The Middle East Channel

Netanyahu aligns with Obama on Iran

While most media attention focused on the cartoon bomb presented by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during his speech at the United Nations General Assembly, something even more newsworthy passed almost without notice:  Netanyahu made it clear that he has endorsed U.S. President Barack Obama's policy on Iran. By literally drawing a red line to show how far he could tolerate Iran's nuclear program, Netanyahu in effect approved of the international efforts led by the Obama administration to prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon.   

In fact, while he would never admit it in the midst of a campaign, even Mitt Romney picked up on this view and has, in practice, endorsed Obama's approach. That sudden outbreak of unspoken consensus is the real story of the last week of diplomacy. The real question now is what can be done with the broad agreement that there is both time and space for a diplomatic solution to the crisis over Iran's nuclear program that has created a new window of opportunity. And that depends on two big wildcards: what Netanyahu's red lines really are, and Iran's real intentions and capabilities.

In Netanyahu's speech, he made it clear that Israel has a red line for the Iranian nuclear program. While this red line for military action has evolved over the years, it now appears to be the point at which Iran has enough low enriched uranium -- at nearly 20 percent enrichment levels -- to potentially produce one nuclear bomb. In Netanyahu's estimation, that time won't come until sometime next year, perhaps in the spring or even the summer. If Iran were to achieve that level, it would be threatening enough for Israel to justify striking Iran, according to Netanyahu. 

The prime minister identified this as his red line because it would be the furthest point at which Israel could feasibly attack Iran's nuclear enrichment facilities.

As the prime minister said:

"The relevant question is not when Iran will get the bomb. The relevant question is at what stage can we no longer stop Iran from getting the bomb. The red line must be drawn on Iran's nuclear enrichment program because these enrichment facilities are the only nuclear installations that we can definitely see and credibly target."

Israel, according to nearly three-dozen bipartisan national security leaders who signed onto a report by the Iran Project, doesn't have the capacity to conclusively destroy Iran's nuclear program. However, it does have the capacity to delay it through bombing enrichment facilities. But that would be a disaster, as it would likely unravel the international pressure on Iran to come clean, unleash a devastating war in the region, fuel antagonism toward the United States, and fail to permanently end the international community's concerns about Iran's nuclear ambitions.

Yet if past is prologue, Israel tends to strike its adversaries' nuclear facilities when it feels vulnerable, not when the international community deems it wise. Israel struck the nuclear facilities at Osirak in Iraq in 1981 and Syria in 2007 -- but only made limited strikes. In the case of Iraq, the attack drove the program underground and accelerated its push for nuclear weapons -- an outcome that Israel would not want today in Iran.

In this case, by appearing to set a red line, Netanyahu actually gave a boost to the role of serious U.S. diplomacy to resolve this issue. This is because of what Netanyahu didn't say in his speech: that any Iranian nuclear program is unacceptable. This little-noticed absence gives a crucial boost to the prospects for a nuclear deal. He only said that Iran should not be allowed to enrich enough uranium to have the makings of a bomb. By implication, this means that -- with strict safeguards, commitments to cap enrichment levels, and export or conversion of uranium for reactor fuel plates -- Israel could live with an Iranian nuclear program. This is where the international negotiations, led by the Obama administration, have been heading. And now Netanyahu has publicly signed off on this approach.

Of course, Iran has a role to play, and could continue to keep Israel and the international community on the edge of their seats by proceeding to raise and lower the levels of its stockpile as it sees fit. This is because it takes roughly 225 kg of nearly 20 percent enriched uranium to make one bomb's worth of fissile material -- although that material would still need to be purified up to 90 percent levels. It's important to remember that, according to the latest International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) report, Iran recently reduced its stockpile of 20 percent uranium to less than half of that red line, from 101 kg to 91 kg, by converting a portion of the stockpile into fuel plates for use at the Tehran Research Reactor.

But there are severe downsides for Iran to continue to play such games, as the devastating sanctions currently in place will remain. Iran, which needs to get out from under the international pressure and isolation, should seize the opportunity to credibly deal at the negotiating table with the United States and its international partners. There is no guarantee that it will do so, but the time will soon come when it must show its cards.

Now that the speeches are over and the threat of immediate war has receded, the real work of diplomacy must step in to resolve this dispute. It's clear from Netanyahu's speech last week that a diplomatic deal that allows for some type of Iranian nuclear program is in the cards. It's also clear that Israel depends on the sanctions that the Obama administration has orchestrated, on the information gathered by IAEA inspectors about Iran's nuclear program, and on the multilateral negotiations underway.

