Munich Security Conference just last month, our strong preference, the world’s preference is for a diplomatic solution.  So while that window is closing, we believe there is still time and space to achieve the outcome.  We are in constant dialogue, sharing information with the Israeli military, the Israeli intelligence service, the Israeli political establishment at every level, and we’re taking all the steps required to get there.

But I want to make clear to you something.  If, God forbid, the need to act occurs, it is critically important for the whole world to know we did everything in our power, we did everything that reasonably could have been expected to avoid any confrontation.  And that matters.  Because God forbid, if we have to act, it’s important that the rest of the world is with us.  (Applause.)  We have a united international community.  We have a united international community behind these unprecedented sanctions.

We have left Iran more isolated than ever.  When we came to office, as you remember — not because of the last administration, just a reality — Iran was on the ascendency in the region.  It is no longer on the ascendency.  The purpose of this pressure is not to punish.  It is to convince Iran to make good on its international obligations.  Put simply, we are sharpening a choice that the Iranian leadership has to make.  They can meet their obligations and give the international community ironclad confidence in the peaceful nature of their program, or they can continue down the path they’re on to further isolate and mounting pressure of the world.

But even preventing Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon still leaves them a dangerous neighbor, particularly to Israel.  They are using terrorist proxies to spread violence in the region and beyond the region, putting Israelis, Americans, citizens of every continent in danger.  For too long, Hezbollah has tried to pose as nothing more than a political and social welfare group, while plotting against innocents in Eastern Europe — from Eastern Europe to East Africa; from Southeast Asia to South America.  We know what Israel knows:  Hezbollah is a terrorist organization.  Period.  (Applause.)  And we — and me — we are urging every nation in the world that we deal with — and we deal with them all — to start treating Hezbollah as such, and naming them as a terrorist organization.  (Applause.)

This isn’t just about a threat to Israel and the United States.  It’s about a global terrorist organization that has targeted people on several continents.  We’ll say and we’ll do our part to stop them.  And we ask the world to do the same.  That’s why we’ve been talking to our friends in Europe to forcefully declare Hezbollah a terrorist organization.  This past month I’ve made the case to leading European heads of state, as Barack and Israelis know, together we have to continue to confront Hezbollah wherever it shows — sews the seeds of hatred and stands against the nations that sponsor campaigns of terror.

Ladies and gentlemen, the United States and Israel have a shared interest in Syria as well.  Assad has shown his father’s disregard for human life and dignity, engaging in brutal murder of his own citizens.  Our position on that tragedy could not be clearer:  Assad must go.  But we are not signing up for one murderous gang replacing another in Damascus.  (Applause.)

That’s why our focus is on supporting a legitimate opposition not only committed to a peaceful Syria but to a peaceful region.  That’s why we’re carefully vetting those to whom we provide assistance.  That’s why, while putting relentless pressure on Assad and sanctioning the pro-regime, Iranian-backed militia, we’ve also designated al-Nusra Front as a terrorist organization.

And because we recognize the great danger Assad’s chemical and biological arsenals pose to Israel and the United States, to the whole world, we’ve set a clear red line against the use of the transfer of the those weapons.  And we will work together to prevent this conflict and these horrific weapons from threatening Israel’s security.  And while we try to ensure an end to the dictatorship in Syria, we have supported and will support a genuine transition to Egyptian democracy.

We have no illusions — we know how difficult this will be and how difficult it is.  There’s been — obviously been a dramatic change in Egypt.  A lot of it has given us hope and a lot of it has given us pause, and a lot of it has caused fears in other quarters.

It’s not about us, but it profoundly affects us.  We need to be invested in Egypt’s success and stability.  The stable success of Egypt will translate into a stable region.  We’re not looking at what’s happening in Egypt through rose-colored glasses.  Again, our eyes are wide open.  We have no illusions about the challenges that we face, but we also know this:  There’s no legitimate alternative at this point to engagement.

Only through engagement — it’s only through engagement with Egypt that we can focus Egypt’s leaders on the need to repair international obligations — respect their international obligations, including and especially its peace treaty with Israel.  It’s only through active engagement that we can help ensure that Hamas does not re-arm through the Sinai and put the people of Israel at risk.  It’s only through engagement that we can concentrate Egypt’s government on the imperative of confronting the extremists.  And it’s only through engagement that we can encourage Egypt’s leaders to make reforms that will spark economic growth and stabilize the democratic process.  And it’s all tough, and there’s no certainty.  There’s no certainty about anything in the Arab Spring.

