Ahead of March Iran Talks, U.S. Urged to Back Possible Israeli Strike

In the same week that talks between Iran and the P5+1 (the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council plus Germany) concluded in Kazakhstan with rare positive Iranian feedback, a joint resolution declaring U.S. support for Israel in the event of an Israeli military strike on Iran’s nuclear programme was brought before Congress.

The resolution, introduced by Senators Lindsey Graham and Robert Menendez and publicised in a press conference Thursday on Capitol Hill, will reportedly be a focus of the widely attended American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) annual conference in Washington next week.

According to a copy obtained by IPS, the “sense of the Congress” resolution “Urges that, if Israel is compelled to take military action in self-defense, the United States should stand with Israel and provide diplomatic, military, and economic support to our ally in defense of its territory, people, and existence.”

If the Senate moves forward with this, they risk sending the signal to the Iranians that, no matter what was said at Almaty, the U.S. does not have its own house in order to make a deal and is not serious about resolving the nuclear dispute peacefully.

“The resolution reiterates strong support for Israel and concern with Iran’s nuclear research – two sentiments no one would argue,” Heather Hurlburt, director of the National Security Network, told IPS.

“Those who vote on it will understand that it is hortatory and doesn’t have any effect on U.S. national security decision-making, but that may not be so clear to observers overseas,” continued Hurlburt, a former staffer in Madeleine Albright’s State Department under President Bill Clinton.

“It’s critical that the U.S. be seen to retain decision-making flexibility as negotiations seem to be moving toward a more sensitive phase,” she said.

This week in Almaty the P5+1 softened their “stop, shut and ship” offer presented last spring by asking Iran to “suspend” enrichment of uranium to 20 percent while using its existing stockpile for nuclear fuel and modifying equipment at its Fordow facility rather than permanently closing it.

This, in addition to increased IAEA monitoring, would result in slight sanctions relief that will not impact existing oil or financial sanctions, a U.S. diplomat told Al-Monitor.

Iran’s chief negotiator Saeed Jalili called the talks “a positive step” in a statement published on Mehr News.

“Some of the points raised in their respond [sic] were more realistic comparing to what they said in the past…which we believe is positive, despite the fact that we have a long way to reach to the optimum point,” said Jalili.

“There are reasons to be cautiously optimistic about outcome of the Almaty talks,” Kelsey Davenport, a nonproliferation analyst at the Arms Control Association, told IPS.

“If press accounts are accurate, I think that the revised proposal reflects a move toward a more balanced interim step that addresses the most urgent concerns on both sides; namely sanctions relief for Iran and for the P5+1, it would limit the size of Iran’s stockpile of uranium enriched to 20 percent,” she said.

But the non-binding resolution presented Thursday is unlikely to go unnoticed by the Iranians, who will reportedly present a response to the P5+1’s revised offer during another meeting set for Mar. 16 in Istanbul, Turkey.

“If the Senate moves forward with this, they risk sending the signal to the Iranians that, no matter what was said at Almaty, the U.S. does not have its own house in order to make a deal and is not serious about resolving the nuclear dispute peacefully,” Jamal Abdi, policy director of the National Iranian American Council, told IPS.

“The same senators and organisations sponsoring this resolution would make this exact argument to halt further negotiations were Tehran to take such a provocative step in the midst of talks,” he said.

The resolution follows a bipartisan bill presented on Wednesday that seeks to make it the policy of the U.S. to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapons capability — contrasting with President Obama’s previous declarations that the U.S. will not allow Iran to obtain a nuclear weapon – and to broaden and tighten existing sanctions on Iran.

Introduced by Representatives Ed Royce and Eliot Engel, the Nuclear Iran Prevention Act aims to restrict Iran’s access to hard currency by targeting its foreign exchange reserves, impose tougher restrictions on commercial trade with Iran and designate Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corp (IRGC) as a foreign terrorist organisation.

“It is usually overlooked, but each time the United States imposes a new coercive restriction on Iran, Iran responds by upping the ante on its nuclear programme,” Gary Sick, a Columbia University professor who served on the National Security Council staff under Presidents Ford, Carter, and Reagan, told IPS.

“A new round of sanctions at this moment, when serious talks seem to be getting underway for the first time in eight months, risks sabotaging the limited progress that has been made,” he said.

While there may have been cautious optimism over the results of Almaty, a variety of factors will influence the ongoing diplomatic process.

“Nothing can really happen before the Iranian elections, other than ‘marking time,’” Robert E. Hunter, who served on the National Security Council staff throughout the Carter administration, told IPS.

“Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu will almost surely press the President to take a strong stand on Iran and to reaffirm his commitment to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons [during Obama’s visit to Israel, the West Bank, and Jordan],” said Hunter, who was U.S. ambassador to NATO from 1993-98.

“The issue is not just nuclear weapons or the lack thereof. Deep and long-lasting regional competitions for influence are at the heart of the matter…And in the last three administrations, we have been unwilling to put on the table a negotiating position that has a chance to succeed, by recognising that the security interests of the U.S., Israel, and Iran must all be considered,” Hunter told IPS.

“No country can negotiate seriously when it is under military threat, facing sanctions that only help to strengthen the regime domestically, and with no serious proposals on the ‘plus’ side,” he said.

“Sanctions may be most useful after a strike against Iran’s nuclear-weapons facilities,” Clifford May, the president of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a Washington-based group that strongly advocates sanctions on Iran, wrote Thursday in an op-ed.

“If such an agreement [where “Iran’s rulers verifiably end the nuclear-weapons program, halt terrorism sponsorship, and ease domestic oppression”] cannot be reached, continuing and even tightening sanctions will make it more difficult for Iran to replace facilities destroyed after a military option has been exercised,” said May.

To date, no U.S. official assessment has concluded that Iran currently has an active weapons of mass destruction programme.

In August 2012, the Obama administration reiterated the assessment made by Director of National Intelligence James Clapper in January 2012 that “Iran is keeping open the option to develop nuclear weapons … should it choose to do so.”

“We do not know, however, if Iran will eventually decide to build nuclear weapons,” said Clapper.

Jasmin Ramsey is the editor of Lobe Log and a journalist whose articles have appeared in numerous print and online publications including Inter Press Service, The Guardian, Al Jazeera English, Le Monde Diplomatique and Guernica Magazine. She can be reached at [email protected]