Why is Israel now quiet over Iran sanctions?

After last week's call for 'crippling sanctions' against Iran, Israel has adopted an 'eloquent silence' on the issue while it waits to see how Thursday's historic nuclear talks go.

Ali Shayegan/Fars News/REUTERS
An Iranian Tondar missile is launched during a test on Sunday at an unknown location in central Iran. Iran test-fired the short-range missiles to show it was prepared to head off any military threat, four days before the Islamic Republic is due to hold rare talks with world powers worried about its nuclear ambitions.

A curious thing happened on the way to the meeting that Middle East analysts and nuclear weapons-watchers have all been waiting for: Israel dialed down its rhetoric against Iran.

On Thursday, officials from the Islamic Republic of Iran will meet in Geneva with officials from the US and other UN Security Council members to discuss Iran's nuclear program. Iran acknowledged last week that it has been building a second, heretofore secret uranium enrichment facility burrowed in the mountains near the holy city of Qom.

Israel, which considers itself the foremost target of an Iranian nuclear weapon, has been at the forefront of an international campaign for hard-hitting sanctions against Tehran if it doesn't accede to a more transparent monitoring regime. Israel has hinted that if it reaches the end of its diplomatic rope it may launch an attack on one or more of Iran's nuclear sites, just as Israel struck at the Osirak site in Iraq in 1981.

But Israel has grown noticeably quiet on Iran's nuclear program in the past week, an approach apparently aimed at letting bigger powers do the talking for now. The "eloquent silence," as one official here called it, may be a mark of taking a back seat and waiting to see how Iran faces off with the the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council (the US, Britain, France, China, and Russia) and Germany, which are often called the P5+1. Which stance Israel takes toward Iran in coming weeks probably depends heavily on how Chinese and Russian officials react to discussions of possible new sanctions during Thursday's historic meeting. Those two powers, with deepening economic ties to Iran, have until now been much less inclined to support sanctions than their counterparts in London, Paris, and Washington.

"The big question is how it will play out in that meeting: where Russia will stand, where China will stand," says Dr. Emily Landau, the Director of the Arms Control and Regional Security Program at Tel Aviv University's Institute for National Security Studies. "They each have their own unique take on this, and have their own ideas about the best road forward. It's not a unified force, and we've seen their different interests being played out over the past seven years since this crisis began."

Netanyahu called last week for 'crippling sanctions'

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, during his media tour last week following the UN General Assembly meeting, called for "crippling sanctions" against Iran – quoting Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who used the term this summer. That's not a new position for Israel and officials here have complained that the international community didn't share Israel's sense of urgency on the issue or its willingness to put teeth behind demands that Iran slow its nuclear progress. And yet, at the same time, Israeli leaders have expressed skepticism over the efficacy of sanctions and have warned that the time for them to have any effect was "running out" - a sign that Israel was moving toward the military option.

But with last week's outing of Iran's secret nuclear facility, Israel now believes there is more hope for harsh new sanctions, since the revelation supports its long-standing argument that Iran's nuclear program is not intended strictly for civilian use.

"Serious sanctions would not necessarily make Iran change its position on a nuclear program, but they can have an effect in that Iran would come into negotiations with a more serious attitude, and come in looking for a deal," Landau says.

Sanctions would most likely include a call for halting foreign investment in Iran's oil and gas industries, as well as restrictions on banking, US Defense Secretary Robert Gates told CNN on Monday.

US also takes a wait-and-see approach

"I don't think we will get the full perspective of Iran's willingness to engage in one meeting," State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley told reporters in a briefing in Washington on Tuesday. "Clearly, once we are at the table, we hear from them, we see the tone, we'll know some things. And the real question is, are they willing to engage in a process?"

"That is the ultimate question on the table: Is Iran going to come to the meeting on Thursday prepared to seriously address the concerns that the international community has?" Crowley said.

Aluf Benn, a leading Israeli journalist on security affairs for the Haaretz newspaper, noted that the crisis leaves Netanyahu torn between two schools of thought in Israel, one which prefers a preventive approach, an the other, an offensive one.

"In recent months, it seems Israel's preventive strategy is paying dividends," he wrote. "[Netanyahu's] challenge in the coming months will be to withstand the burgeoning pressures to attack Iran ... while adhering to the preventive strategy. This is the most effective way, one that will give incentive to the West to rein in the Iranians without risking harm to Israel."


Will the UN Security Council slap sanctions on Iran?

Probably not, due mostly to China's aversion to sanctions. Read our piece on how China's recent multi-billion dollar oil and gas deals plays into its stance on the issue. Also, check out our story on how Iran's secret site is the missing piece in its nuclear puzzle.


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