I expect President Obama to cover each of these issues in much greater detail.  I’ve learned one thing, as I was telling the President, I learned it’s never a good idea, Ehud, to steal the President’s thunder.  It’s never a good idea to say what he’s going to say the next day.  So I’m not going to go into any further detail on this.  (Laughter.)  But in much greater detail he will discuss this when he goes to Israel later this month, just before Passover begins.

I have to admit I’m a little jealous that he gets to be the one to say “this year in Jerusalem,” but I’m the Vice President.  I’m not the President.  (Applause.)  So I — when I told him that, I’m not sure he thought I was serious or not.  But anyway.  (Laughter.)

As will come as no surprise to you, the President and I not only are partners, we’ve become friends, and he and I have spoken at length about this trip.  And I can assure you he’s particularly looking forward to having a chance to hear directly from the people of Israel and beyond their political leaders, and particularly the younger generation of Israelis.  (Applause.)

And I must note just as I’m getting a chance to speak to 2,000 young, American Jews involved and committed to the state of Israel and the relationship with the United States, he’s as anxious to do what I got a chance to do when I was there last, Ehud with you, as you flew me along the line.  I got to go to Tel Aviv University to speak several thousand young Israelis.  The vibrancy, the optimism, the absolute commitment is contagious, and he’s looking forward to seeing it and feeling it and tasting it.

The President looks forward to having conversations about their hopes and their aspirations, about their astonishing world-leading technological achievements, about the future they envision for themselves and for their country, about how different the world they face is from the one their parents faced, even if many of the threats are the same.

These are really important conversations for the President to have and to hear and for them to hear.  These are critically important.  I get kidded, again to quote Debbie, she kids sometimes, everybody quotes — Democrat and Republican — quotes Tip O’Neill saying, all politics is local.  With all due respect, Lonny, I think that's not right.  I think all politics is personal.  And I mean it:  All politics is personal.  And it’s building personal relationships and trust and exposure, talking to people that really matters, particularly in foreign policy.

So, ladies and gentlemen, let me end where I began, by reaffirming our commitment to the State of Israel.  It’s not only a longstanding, moral commitment, it’s a strategic commitment.  An independent Israel, secure in its own borders, recognized by the world is in the practical, strategic interests of the United States of America.  I used to say when I — Lonny was president — I used to say if there weren't an Israel, we'd have to invent one.

Ladies and gentlemen, we also know that it's critical to remind every generation of Americans — as you're doing with your children here today, it's critical to remind our children, my children, your children.  That's why the first time I ever took the three of my children separately to Europe, the first place I took them was Dachau.  We flew to Munich and went to Dachau — the first thing we ever did as Annette will remember — because it's important that all our children and grandchildren understand that this is a never-ending requirement.  The preservation of an independent Jewish state is the ultimate guarantor, it's the only certain guarantor of freedom and security for the Jewish people in the world.  (Applause.)

That was most pointedly pointed out to me when I was a young senator making my first trip to Israel.  I had the great, great honor — and that is not hyperbole — of getting to meet for the first time — and subsequently, I met her beyond that — Golda Meir.  She was the prime minister.  (Applause.)

Now, I'm sure every kid up there said, you can't be that old, Senator.  (Laughter.)  I hope that's what you're saying.  (Laughter.)  But seriously, the first trip I ever made — and you all know those double doors.  You just go into the office and the blonde furniture and the desk on the left side, if memory serves me correctly.  And Golda Meir, as a prime minister and as a defense minister, she had those maps behind her.  You could pull down all those maps like you had in geography class in high school.

And she sat behind her desk.  And I sat in a chair in front of her desk, and a young man was sitting to my right who was her assistant.  His name was Yitzhak Rabin.  (Laughter.)  Seriously — an absolutely true story.  (Applause.)  And she sat there chain-smoking and reading letters to me, letters from the front from the Six-Day War.  She read letters and told me how this young man or woman had died and this is their family.  This went on for I don't know how long, and I guess she could tell I was visibly moved by this, and I was getting depressed about it — oh, my God.

And she suddenly looked at me and said — and I give you my word as a Biden that she looked at me and said — she said, Senator, would you like a photo opportunity?  (Laughter.)  And I looked at her.  I said, well yes, Madam Prime Minister.  I mean I was — and we walk out those doors.  We stood there — no statements, and we're standing next to one another looking at this array of media, television and photojournalists, take — snapping pictures.  And we're looking straight ahead.

