Israelis Temper Doubts About Obama's Policy on Iran

By Howard Schneider and Joby Warrick
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, October 2, 2009

JERUSALEM, Oct. 1 -- When President Obama announced efforts to curb Iran's nuclear program through diplomatic engagement, the concern in Israel was that open-ended talks would allow the Islamic republic time to continue toward its suspected goal of developing a nuclear weapon.

But as that engagement took its first major step Thursday in meetings in Geneva, the Israelis were tempering their doubts.

The recent disclosure of a second Iranian uranium-enrichment plant appears to have stiffened the resolve of the United States and other Western powers, Israeli officials and analysts said. While many here see the plant's existence as proof that the Iranians were moving beyond an energy program to produce bomb-grade uranium, the United States' apparent new determination has alleviated some fears that the talks would lead nowhere.

"Most people in Israel were a little surprised by the new tactics Obama was proposing. He wanted to engage Iran, seemingly hopeful that by offering carrots and not wielding a stick he could do business with them," said former Israeli defense minister Moshe Arens. "I think now that the president and the people around him have been disabused of this view."

The Geneva session concluded with an agreement between Iran and six other nations, including the United States, to resume talks by the end of the month.

Israeli Foreign Ministry and other officials declined to comment on the Geneva meetings -- a message in itself in a country that considers Iran a chief security concern and has pointedly refused to rule out military action against its nuclear facilities.

"There is a sense in the past few days that the concern of the international community has gone up a step," said Emily Landau, director of the arms control and regional security program at the Institute for National Security Studies at Tel Aviv University. "Israel is waiting to see what happens. Israel wants to see this resolved diplomatically."

There is debate within the Israeli government about the nature of the Iranian threat. Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu feels the threat to Jews is as acute as on the eve of World War II. His defense minister, however, has said he does not consider the risk from Iran "existential."

As with many of Israel's strategic concerns, geography plays a role. The country's population is concentrated around Tel Aviv, prompting fears and discussions about how a single nuclear explosion could cripple the nation.

But the fear is not that Iran would use a bomb against Israel so much as exploit its success in developing one to influence regional politics and embolden militant groups, such as Hezbollah and Hamas, that sit on Israel's borders and count on Iran's support.

Israelis remain skeptical that the process started in Geneva will work. They note that Iran concealed its nuclear program from the world for years and continued it despite U.N. Security Council sanctions and negotiations with European countries.

The disclosure of the second enrichment plant raises the question of whether there might be other such secret facilities in Iran.

There is also doubt that Russia and China will agree to pressure Iran or support sanctions if talks fail.

"It is not entirely clear whether the degree of alarm in Israel should be lower or even higher" after the disclosure, said Dore Gold, a former Israeli ambassador to the United Nations and the author of a book on Iran's nuclear strategy. "The Iranians know how to milk a negotiating process for what they need. Engagement was tried by the Europeans and failed, and there is very little reason to believe that it is going to be successful" under Obama.

Still, the early doubts about Obama's engagement policy have given way to a sense that the president is now more realistic about Iran and is willing to pursue other options if diplomacy does not produce results.

"I don't give the talks a shred of a chance for success," said retired Brig. Gen. Ephraim Sneh, a former deputy defense minister. But "I fully trust his goodwill and intentions."

Warrick reported from Tel Aviv.

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