Tony Karon writes: Did Mitt Romney’s hawkish posture in Israel last weekend increase the likelihood of an Israeli attack on Iran? Unlikely. Will Defense Secretary Leon Panetta’s visit to Israel to discuss “various contingencies and how we would respond” hasten the prospect of confrontation over Iran’s nuclear program? Probably not. And will Iran capitulate in response to the increasingly painful economic sanctions tightened by the Obama Administration on Tuesday? Don’t bet on it. Although surprises are always possible given the cast of characters involved, all indications are that the Iran nuclear standoff is set to remain locked in an increasingly tense stalemate, at least through November’s U.S. presidential election.
Panetta’s visit coincides with an executive order signed Tuesday by President Barack Obama imposing punishments on any entities and countries that help Tehran circumvent sanctions imposed over the past year that are driving down living standards in Iran. A new raft of sanctions have also been approved by Congress this week to block Iran from receiving the proceeds of its oil sales, further tightening the economic stranglehold that U.S. officials hope will compel Iran’s leaders to accept Western terms for resolving the nuclear dispute.
There’s no sign of that happening at the negotiating table, however, as the bottom lines of the two sides remain so far apart that they’ve agreed only to keep a perfunctory channel of communication open. But the Administration’s emphasis is clearly on sanctions rather than diplomacy, having made clear to the Iranians that there’ll be no easing of the most painful pressure until Tehran is willing to heed all demands being put to it — something Iran stresses it has no intention of doing, even if it was willing to consider compromise options. Sanctions, of course, are a waiting game.
Obama’s new executive order may have been timed to help Panetta’s mission, which appears to be restraining the Israelis from taking unilateral military action by reassuring them not only that Iran faces the toughest economic sanctions ever imposed on any nation during peacetime, but also that the chokehold is being constantly tightened. It also appears intended to show that the Obama Administration is willing and ready to take military action to stop Iran building a nuclear weapon if the Islamic Republic proceeds down that path.
In a ritual that is familiar by now, U.S. officials plead that Israel allows more time for sanctions to inflict the economic pain that will compel the Iranian leadership to reconsider its defiance of Western demands, while Israeli leaders express public skepticism that sanctions will be enough to change the mind of the leadership in Tehran and question the value of further talks. Their skepticism and implied readiness to take unilateral military action combine to create pressure for still more sanctions and pressure. [Continue reading…]