Without looking at me, she speaks to me.  She said, Senator, don't look so sad.  She said, we have a secret weapon in our confrontation in this part of the world.  And I thought she was about to lean over and tell me about a new system or something.  Because you can see the pictures, I still have them — I turned to look at her.  We were supposed to be looking straight ahead.  And I said, Madam Prime Minister — and never turned her head, she kept looking — she said, our secret weapon, Senator, is we have no place else to go.  We have no place else to go.  (Applause.)

Ladies and gentlemen, our job is to make sure there's always a place to go, that there's always an Israel, that there's always a secure Israel and there's an Israel that can care for itself.  (Applause.)  My father was right.  You are right.  It's the ultimate guarantor of never again.  God bless you all and may God protect our troops.  Thank you.  (Applause.)

Iranian Guards commander killed in Syria

An Iranian Revolutionary Guard commander has been killed inside Syria by rebels battling Iran's close ally President Bashar Assad, Iranian officials and a rebel leader said on Thursday.

Syrian rebels have repeatedly accused Tehran of sending fighters to help Assad crush the 22-month-old uprising, a charge Iran has denied.

The Iranian embassy in Lebanon said the dead man, Hessam Khoshnevis, was in charge of Tehran's reconstruction assistance in Lebanon. It said he was killed by “armed terrorist groups,” a label used by the Syrian government to describe Assad's foes, on the road to Lebanon as he returned from Damascus.

A Syrian opposition commander said the attack was carried out by rebel fighters near the Syrian town of Zabadani close to the Lebanese border.

Iran has strongly backed Assad during the uprising in which the United Nations says nearly 70,000 people have been killed. In September Iran's Revolutionary Guards commander-in-chief said the force was providing non-military support in Syria and may get involved militarily if there is foreign intervention.

Last year Syrian rebels kidnapped 48 Iranians who they said were Revolutionary Guards fighters and authorities in Tehran described as pilgrims. They released them this year in a prisoner swap with Syrian authorities.

Details of Khoshnevis's killing, which Iranian news agencies said happened on Tuesday, were sketchy and Iran's envoy to Beirut drew a link with Israel.

Forty eight hours after his death no rebel brigade had claimed responsibility but He said he did not have more details.

“He served the oppressed, supporting the resistance to Israel,” Iran's ambassador to Beirut Ghazanfar Roknabadi told reporters as he received condolences from senior Lebanese officials. “Assassinating this dear martyr is a clear sign that the Zionist enemy does not accept his successful work”.

In Tehran, a funeral service was held for Khoshnevis on Thursday, Iran's semi-official Fars news agency reported, attended by senior Revolutionary Guards commanders.

TEHRAN BACKS ASSAD

Tehran's IRNA news agency said Khoshnevis, identified in some reports as Commander Hassan Shateri, was a military engineer during the 1980-88 conflict between Iran and Iraq, and later operated in Afghanistan.

But officials stressed Khoshnevis was engaged in civilian reconstruction in Lebanon for the last seven years and Lebanon's Al-Safir newspaper said had been in Syria to study reconstruction plans for the northern city of Aleppo.

Whole districts of Aleppo, Syria's largest city, and other urban centers across the country, have been destroyed in months of entrenched urban warfare. Assad has used air strikes and artillery to push back rebels, who have become increasingly well-armed as the conflict approaches its third year.

The Iranian Revolutionary Guards public relations office said Khoshnevis would be buried in his home town of Semnan after being “martyred on his way from Damascus to Beirut by mercenaries”.

Additional reporting by Zahra Hosseinian; editing by Janet McBride

U.N. nuclear inspection team to visit Tehran

A nuclear inspection team from the United Nation's nuclear watchdog agency will make a one-day visit to Tehran to try to jumpstart talks on Iran's nuclear program.

The seven-member team from the International Atomic Energy Agency was scheduled to meet with Iranian nuclear officials on Thursday. The team also planned to try to visit the Parchin military complex.

The IAEA has been attempting to visit Parchin, located near Tehran, for the last year. Satellite photos of the site indicate that it has been used for nuclear weapons experiments.

Earlier this week, the Institute for Science and International Security, a U.S. think tank, released satellite photos showing the construction of two large buildings on the site, following the demolition of the existing buildings, Haaretz reported.

In August, the IAEA released a report which included details on Iran’s having demolished of buildings and sterilizing the Parchin military complex, with would make it harder to detect the nature of nuclear research efforts there.

Tehran repeatedly says that its nuclear activity is for a domestic energy creating program and peaceful research. The West believes Iran is attempting to create a nuclear bomb.

Ross, Abrams and Jeffrey see strike by ‘14 if Iran does not comply

Three former high-ranking U.S. foreign policy advisers agree that if Iran does not halt its suspected nuclear weapons program by the end of 2013, the United States or Israel will act militarily.