So all eyes are on Washington to guide the diplomacy to resolve this sticky situation without a war. Backing up the support for diplomacy is the fact that the American people oppose getting involved in another war of choice in the Middle East. Nevertheless, the United States and Israel may still decide that they, in fact, have no choice. Yet one thing is certain from last week: U.S. leadership in the Middle East is neither diminished nor irrelevant. If anything, it is clear that it is working, and that it will be counted-on even more in the days to come.

Joel Rubin is the Director of Policy and Government Affairs at Ploughshares Fund, a global security foundation.

Amos Ben Gershom/GPO via Getty Images

The Middle East Channel

Suffering from sanctions, Iran’s currency plunges to a record low

Battered by international sanctions over its nuclear development program and domestic instability, the Iranian rial plunged to a new low on Monday. After a dramatic decline last week, the rial fell between 13 and 18 percent on Monday, to as low as 33,500 rials to the U.S. dollar. The rial is not traded on the global currency markets, so an accurate value can't be determined). It fell a further nine percent on Tuesday. According to some Iranian traders, the sharp decline was due, in part, to firm statements from the United States and Israel at the United Nations General Assembly as well as the Iranian central bank's implementation of a new currency exchange on September 24. According to the chairman of financial trading house Pakzad Consulting Corp, "The sharpening of the rhetoric could lead some to think we're closer to a military strike." He continued that for speculators, "this is a perfect opportunity to make money." Iran's worsening financial situation has sparked divisions in the Iranian government. Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad blamed the crisis on financial authorities for mismanaging currency in a news conference in New York last week. Conversely, on Sunday, a member of the Iranian Parliament's economic commission accused Ahmadenijad of mismanaging the currency market. Iran's currency has reportedly lost over 80 percent of its value since 2011. Expanded U.S. and EU trade sanctions have resulted in an estimate 45 percent decline in Iranian income from oil exports.

Syria

Addressing the U.N. General Assembly Monday, Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Moallem accused world powers, particularly the United States, France, Turkey, Saudi Arabic, and Qatar, of supporting terrorists, interfering in Syria, and pursuing "new colonial policies." The United States is providing the Syrian opposition with $45 million of "nonlethal aid" including communications equipment. Saudi Arabia and Qatar have been accused of supplying weapons to the opposition. While officials have said the opposition should be armed, the countries have not admitted to providing weapons. Additionally, Moallem called for refugees to return to Syria saying foreign entities have fabricated a refugee crisis. The U.N Refugee Agency announced Tuesday that the number of Syrians registered, or awaiting registration, as refugees in Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey, and Iraq has reached 311,500. Meanwhile, fierce clashes have continued across Syria. Opposition forces reportedly killed 18 Syrian soldiers in an ambush in the northwestern town of Salqeen, where government air strikes killed an estimated 30 people. Fighting has spread in Aleppo. Opposition fighters fired rockets at the municipality building on Monday attempting to keep civil servants from going to work. Conditions in the city have declined dramatically with public services largely collapsed, police offices abandoned, and many neighborhoods without water and electricity. President Bashar al-Assad was in Aleppo on Tuesday, according to Lebanese pro-regime newspaper Al-Diyar, and ordered an estimated 30,000 soldiers to move into the city from Hama. However, the report could not be verified. 

Headlines  

  • Anti-Christian graffiti was spray-painted in Hebrew on the gate of the Christian Monastery of Saint Francis on Mount Zion in an apparent pro-settler extremist "price tag" attack.
  • A cameraman who accompanied Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to New York for the U.N. General Assembly, Hassan Gol Khanban, has defected and applied for asylum.
  • Swedish furniture giant IKEA has apologized for releasing a special catalogue in Saudi Arabia with women removed from some of the photos.
  • Turkey is exhuming the body of former President Turgut Ozal in Istanbul on Tuesday over suspicions that his 1993 death while he was in office was due to poisoning.

Arguments and Analysis

Attack in Libya Represents Subtle But Meaningful Shift in Threat to American Interests' (Nada Bakos, The Huffington Post)
"The recent attack on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi likely represents a subtle but meaningful shift in the extremist threat to American interests: the catastrophic attacks on American soil at the start of this century are likely to be much less common than the attacks abroad that we witnessed in the 1990s. A consequence of this shift should be a reconsideration of not just our counter-terrorism strategy, but a re-examination of the risk response calculus that we, as a country, are willing to accept in the course of our pursuit, promotion, and protection of interests abroad."

Road Show' (Laura Secor, The New Yorker)

"Iran policy is a conundrum for the United States. Every four years, we hear otherwise-that it is only want of courage or good sense that prevents us from bringing the Islamic Republic to heel. But our options are bad, our objectives are ambiguous, and the Iranian people stand as hostages between their government and ours. The Ahmadinejad show may be over. But Groundhog Day has only just begun."

--By Jennifer Parker and Mary Casey