Until now we did not witness any Iranian readiness to adopt more flexible positions regarding the development of its nuclear project. There is a chance that in Moscow the Iranians will show some willingness to present more moderate positions. After all they owe much to the Russians, who had opposed for years the efforts to exert massive pressures on Iran.
Prime Minister Netanyahu stated explicitly that the demands presented to Iran in the recent talks do not satisfy Israel: “Iran", he stated, "must stop all enrichment of nuclear material; it must remove all materials enriched to date from its territory; and it must dismantle its underground nuclear enrichment plant at Qom. Only a specific Iranian commitment during negotiations to meet all three demands and a clear confirmation that they have been executed can stop Iran's nuclear plan. This should be the goal of the negotiations.”
One may assume that a realistic statesman like Netanyahu knows well that an international forum in which Russia and China take part would not pose such far reaching demands to Iran. In fact even the United States does not seem to be willing to adopt those Israeli demands. In a statement he made during the recent G-8 summit president Obama stressed his "hope that we can resolve this issue in a peaceful fashion that respects Iran's sovereignty and its rights in the international community, but also recognizes its responsibilities." Netanyahu is also certainly aware of the fact that president Obama – just few months away from the presidential elections – wants more than anything else to keep the present status-quo with Iran. Thus, he would not be willing to adopt positions which would enhance the conflict with Iran.
These circumstances pose to Israel severe challenges. Israel assesses that the advancement of Iran towards a nuclear ability would confront her with concrete threats to its very existence. It further assess that all the measures which had been undertaken against Iran have not yet led Iran to stop the build up of its nuclear ability. These measures include economic sanctions efforts to isolate Iran in the international community and certain covert operations which have been attributed to Israel and the United States. The Israeli leadership is full aware of the fact that the time that passes by limits its political and military abilities to carry out military operations against Iran's nuclear facilities.
If the present circumstances continue to prevail, than it is almost certain that within few months, probably even few weeks the Israeli government would face one of its most crucial decision since it became independent state in 1948: should it try to stop Iran from becoming a nuclear power by military means or acquiesce with the idea of Iran as a nuclear state. The frequent statements made by Israeli leaders, especially Prime Minister Netanyahu and Defense Minister Barak leave no doubt that Israel would undertake any measure needed to prevent Iran from becoming a nuclear state.
Only president Obama has the powers and the authorities needed to prevent this kind of escalation. His recent statements with regard to Iran were very clear. He made it clear that the policy of the United States is prevention not containment. However from Israel's point of view those statements have not yet led the United States to adopt determined positions towards Iran in the continuing dialogue with her. Israel estimates that there is a considerable gap between the "lofty" statements of the United States president and other American officials and their "translations" to concrete demands from Iran within the talks carried out with her.
Israeli officials seem to to believe that the Iranian leaders would demonstrate flexibility in the talks only if they would estimate that the United States is serious about its determination to undertake any measure to stop Iran from becoming a nuclear power. Only a credible threat made by the United States that it would use its huge military power to destroy the nuclear installations in Iran, might convince the leadership of Iran to reach a compromise that would satisfy at least the United States.
The nuclear project is considered by the Iranian leadership a most vital national interest of Iran. Thus the Iranian leaders would be able to justify a decision to bring an end to the nuclear project only if it would show that the price entailed in the continuation of the project is much higher than its benefits. The United States has a wide range of options to undertake in order to demonstrate to the Iranians its determination regarding the prevention of Iran from becoming a nuclear power.
Israel is fully aware of the United States aspiration not to be engaged in another military confrontation after it has decided to withdraw its forces from Iraq and Afghanistan. However, the United States must take into consideration the likely possibility that a unilateral military Israeli operation against Iran would drag her into the confrontation even if it is not willing to be involved. It is almost certain that following an israeli strike against iran, the Iranians would claim that the United States collaborated with Israel and supported her in its military drive against Iran.
This would most probably lead Iran to retaliate not only against Israeli but also against American targets in the region. If this happens, the Obama administration would find itself under tremendous internal pressure to act against Iran and support its "major ally in the region" – the state of Israel. There is a very small likelihood that an American president would be able to "brush" away such demands few months before the elections.
Under these circumstances a show of reasonable force accompanied by intensive diplomatic pressure by the United States and other powers in the international community might be the only option to prevent an all out military confrontation in this region. Yes, indeed, the realities presented to the United States and Israel these days are not pleasant to any of them. We need credible leaders with great courage to lead their states in these stormy waters.
* Prof. Zaki Shalom is a senior researcher at the Ben-Gurion Research Institute, Ben-Gurion University and a senior research fellow at the Institute for National Security studies, Tel Aviv University.