Dennis Ross, until a year ago President Obama’s top Iran policy adviser, and Elliott Abrams, a former deputy national security adviser to President George W. Bush, spoke at an event in their honor held Dec. 6 in New York by the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, the Times of Israel reported.

Asked by Washington Institute director Robert Satloff if they believed either America or Israel would use their military against Iran’s nuclear program before the end of 2013 if it is not stopped by that time, Ross and Abrams said yes.

Ross and James Jeffrey, a former deputy national security adviser and the current ambassador to Iraq, predicted a U.S. strike in that case.

“I think there’s the stomach in this administration, and this president, that if diplomacy fails,” force will be used, Ross said.

Jeffrey agreed, saying, “I think if we don’t get a negotiated settlement, and these guys are actually on the threshold as Obama said during the campaign, then the president is going to take military action.” He predicted the decision would come halfway through 2013.

Iranian nuclear challenge must be tackled in 2013, Netanyahu says

Iran is getting ever closer to being able to build a nuclear bomb and the problem will have to be confronted in 2013, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said on Monday.

Israeli officials would like the United States to take the lead in a military assault on Iran's nuclear sites, but say in private they would go it alone if necessary, describing a nuclear-armed Iran as an existential threat to the Jewish state.

Speaking to foreign journalists, Netanyahu said Israel was sticking to the red line he laid down in September, when he told the United Nations Iran should not have enough enriched uranium to make even a single warhead.

“I made clear that once Iran crosses that enrichment threshold, the chances of us effectively stopping Iran's nuclear weapons program would be reduced dramatically,” he said.

“Iran is two and a half months closer to crossing this line and there is no doubt that this will be a major challenge that will have to be addressed next year.”

Iran denies accusations by Israel, the United States and many Western governments that it is seeking to develop nuclear weapons, saying its ambitious nuclear program is for peaceful, civilian purposes.

Israeli experts have said Iran could have enriched enough uranium to produce just one bomb by the spring or summer of 2013. In an effort to deter Tehran, Western powers have imposed increasingly tough economic sanctions on the Islamic Republic.

“The sanctions on Iran are hurting the Iranian economy. There is no question about that. But we have not seen any evidence that sanctions have stalled Iran's nuclear weapons program,” Netanyahu said.

“Israel is more capable of addressing this challenge than it was when I took office four years ago,” said Netanyahu, who looks on course to win re-election in a January 22 national ballot.

Israel has one of the largest air forces in the world and is believed to have the Middle East's only nuclear arsenal.

Iran's nuclear facilities are well protected and dotted around the vast country, posing a massive challenge to the Israeli military which does not have the reach of the United States or as powerful conventional munitions.

Reporting by Crispian Balmer; editing by Andrew Roche

Do Iran sanctions work?

To this point, the U.S. administration and the rest of the international community has responded to the perceived threat of a nuclear Iran with diplomacy and economic sanctions.

President Barack Obama and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu made their pitches for and against the effectiveness of sanctions, respectively, at this month’s American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) conference. More recently, satellite images of an Iranian military facility appeared to show trucks and earth-moving vehicles at the site that indicate an attempted cleanup of radioactive traces possibly left by tests of a nuclear-weapon trigger.

With these words and pictures both in mind, the following questions have come to the fore: Are sanctions an effective tool for curbing the behavior of the Iranian regime? How much time is actually left for the world to curb that behavior before Iran strikes? Finally, does America’s “red line” for pre-emptive military action against Iran come when Iran develops nuclear “capability,” or when Iran actually has nuclear weapons?

Not surprisingly, the answers of relevant analysts, legislators, and other officials vary.

Do Iran sanctions work?

Netanyahu told AIPAC delegates March 5 that the world “can’t wait much longer” for Iran to end its endeavor to produce nuclear weapons, and also stressed the following: “For the past decade the international community has tried diplomacy; it hasn’t worked. For six years, the international community has tried sanctions, that hasn’t worked either.”

Obama presented a sharp contrast to Netanyahu’s statements at a White House press conference March 6. The president said Iran “is feeling the bite” of sanctions “in a substantial way,” and described a “window of opportunity where this can still be resolved diplomatically.”

“When push comes to shove, Netanyahu wants to make sure that Israel operates on an Israeli timetable and chances of an Israeli strike now seem more likely than I thought a week ago,” David Makovsky, director of the Project of Middle East Peace at the Washington Institute, said in a recent teleconference. “There has been no change in the fact that Obama is focusing on [Iranian] weaponry and Netanyahu is focusing on capability.”

