By Howard Schneider
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, January 1, 2010; A08
JERSUSALEM -- Israeli officials say they will support President Obama's move to impose sanctions on Iran as a next step in the standoff over the country's nuclear program, though the narrower measures being considered by the White House may fall short of the "crippling" restrictions advocated here.
With the expiration of the United States' year-end deadline for Iran to resolve the issue, Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu is "focused on working with the international community to upgrade the pressure on Iran in a way that makes the Iranian regime know that its nuclear program is unacceptable, that they are going to pay a price that will make them rethink," said spokesman Mark Regev. Obama "has been successful in galvanizing an international coalition that many people were cynical about. We are on the same page."
The endorsement is significant because it comes from a country that is considered the most likely to launch a military strike to prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons. Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's denial of the Holocaust and his anti-Israel rhetoric have led Netanyahu to draw parallels to the years preceding World War II, and Israeli officials have said that all options are open in preparing for what some here regard as an "existential" threat.
Israelis were initially skeptical of Obama's decision to engage Iran diplomatically, worried it would lead to the same end as previous diplomatic overtures -- years of talks and ineffective resolutions while Iran continued its nuclear development.
The events of the last few months, however, helped curb the doubts. Ongoing pro-democracy demonstrations in Iran have created the sense of a regime vulnerable to pressure, while revelations about the extent and nature of the country's nuclear program have broadened international support for action.
Israeli officials and analysts say they understand the limits Obama faces in pushing more stringent measures through the U.N. Security Council, where China holds a veto and remains hesitant to act against the Islamic republic. But they also say Obama now shares their sense of urgency and will soon propose a meaningful set of restrictions on the Iranian leadership -- sticking to a rough deadline he mentioned in a meeting with Netanyahu in May.
With European nations and, more importantly, Russia looking poised to go along, "Israel is a spectator, like most other countries in the international community," said Deputy Foreign Minister Daniel Ayalon. "We trust that Obama and the U.S. will lead."
Along with the Israeli-Palestinian dispute, Iran has been at the core of U.S.-Israeli discussions since Obama and Netanyahu took office in early 2009. They began with an overlapping set of priorities -- Obama viewing establishment of a Palestinian state as key to curbing Iran's influence over Islamist radicals in the region, and Netanyahu viewing Iranian influence as a security threat that needed to be addressed for the conflict with the Palestinians to be resolved.
Beyond the risk of an Iranian nuclear strike on Israel -- considered unlikely because of Israel's nuclear deterrent capacity and the possible U.S. response -- Netanyahu has argued that a nuclear Iran would destabilize moderate Arab states in the region and embolden Iran-supported groups such as Hamas and Hezbollah that sit on Israel's borders.
Obama and Netanyahu seem to have reached an understanding, with some of Netanyahu's overtures to the Palestinians winning U.S. support and Obama's policy toward Iran gaining Israeli trust.
Meanwhile, talk of an Israeli strike has been tempered by discussion of the complexity of such an operation and the likelihood that it would do little other than delay Iran's progress.
"As long as Obama is engaged in some kind of diplomatic effort, Israel is going to wait and see how it plays out," said Emily Landau, director of the arms control program at Tel Aviv University's Institute for National Security Studies. "It is in Israel's interest for it to be dealt with diplomatically. The military option is only getting more and more difficult."
Other options are being discussed. At a Jerusalem news conference this week, Canadian lawmaker and former justice minister Irwin Cotler announced an effort to try Iran on grounds that its actions and the statements of its leaders put it in violation of international treaties on genocide prevention.
Cotler, who has close ties to Israel, has been discussing the initiative with Israeli leaders as a way to further pressure Iran using international law -- a sensitive topic here because of similar efforts to target Israeli leaders and military officials for their country's recent war in the Gaza Strip. The initiative could also help lay the groundwork under international law for military action, if all diplomatic efforts are exhausted.
"A nuclear, genocidal, rights-violating Iran is a clear and present danger to international peace and security," Cotler said. "There have been deadlines before. We should not wait for atrocities."