Why Israel supports watered-down Iran nuclear sanctions

Israel says that Iran nuclear sanctions proposed to the UN Security Council are weaker than it would like, but the symbolism of international unity is important.

Vahid Salemi/AP
Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, center, flashes a victory sign, before Iran, Brazil, and Turkey signed an agreement for an Iran nuclear fuel swap, in Tehran, Iran, Monday.

Israel is applauding the US push for a fourth round of Iran nuclear sanctions, despite deep-seated concern that the process of diplomatic engagement and then sanctions against Tehran won't stop it from making a weapon.

It's a glass-half-full approach that's aimed at preserving international unity on preventing Israel's adversary from acquiring nuclear weapons. By taking a back seat to a UN-led sanctions process, Israel is also seeking to deflect Arab and Iranian accusations of hypocrisy that it wants to deny rivals nuclear programs after it secretly developed nuclear weapons of its own.

To be sure, the government of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu doesn't believe that the proposed United Nations Security Council sanctions go far enough toward forcing Iran to abandon what it believes is an Iranian effort to acquire nuclear weapons. But Israel is clinging to the hope that individual countries will in the future decide on stiffer punishments that may have a greater impact.

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"We always knew that a UN resolution would require international consensus and would be watered down without the teeth we hoped for. Nevertheless we support the resolution,'' said an Israeli government official who requested to remain anonymous. "It shows the international community united acting against the Iranian program. It's an important symbolic act.''

That symbolism was amplified by the timing of the sanctions draft proposal, which was unveiled just hours after Iran, Brazil, and Turkey announced an agreement for an Iran nuclear fuel swap. Under the deal, Iran would ship more than half of its stockpiled low-enriched uranium to Turkey, which would hold it in escrow until Iran received fuel rods for a small research reactor in Tehran. It isn't clear what country is willing to provide the fuel rods.

Diplomatic dividends for Israel

Though the deal triggered speculation that Iran might still be able to exploit rifts between the West and permanent Security Council members Russia and China, the US-sponsored sanctions resolution swiftly shifted focus to a collective censure against Tehran.

"The international community is in line with Israel's belief that Iran's nuclear program is not for civilian purposes only,'' says Meir Javedanfar, an expert on Iran based in Tel Aviv. "[The sanctions draft] shows that Ayatollah Ali Khamenei's government failed. The world is not against Iran enriching uranium, but the world is against Iran making a bomb. And as long as Iran hasn't answered the International Atomic Energy Authority's questions, that will be the working assumption.''

Javedanfar said that Israel's decision to back the Obama administration on Iran pays diplomatic dividends, allowing Israel to weather international pressure aimed at its own alleged nuclear capabilities, like a recent UN Security Council resolution calling for a nuclear weapons-free Middle East.

What the new sanctions would ban

The sanctions proposal includes bans on certain weapons like ballistic missiles, financial transactions that could aid Iran's nuclear program, and Iranian banks expanding abroad. It also calls on countries to boost the inspection of cargo shipments into and out of Iran..

According to Agence France Press, the sanctions would bar Russia from delivering to Iran advanced surface-to-air missiles that could threaten Western Air Force pilots. Russia agreed to sell such missiles to Iran years ago but has delayed delivery. The draft also contains language that could eventually limit financial transactions between the Iranian Central Bank and foreign banks, the New York Times reported.

Israel would have liked harsher sanctions to hurt Iran's energy export sector, said the Israeli official. In March, Israeli President Shimon Peres suggested diplomatic sanctions against Iran at the United Nations.

"The Security Council sanctions represent the lowest common denominator'' of the international community, says Ephraim Ascoulai, a former official at the Israel Atomic Energy Commission. "The sanctions will be ineffective, come too late, it won't achieve anything in the way. I don't think it will change Iran's timetable by an iota."

How a nuclear Iran would change the Mideast

Israeli leaders have drawn comparisons between the Iranian regime and World War II-era Germany following reports that President Mahmoud Ahmedinejad threatened to wipe the Jewish state "off the map.'

At the same time, Israeli officials have argued that a nuclear Iran poses a threat not only to the Jewish state, but to Arab governments in the Middle East – as well as to Western powers.

Nongovernment security experts in Israel have started openly speculating about what would happen in the region if Iran became a nuclear power. Though it’s a taboo subject for government officials, the brainstorming effort is a sign that the defense community in the Jewish state may be preparing for some worst-case scenarios.

"Israel, even though it would not admit to it publicly, is warily watching what looks like the Obama administration's failings in the face of Iranian maneuvers,'' wrote columnists Avi Issacharoff and Amos Harel in the liberal Haaretz newspaper. "The United States may still succeed in its attempts to impose international sanctions, but those sanctions seem unlikely to derail the mullahs from their efforts, with the probability of an American military strike seeming even slimmer.''

Even if Iran doesn't make use of a nuclear weapon, Israel is concerned that a nuclear Iran would destabilize the Middle East by spurring an arms race and by providing an "umbrella'' for non-state groups like Hezbollah and Hamas to launch missile attacks from Lebanon and the Gaza Strip. Israel, the thinking goes, would be more reluctant to retaliate against aggression from the two militant groups if it knew a nuclear Iran was backing them.

Herzliya group simulates Iran nuclear dynamic

At a simulation hosted this week at the Herzilya Interdisciplinary Center, participants reacted to the possibility that Iran would arm Hezbollah with components for a crude nuclear bomb (a scenario that Javedanfar, who played Iran in the simulation, criticized as unrealistic and "apocalyptic''). The simulation ended with the US seeking international military intervention in Lebanon while persuading Israel to hold its fire.

The simulation disproved the theory that a nuclear Iran would prompt a mutual deterrence with Israel in the Middle East similar to the US-Soviet standoff during the cold war, argues Gerald Steinberg, a political science professor at Bar Ilan University. "It shows how much more unstable and governable the Middle East would be.''

While he called the Brazil-Turkey-Iran agreement "political theater'' that will fail to gain traction, Mr. Steinberg expressed concern that, despite the sanctions, US deterrence will fail because it isn't effectively communicating to Iran the costs of becoming a nuclear power. That could increase concern in Israel that it must grapple with Iran on its own, he said.

"There's no favorable environment for Israel. The situation hasn't changed in four years,'' he said. "The Bush administration failed to take action to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons, and the Obama administration hasn't made any progress.''

IN PICTURES: Who has nukes?


US answer to Iran nuclear swap: Overnight deal on sanctions
Iran nuclear fuel swap deal: What it involves
Will the US accept a nuclear-capable Iran?

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