Regarding the direction of America’s sanctions strategy, U.S. Rep. Brad Sherman (D-CA)—ranking member of the House Subcommittee on Terrorism, Nonproliferation and Trade—told JointMedia News Service during a private meeting at the AIPAC conference that tougher sanctions than the current ones are needed.

Sherman said Iran sanctions should be bolstered regardless of perceived risk to the domestic or global economy, because the risk of a nuclear Iran is far greater.

“Hard, strict sanctions that impact everyday life in Iran could encourage its people to choose between regime survival and its nuclear program,” Sherman said.

Larry Greenfield, executive director of the Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs (JINSA), told JointMedia News Service that sanctions “have not worked to end the [Iranian] threat” but “may be working to put pressure on the Iranian government or economy.”

“Iran has threatened, Iran has continued to act as a bad actor, and Iran has not slowed down, frozen, halted or reversed its nuclear programs,” Greenfield said.

“Sanctions needs a partner,” he said. “The partner of sanctions is the credible threat of military force to effectuate the national policy of both America and Israel that Iran will not be allowed to weaponize.”

Massachusetts State Treasurer Steven Grossman, the former president of AIPAC, told JointMedia News Service he cannot say to a “certainty” that sanctions are going to keep Iran from developing a nuclear weapon. However, Grossman believes “squeezing Iran little by little, in the oil area, in the natural gas area, in the importation of refined petroleum products” is a strategy that has merit.

“Squeezing the ability of the central bank of Iran to do business in international markets, it’s never going to work unless everybody participates, and if the Chinese and the Russians and others don’t participate, obviously there are holes in the sanctions and those holes are problematic,” Grossman said, “but I still think it is up to the United States, the European countries and others to use whatever sanctions we have available to us to put as much pressure on Iran as we can, recognizing that they are only one tool of many, and in and of themselves they will not prevent Iran from getting a nuclear weapon.”

Emanuel Ottolenghi, senior fellow with the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, said sanctions might actually work in favor of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard, which has a monopoly on smuggling in the country. Therefore, as sanctions increase the need for smuggling within the Iranian economy, the regime’s radical actors are bolstered domestically.

“Those people who are in power [in Iran] will actually enrich themselves even more [because of sanctions],” Ottolenghi said during an AIPAC conference breakout session.

The future of America’s Iran strategy

Sherman, the California congressman, warned that Iran could provoke a series of events “even more dangerous” than the Cuban Missile Crisis “because the Islamic regime lacks the sanity of the United States and Russia, [and] the Iranians could use nuclear weapons against Israel or the United States to gain what it perceives as street credibility in its attempt to gain hegemony in the region.”

Regarding Iran’s threat to close the Strait of Hormuz, U.S. Rep. Steve Rothman (D-NJ) said during an AIPAC breakout session that, “I’m not going to tell you where [America has] what, but we’ve got lots of assets that would respond.”

“There is danger there, but the Iranians would have to make the calculation that they would be willing to withstand the response from the U.S., which hopefully would be quite devastating,” Rothman said.

Grossman, the Massachusetts treasurer, said he was encouraged to hear “very, very significant overlap between the deepest concerns and the statements” Obama and Netanyahu made at the AIPAC conference, and noted Obama’s acknowledgement of Israel’s sovereign right to defend itself.

“Whether the United States advises Israel or not as to being cautious, that doesn’t mean at the end of the day that Israel does not have the sovereign right to defend itself,” Grossman said.

JINSA’s Greenfield says his organization “positively agrees with the statements of both Israeli and American leadership that the governments move forward both in coordination and consultation, as well as appropriately discreet planning and discussion.”

“It is our assumption that, per usual…both militaries are organized to present to their national political leadership a range of options for potential pre-emption and both governments at the highest levels have ruled out an Iranian nuclear weapon,” Greenfield said.

However, Greenfield stressed that what continues to hover over the Iranian issue is the debate about the “red line” for military pre-emption: Does the U.S. strike when Iran is capable of weaponizing, or when Iran has the actual weapons?

“The point the Israelis are making is: only a sufficiently prepared and committed policy orientation, that disallows Iranian nuclear weapons, has the chance to get Iran to pull back on its program,” he said.

—With reporting by Maxine Dovere

Russia to Israel: Attacking Iran would be ‘catastrophic’

Russia warned Israel on Wednesday that attacking Iran would be a disastrous and played down the failure of a U.N. nuclear agency mission to Tehran, saying there is still a chance for new talks over the Iranian atomic program.

“Of course any possible military scenario against Iran will be catastrophic for the region and for the whole system of international relations,” Deputy Foreign Minister Gennady Gatilov told a news conference.

