Jitters Over Iran

By Jim Hoagland
Sunday, July 13, 2008

At the strong urging of the Bush administration, Israel has pulled back from threatening to bomb Iran's nuclear enrichment program and has joined the U.S.-led effort to give coercive diplomacy with Tehran a (time-limited) chance.

Actually, Israel is giving diplomacy three chances: It is also pursuing indirect peace talks with Syria in a smart effort to wean that Arab country from its partial alliance with Iran. And Israel recently accepted a cease-fire in Gaza, in large part to rebuild bridges with Egypt.

So you might want to consider battening down the hatches and getting the bomb shelters ready, just in case. The hydraulics of war and peace in the Middle East dictate that when tension goes down in one part of that closed system of pressures, it must come back up elsewhere. If Israel smiles at Syria, Iran must growl, or worse.

Right on cue, as the appearance of a new calm was taking hold last week -- and helping bring down prices in the world's feverish oil markets -- Iran fired off new missiles that it bragged could reach all parts of Israel and hit U.S. troops in Iraq and ships in the Persian Gulf.

That sequence of events clearly suggests that the greater threat to global stability today lies more in Tehran than it does in George W. Bush's Washington. Polarization and conflict help Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad maintain his somewhat shaky grip on power and money. His rocket-rattling makes clear to all concerned, including his own diplomats, that he doesn't need no stinkin' peace conferences.

The missile tests revived regional war jitters initially sparked in early June when a senior Israeli official made unnecessarily bellicose comments, and by the coincidental staging of Israeli aerial maneuvers in Greece. Scheduled long ago for primarily political and bureaucratic purposes, the high-altitude joint maneuvers have been widely misinterpreted as preparation for a strike against Iran.

The war jitters in fact obscure the more important developments of recent weeks, which are the separate but parallel shifts by the Bush administration and Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's government to a more sophisticated strategy on Iran. Bush said in Europe last month that he intends to "leave behind a multilateral framework to work this issue" of Iran's nuclear program.

As U.S. officials ritualistically repeat when questioned about Iran, the bombing option may still be on the table. But it has been pushed beyond reach under almost all circumstances. In its past six months, the Bush administration has stopped playing into Ahmadinejad's political need for conflict and tension.

The most significant indication of that change comes from strong U.S. public and private pressure on Israel to forgo military strikes while Washington seeks new U.N. economic and travel sanctions against Tehran.

Neither government will confirm that such pressure was exerted. Bush hates to say no to Israel, and he and Olmert do not want Iran to think that it now has a free hand on enrichment. But diplomatic and U.S. sources describe the pushback by Washington as intense and say it included indications that the United States would not clear Israeli bombers through Iraqi airspace or provide other logistical support in the event of attack now.

Instead, Washington wants the focus kept on expanding financial and trade restrictions triggered by three U.N. Security Council resolutions condemning Iran's enrichment program. An interagency working group headed by the Treasury Department is drafting a plan to get international insurance companies to withdraw coverage from Iranian cargo shipments, infrastructure and businesses rather than face the "reputational risks" of maintaining links with Iran.

Israel sees this as a good first step but expects even greater pressures to be adopted urgently, Ambassador Sallai Meridor emphasized to me last week. Asian and Persian Gulf ports "take major risks by handling Iranian cargo that could contain contraband nuclear-related items" and must restrict Iranian shipping by air and sea, he said.

"Sanctions on insurance and maritime and air transportation would raise the cost of Iran's doing business. But effective sanctions on the import of refined petroleum products could be a game-changer," since Iran produces crude oil but lacks refining capacity. The world's oil companies "should not sell gasoline that is used by Iran's nuclear scientists and its terror chiefs to drive to 'work,' " Meridor said.

Without such dramatic steps, Meridor fears that Iran could obtain nuclear bomb-building capabilities by the end of 2009. "Military action is truly a last resort for Israel," he said. "But time can quickly run out on all the other resorts."

jimhoagland@washpost.com


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