Tony Karon writes: Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu amplified his skepticism of President Obama’s Iran strategy on Wednesday, when he used a Holocaust remembrance speech to warn that Iran was building nuclear weapons in order to destroy Israel. “The Iranian regime is acting openly and decisively toward our destruction, and it is acting feverishly to develop a nuclear weapon to achieve this goal,” Netanyahu said, two days after accusing the Administration and its partners of giving Iran a “freebie” in last weekend’s nuclear talks in Istanbul. The combination of those statements creates an impression that the Israelis see the current diplomacy with Iran as prevarication in the face of a mortal threat to Israel — a message calculated to raise the domestic political heat on President Obama.
Of course, the U.S. and Israeli intelligence assessment is that Iran is not in fact currently embarked on a feverish dash to build nuclear weapons; it has not yet taken the strategic decision to build such weapons even as it steadily accumulates the capability to do so. And even Netanyahu’s Defense Minister, Ehud Barak, has suggested that a nuclear-armed Iran would be unlikely to launch a nuclear attack on Israel, given Israel’s own capability to “lay waste” to Iran. Administration officials believe that because Iran has not yet opted to build nuclear weapons and the pressure of steadily escalating sanctions has made Tehran more amenable to compromise, it remains possible to seek a deal to limit Iran’s nuclear work — and that if it could be achieved, such a solution represents the best and most durable solution. Still, it should come as no surprise that Israel’s leaders are agitated and openly skeptical over the U.S. entering a new process of diplomatic engagement on Iran’s nuclear program. They know that even the best-case diplomatic outcome would fall short of Israel’s demands but might do enough to de-escalate the conflict and push the issue off the international community’s crisis agenda.
The principles guiding the ongoing talks between negotiators from Iran and the P5+1 group, as laid out by chief Western negotiator and EU Foreign Policy chief Catherine Ashton on Saturday, are compliance with the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and a sustained process of step-by-step concrete actions undertaken on a basis of reciprocity. That framework alone is cause for disquiet in Israel, which is not a signatory to the NPT and which insists that Iran cannot be allowed to maintain any uranium-enrichment capability. Although the NPT obliges Iran to account for all its nuclear work to the satisfaction of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) — which Iran has yet to do — it also guarantees Iran’s right to enrich uranium for peaceful purposes. A diplomatic solution based on the NPT, therefore, would be one that strengthens the safeguards against Iran using its nuclear capability to build weapons but would not dismantle and remove Iran’s enrichment capability as Israel — as well as France and more hawkish elements in Washington — has demanded. The Obama Administration’s position on the issue has been ambiguous, having initially inherited the Bush Administration’s zero-enrichment stance but more recently spoken of Iran’s having the right to a peaceful nuclear program in line with the NPT.