It was one of Russia’s starkest warnings against resorting to force, an option Israel and the United States have not ruled out if they conclude that diplomacy and increasing sanctions will not stop Iran from developing a nuclear bomb.

“I hope Israel understands all these consequences … and they should also consider the consequences of such action for themselves,” Gatilov said. “I hope a realistic approach will prevail, along with a sensible assessment.”

Russia, China as well as many allies of the United States are concerned that any military action against Iran could engulf the Middle East in wider war, which would send oil prices rocketing at a time of global economic troubles.

Iran has threatened to retaliate for any attack, or even if it feels endangered, by closing the Strait of Hormuz, the conduit for Gulf oil exports crucial to the global economy, and hitting Israel and U.S. interests in the Middle East.

Tehran has refused to stop sensitive nuclear work such as uranium enrichment despite four rounds of U.N. sanctions and a slew of additional measures imposed by the United States and the European Union, which fear Tehran is seeking nuclear weapons.

The Islamic Republic says its efforts to produce nuclear fuel are solely for electricity generation.

IAEA-IRAN TALKS GO NOWHERE

The failure of two days of talks between Iran and senior International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) officials, who were refused access to a military site where they believe Iran tested explosives of use in nuclear weapons, dimmed the chances of Western powers agreeing to renew broader negotiations with Iran.

A warning from Iran’s clerical supreme leader on Wednesday, hours after the Tehran talks concluded, that no obstacle would derail Iran’s nuclear course added to tensions.

Gatilov suggested that Iran should be more cooperative but there is more room for diplomacy. He said Iran’s discussions with Russia, China, the United States, Britain, France and Germany, frozen for a year, could still be revived.

“Iran and IAEA should boost their dialogue in order to rule out the … possibility of the existence of military dimensions in the Iranian nuclear programme. We hope that this dialogue will be continued,” he said.

“I think we still have opportunity to continue diplomatic efforts, to renew the six-nation talks.”

Russia, which built Iran’s first nuclear power plant, has often stressed the need for talks and that too much coercive pressure on Iran is counterproductive, a stance that has prompted concerns Moscow has helped Tehran play for time.

Last week, Russia said global powers must be serious about proposing solutions Iran might accept, warning that Tehran’s desire for compromise was waning as it moved closer to being technically capable of building atomic weapons.

Reporting by Alexei Anishchuk; Writing by Steve Gutterman; Editing by Mark Heinrich

History lessons

Imagine you are a developing country in the heart of the Middle East. The entire world suspects you are starting to build nuclear weapons, but you deny it. The one country in the world that has the diplomatic, economic and military might to stop you — the United States of America — has made it clear, over at least three administrations, that it will not permit you to go nuclear. Fearful of its retaliation, you give your solemn promise that your nuclear development is entirely peaceful.

Within 10 years, you have two nuclear weapons.

To Israel’s supporters, the story of how a small country, against all odds, became a nuclear power is fascinating, an illustration of Israeli genius wedded to good old-fashioned chutzpah.

To Iranians, I fear, it’s instructive.

Most American Jews are not familiar with the history of Israel’s nuclear program. In part, that’s because many of the documents surrounding it weren’t declassified until recently. But it’s also because American Jews regard Israeli nukes the way America’s military treated gay soldiers: Don’t ask, don’t tell.

That’s too bad, because you can’t really understand Israeli history or geopolitics without an appreciation of Israel’s tremendous nuclear capabilities. And, by the way, you can’t make sense of what the Iranians are trying to get away with unless you understand how the Israelis already have.

Israel’s President Shimon Peres was the architect of the country’s nuclear program. The man whom today’s rightists love to disparage as a hopeless internationalist spent years cultivating French cooperation in Israel’s nuclear program.

The details of Peres’ mission are reported in Michael Bar-Zohar’s 2009 biography, “Shimon Peres,” based on what were then newly released documents. Other facts have come to light in interviews by journalists and military historians.

Peres began his quest in the aftermath of the 1956 Sinai Campaign, as the 33-year-old director-general of the Defense Ministry. A secret meeting between Peres and the French foreign and defense ministers in 1956 secured French cooperation in helping Israel develop nuclear weapons.

At the time, France itself was not a nuclear power, and Israel functioned as a kind of secondary development unit. It was French technicians who built the secret underground reactor in Dimona, in Israel’s Negev desert.

When a new French president, Charles de Gaulle, suspended cooperation, the Israelis convinced him to continue helping by promising not to use the nuclear power to make nuclear weapons.

