WASHINGTON - Less than a week after Republicans made major gains in the
U.S. midterm elections, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin
Netanyahu has called on President Barack Obama to "create a
credible threat of military action" against Iran.
Initial official reaction was negative, with Defense
Secretary Robert Gates insisting that Obama's preferred
strategy of enhanced multilateral sanctions and
negotiations, which may resume after a year's hiatus later
this month, was working better than expected.
"I disagree that only a credible military threat can get
Iran to take the actions that it needs, to end its nuclear
weapons program," Gates said when asked about Netanyahu's
remarks during a visit in Australia.
"We are prepared to do what is necessary, but at this point,
we continue to believe that the political, economic approach
that we are taking is, in fact, having an impact in Iran."
According to diplomatic sources quoted in the Israeli and
U.S. press, Netanyahu's appeal came during a meeting with
Vice President Joseph Biden in New Orleans Sunday. It
suggests that his right-wing government and its allies here,
including hawkish Republicans who will take control of the
House of Representatives in January, are preparing to
escalate pressure on Obama to adopt a more confrontational
stance with Tehran.
Indeed, even as Netanyahu was telling Biden, according to
the anonymous sources, that "only a real military threat
against Iran can prevent the need to activate a real
military force," Republican Sen. Lindsay Graham, a leading
national-security spokesman for his party, told an
international conference in Halifax, Canada, that Obama
would help his own re-election chances in 2012 if he made
"abundantly clear that all options (to Iran) are on the
table" – a phrase that is associated with taking military
And if Tehran actually developed a nuclear weapon, he said,
Obama should act "not to just neutralize their nuclear
program, …but to sink their navy, destroy their air force
and deliver a decisive blow to the Revolutionary Guard. In
other words, neuter that regime. Destroy their ability to
The rhetorical escalation by both Netanyahu and his
supporters here comes amid diplomatic jockeying between Iran
and the so-called P5+1 – the five permanent members of the
U.N. Security Council and Germany –over the site and agenda
of a meeting that both sides have said they hope will take
place later this month.
The P5+1, which is represented by the European Union's
foreign policy chief, Catherine Ashton, have proposed a mid-
month meeting in Vienna. But Tehran Monday called for Turkey
to host the talks.
Along with Brazil, Turkey had secured Iran's agreement last
spring to a proposal, originally put forward as a
confidence-building measure by the P5+1 a year ago, to ship
a substantial amount of its growing stockpile of low-
enriched uranium (LEU) outside the country for enrichment to
the 20 percent level needed to fuel a nuclear plant in
Tehran (TRR) that produces medical isotopes.
The Turkey-Brazil deal, however, was summarily rejected by
the Obama administration and its European allies on the
grounds that Tehran had added significantly to its stockpile
in the previous six months.
In recent weeks, however, they have hinted they may go along
with a similar transfer scheme if Iran agrees to send a
larger proportion of its total stockpile out of the country,
stops enriching uranium to the higher level and agrees to
address the future of its nuclear program.
In another conciliatory gesture, the Obama administration
last week named Jundallah, a radical Sunni group that has
repeatedly attacked government security forces in
Baluchistan in recent years, a terrorist organization.
While Netanyahu and his supporters here are dismissing as
insufficient Obama's strategy of sanctions and talks, two
centrist think tanks Monday urged the administration to
place more emphasis on engaging the Islamic Republic.
Previewing a more-comprehensive report to be released Nov.
16, Barry Blechman and Daniel Brumberg of the non-partisan
Stimson Center urged Obama to offer Tehran a "set of robust
economic, political and strategic incentives that give
Iran's leaders reason to cooperate" as part of a
"recalibration" of U.S. strategy that would reduce its
reliance on "coercive measures".
Writing in USA Today, the two non-proliferation specialists
argued that Washington should explicitly recognize Iran's
right to enrich uranium under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation
Treaty – something that it has yet to do – and provide other
inducements, including proposing bilateral or multilateral
talks on security issues, notably Afghanistan and the drug
trade, and normalizing diplomatic exchanges, and offering
help in modernising Iran's energy industry.
In addition, a new paper released Monday by the bipartisan
Iran Task Force convened by the Atlantic Council on the
evolution of internal Iranian politics, particularly since
last year's disputed elections, called for Washington to
pursue "strategic patience" with Tehran "and avoid
overreactions that could set back Iran's political
"Short-term prospects for U.S.-Iranian reconciliation and
for a resolution of the Iranian nuclear file are poor in
large part because of Iran's internal political crisis,"
according to the author, veteran Iran observer Barbara
Slavin. "In the longer term, however, history, demography,
and education favor liberalization and international
integration… The focus of U.S. policy should be to buy time
for this evolution to take place."
Whether these recommendations will be taken up in
preparation for the prospective talks remains to be seen,
but it seems increasingly clear that Netanyahu and his
supporters here feel emboldened by last week's election to
press Obama in the opposite direction.
Netanyahu's government had been relatively quiet on Iran
since last June when Obama succeeded in persuading the U.N.
Security Council to impose a new round of sanctions against
Iran for alleged nuclear transgressions. It even expressed
satisfaction with subsequent efforts to rally the European
Union, Japan, and South Korea among others behind much
tougher sanctions against companies doing business with
But, with sympathetic Republicans taking over the House of
Representatives, the Israeli government appears confident it
can press for more.
According to "diplomatic sources" quoted by the Jerusalem
Post, Netanyahu warned Biden that Iran "is attempting to
mislead the West, and there are worrying signs that the
international community is captivated by this mirage."
"The only time that Iran stopped its nuclear program was
in 2003, and that was when they believed that there was a
real chance of an American military strike against them," he
reportedly told Biden.
U.S. neo-conservatives and other hawks have been making much
the same argument for some time. In a speech to the
influential Council on Foreign Relations in late September,
Independent Democratic Sen. Joseph Lieberman, who is close
to Graham and former Republican presidential candidate Sen.
John McCain, called for Obama to "take steps that make clear
that if diplomatic and economic strategies continue to fail
to change Iran's nuclear policies, a military strike is not
just a remote possibility in the abstract, but a real and
credible alternative policy that we and our allies are ready
His remarks were praised by William Kristol, the editor of
the neo-conservative Weekly Standard and a top adviser to
Republican foreign-policy hawks, and the Wall Street
Journal's editorial page.
Such war talk was denounced as "dangerous" Monday by the
Atlantic Council's chairman, former Sen. Chuck Hagel, who
also co-chairs Obama's Intelligence Advisory Board, as well
as the Council's Iran task force. "If you're going to
threaten war on any kind of consistent basis, then you'd
better be prepared to follow through on that (threat)," he
"The United States of America is currently in two of the
longest wars we've ever been in… at a very significant cost
to this country. …I'm not sure the people of the United
States want to do a third war," he said.
Jim Lobe's blog on U.S. foreign policy can be read at