New Sanctions, Old Postures as U.S.-Israel-Iran Stalemate Drags On

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Supreme Leader Ayatullah Ali Khamenei, who has the final say on all state matters in Iran, voiced confidence on July 24, 2012, that the Islamic Republic can beat the latest punitive measures aimed at blocking the country's vital oil and banking industries over the disputed program

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.

(MORE: Long-Term Uncertainty Remains in Nuclear Talks with Iran)

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.

(MORE: For Israel, the Problem with Iran Diplomacy Is the Prospect of Nuclear Compromise)

While the U.S. is closely coordinating with Israel on all its Iran activities, including the negotiations via the European Union–led P5+1 group, there’s an unmistakable gap — at least publicly — between the two sides when it comes to redlines that would trigger military action. President Obama has made clear that he would be willing to bomb Iran to prevent it from building nuclear weapons. Of course, the international consensus is that Iran is using the cover of its nuclear-energy program to steadily assemble the infrastructure to build nuclear weapons but has not moved to weaponize nuclear material, or even taken a strategic decision to do so. Thus President Obama’s insistence that there’s still plenty of time for sanctions to make the difference.

Israeli leaders, however, have publicly laid out a different redline, based on Israel’s more limited military capabilities. Defense Minister Ehud Barak, for example, has insisted that Iran’s nuclear program can’t be allowed to enter a “zone of immunity,” where, even if it hasn’t moved to weaponize nuclear material, it has placed enough of its nuclear infrastructure inside the hardened facility at Fordow, buried deep in a mountainside near Qom, to put it beyond the reach of Israel’s aerial-bombardment capabilities. Although the “zone of immunity” is a fuzzy indicator with no time line attached, the implication is that Israel will have to strike before Iran reaches that point or else forfeit its own military option for dealing with Tehran’s nuclear program.

That may be why, at least according to reports in the Israeli media, that U.S. officials have begun briefing the Israelis in considerable detail on operational plans that would be implemented should Iran move to weaponize. (Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s office denies this.) The purpose of these alleged briefings, reportedly, is to demonstrate to the Israelis that the U.S. has the will, the plans and the capacity to destroy all of Iran’s nuclear facilities should Iran cross U.S. red lines for military action. Asked about the agenda for his discussions with senior Israeli leaders in the course of his visit, Panetta told reporters that “it is the wrong characterization to say we’re going to be discussing potential attack plans. What we’re discussing are various contingencies and how we would respond.” Well, yes. And President Obama, soon after taking office, replaced the term global war on terror with overseas contingency operations. In practical terms, that may be a distinction without a difference.

(MORE: Deadlocked, Iran and Western Nuclear Negotiators Agree Only to Keep Talking)

Romney, for his part, took a hard line on the question of nuclear compromise with Iran, insisting that Tehran could not be trusted with any nuclear material, meaning that — like the Israeli leadership — the only diplomatic outcome he would accept would be one in which Iran gave up the right to all uranium enrichment. (For Iran, that would be tantamount to surrender, and it remains a highly unlikely scenario.) A top Romney aide, Dan Senor, also indicated that Romney would “respect” an Israeli decision to take unilateral military action against Iran.

But none of that changes anyone’s calculations. Israel is not looking for the U.S. to respect a decision to unilaterally strike Iran; it needs the U.S. to do the job. Asked about the issue in a TV interview on Tuesday, Netanyahu answered as follows:

“I would love it if the world and the United States carry out this task. I’ve gathered quite a bit of support in the international community to pressure Iran. This pressure affects the Iranian economy, but hasn’t moved their nuclear program even one meter backwards,” he said. “If they [the international community] do it — all the better. We do not entrust in others things concerning our destiny and our existence, not even in the best of our friends. Obama and Romney said that Israel has a right to defend itself against any threat — and we must be the ones to make the decisions about our fate and our future.”

(MORE: Can Israel Stop Iran’s Nuke Effort?)

Israel’s military capacities, however, are substantially more limited than those of the U.S., and the sustained barrage that would be required to delay Iran’s nuclear program for even a couple of years might be beyond Israel’s capacities. Even with U.S. support, Israel would be isolated diplomatically if it launched a war with Iran, and the sanctions and other follow-up mechanisms required to prevent Iran building nuclear weapons following a strike would likely crumble. Israeli public opinion, moreover, is opposed to a strike on Iran unless Washington was taking the lead. And Israel’s military chiefs reportedly also view taking military action at this stage as a mistake.

Obama himself appears unable to entertain any compromise on the enrichment issue in an election year, which is why there is little prospect of any nuclear deal before November. The sanctions are certainly having a painful effect in Iran, but what’s less clear is whether or not this economic pain will force Iran to capitulate on the nuclear issue — and that’s a question unlikely to be answered this year.

That said, there’s also the possibility that Iran declines to bite the bullet, and instead tries to escalate the crisis through measures of its own. Mindful of the precarious state of the world economy, for example, it might decide that its most effective response to the sanctions and the failure of Western powers to offer what Tehran considers to be acceptable terms at the negotiating table would be to take actions, open or covert, that threaten global oil supplies. Or it could get its nuclear program closer to weapons capability by enriching uranium to higher grades, perhaps on the pretext of powering naval vessels, but aware all the while of the provocative nature of such moves. If the Iranians, instead of crying uncle, choose some more belligerent utterances and actions, all bets could be off.

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