President John F. Kennedy, too, adamantly opposed Israeli nuclear development. He feared it would lead the Soviets to introduce nukes into the region. Kennedy threatened to review the entire Israeli-American relationship unless the Israelis vowed not to develop weapons and allowed regular inspections.

Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion promised Kennedy that Dimona was for peaceful purposes and agreed to inspections.

But the Israelis only permitted the inspectors to visit above-ground control rooms, while the weapons development was taking place underground. For these visits, the control rooms were simulated and the elevators leading to the plutonium reprocessing plant below were bricked over.

The way Ben-Gurion saw it, if Israel intended only to use the nuclear arms for defensive purposes, they were not, technically, “weapons.”

When Israeli Prime Minister Levi Eshkol made his first state visit to the White House on June 1, 1964, President Lyndon Johnson exacted yet another promise regarding Dimona. The briefing papers relate that Johnson told Eshkol that Israeli nukes “would have the gravest possible repercussions on U.S.-Israel relations.” Johnson also pressed Eshkol on Israel joining the International Atomic Energy Agency. “We can’t make Israel an exception, because we’re making 60 or so other clients of ours toe the line,” Johnson’s briefing book read.

The United States, Johnson reminded Eshkol, “is violently against nuclear proliferation.”

Eshkol, who pleaded with Johnson for American missiles, assured the president that Israel “was not engaged in nuclear weapons production.”

Back in the Negev, of the 50 American Hawk missiles Israel received, 25 were used to form a defensive shield around Dimona.

Meanwhile, through intense secret channels, Israel secured uranium from West Germany, heavy water from Norway and additional uranium from Argentina and South Africa.

Relations between Israel and the United States became so strained over the nuclear program that Israel’s ambassador urged Abba Eban, then the country’s U.N. representative, to avoid the General Assembly for fear of running into Secretary of State Dean Rusk and having to answer questions about Dimona.

Nevertheless, by 1967, just before the Six-Day War broke out, Israel had two nuclear devices. It became the sixth nation in the world to go nuclear.

By the time of the 1973 Yom Kippur War, Israel’s nuclear weapons stockpile and advanced missile delivery system all but guaranteed that the United States would help Israel maintain its conventional weapons superiority so it would not be forced into a position of using its nuclear weapons.

Today, Israel is a country with advanced nuclear weapons capability, giving it a qualitative edge over its Arab — and Iranian — neighbors.

“Arabs may have the oil,” Ariel Sharon is reported to have said, “but we have the matches.”

So what can we learn from Israel’s nuclear weapons history?  Inspections are made to be subverted.  When a country is dead set on developing nuclear weapons, it is very difficult to stop it.  If your friends would lie to your face, risk your considerable financial and military support and spy on you in order to go nuclear, imagine what your enemies would do.  Once you actually get the weapons, the world treats you with significantly more care.

History teaches many lessons. Let’s hope the Iranians don’t read history.

U.S. official says no sign Iran shot down drone

Iranian media reported on Sunday that their country’s military had shot down a U.S. reconnaissance drone in eastern Iran, but a U.S. official said there was no indication the aircraft had been shot down.

NATO’s U.S.-led mission in neighboring Afghanistan said the Iranian report could refer to an unarmed U.S. spy drone that went missing there last week.

The incident comes at a time when Tehran is trying to contain foreign outrage at the storming of the British embassy on Tuesday, after London announced sanctions on Iran’s central bank in connection with Iran’s nuclear enrichment program.

Iran has announced several times in the past that it shot down U.S., Israeli or British drones, in incidents that did not provoke high-profile responses.

“Iran’s military has downed an intruding RQ-170 American drone in eastern Iran,” Iran’s Arabic-language Al Alam state television network quoted a military source as saying.

“The spy drone, which has been downed with little damage, was seized by the Iranian armed forces,” the source said. “The Iranian military’s response to the American spy drone’s violation of our airspace will not be limited to Iran’s borders.”

Iranian officials were not available to comment further.

NATO’s International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan said in a statement: “The UAV (unmanned aerial vehicle) to which the Iranians are referring may be a U.S. unarmed reconnaissance aircraft that had been flying a mission over western Afghanistan late last week.

“The operators of the UAV lost control of the aircraft and had been working to determine its status.”

A U.S. official, who asked not to be named, said: “There is absolutely no indication up to this point that Iranians shot down this drone.”

Tuesday’s storming of the British embassy attracted swift condemnation from around the world, further isolating Iran.

Britain evacuated its diplomatic staff from Tehran and expelled Iranian diplomats from London in retaliation. Several other EU members like Germany, France and Spain also recalled their ambassadors from Tehran.

The United States and Israel have not ruled out military action against Iran’s nuclear facilities if diplomacy fails to resolve a dispute over a program they suspect is aimed at developing atomic weapons. Iran says it would respond to any strike by attacking Israel and U.S. interests in the Gulf.

In January Iran said it shot down two unmanned Western reconnaissance drones in the Gulf. In July Iran said it had shot down an unmanned U.S. spy plane over the holy city of Qom, near its Fordu nuclear site.

Western nations on Thursday significantly tightened sanctions against Iran, with the European Union expanding an Iranian blacklist and the U.S. Senate passing a measure that could severely disrupt Iran’s oil income.

Iran warned the West on Sunday any move to block its oil exports would more than double crude prices with devastating consequences on a fragile global economy.

“As soon as such an issue is raised seriously the oil price would soar to above $250 a barrel,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Ramin Mehmanparast told the Sharq newspaper.

So far neither Washington nor Brussels has finalized a move against Iran’s oil trade or its central bank. Crude prices were pushed up over the British embassy storming with ICE Brent January crude up 95 cents on Friday to settle at $109.94 a barrel.

Additional reporting by Ramin Mostafavi in Tehran, Caren Bohan and David Alexander in Washington and Missy Ryan in Bonn; Writing by Parisa Hafezi; Editing by Peter Graff

Iran: Explosion occurred during research on weapons that could strike Israel

A massive explosion that killed 17 troops including an officer regarded as the architect of Iran’s missile defenses last week took place during research on weapons that could strike Israel, the Islamic Republic’s military chief said on Wednesday.

Iran has insisted the blast at a military base on Saturday, which rattled window and nerves in parts of the capital Tehran 45 km (28 miles) away, was an accident and denied speculation of possible sabotage by Israel or the United States.

“This recent incident and blast has no link to Israel or America but the outcome of the research, in which the incident happened as a consequence, could be a strong smack to the mouth of Israel and its occupying regime,” armed forces chief of staff Hassan Firouzabadi was quoted as saying by the student news agency ISNA.

Asked on Israel’s Army Radio on Sunday about the scope of damage from the blast, Defense Minister Ehud Barak said he did not know, but added: “May there be more like it.” There was no indication that the explosion was a deliberate attack.

Iranian officials had previously said the accident happened while munitions were being moved at the base, without linking it directly to weapons research.

Brigadier General Hassan Moqaddam, hailed as the founder of Iran’s missile program, was the most senior casualty.

Iran already has missiles, the Shahab-3, first tested in 1998, that it says could reach Israel, which has threatened to strike Iran’s nuclear sites if diplomacy and pressure fail to stop it getting the bomb.

Iran denies its nuclear work is aimed at developing atomic weapons but doubts about that were reinforced by a report published by the United Nations nuclear agency last week, a few days before the explosion.

The U.N. report further strained Iran’s relations with the West and the Iranian parliament is debating ending cooperation with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), a prospect that Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi sought to play down.

“Our response to this report is the one of patience and vigilance,” Salehi told state broadcaster IRIB on the sidelines of a cabinet meeting.

“Westerners like to push us toward a hasty reaction and they like to hear that Iran says it would withdraw from the NPT (nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty).”

Salehi said Iran would soon send a detailed and analytical rebuttal of the concerns raised in the report, which he called “unstudied and unjust.”

He also said Iran remained open to resuming the talks with world powers concerned about its nuclear program that stalled in January, and that he had presented a counter-proposal to Russia about how those talks might be structured.

“We presented another proposal and informed the Russian officials of that proposal and all our efforts are to find a way out of the faked nuclear issue,” he said.

Russia has sought to revive he talks between Iran and the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council, the United States, Russia, China, Britain and France, plus Germany (P5+1) that stalled in January.

Reporting by Ramin Mostafavi; Writing by Robin Pomeroy; Editing by Mark Heinrich

Iran assisting Syria in crackdown, according to U.S. intelligence

Iran reportedly is providing material assistance to the Syrian government in its effort to quell protests.

The Wall Street Journal on Thursday quoted Obama administration officials as saying that they have intelligence showing that Iran is providing the Assad regime in Syria with know-how garnered from its own civilian uprising in 2009 to shut down electronic communication among dissenters, and with equipment to put down protests.

Additionally, U.S. intelligence has intercepted “chatter” suggesting that the Iranians are seeking avenues to assist Shi’ites in Bahrain and Yemen in their own bids to force government change.

Analysts say Bahraini protesters have rejected such overtures, not wanting to hand the government a propaganda victory.