Israel to face Iran alone when U.S. lifts sanctions
By Aluf Benn (Diplomatic Correspondent)
February 19, 2001
The diplomatic and defense establishments in Israel are preparing to adapt their policies to address changes expected in the approach of the Bush administration to the Middle East. According to the prevailing analyses in Jerusalem, the new Washington administration is expected to soften its stand on Iran in parallel with increasing pressure on Iraq.
According to Israeli diplomatic evaluations, the Bush administration is planning to ease economic sanctions imposed on Iran by previous American administrations, and narrow its efforts to block Tehran's programs for developing weapons of mass destruction.
Israeli policy makers - in particular prime minister-elect Ariel Sharon - will need to decide whether to attempt to persuade Bush administration to maintain the sanctions against Iran, or to tow the American line and settle for returns in other areas.
In August this year the Iran-Libya Sanctions Act (ILSA), initiated by former Republican Senator Alfonse D'Amato and passed with the lobbying efforts of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), will expire.
The law imposes sanctions on any foreign company, including those of European Union states and Russia, that invested in the Iranian oil industry. ILSA was an extension of previous restrictions imposed on U.S. firms by the Clinton administration in 1995 on similar business ventures in Iran.
The idea behind the economic sanctions on the largest Iranian industry was that this would restrict Tehran from diverting funds into nuclear weapons development programs and supporting international terrorism.
However, the new U.S. administration will probably oppose an extension to what is also known as the "D'Amato Law," because of its strong links to the American oil industry. Its representatives have watched European firms close lucrative deals with Iran while they are being left out.
Vice President Dick Cheney, who was CEO of Haliburton Co., a U.S. conglomerate with significant interests in the fossil fuel business, has forcefully attacked "unilateral sanctions" during the recent election campaign. If there is one thing that best signifies what is expected, soon after the Bush administration was sworn in, representatives of U.S. oil firms rushed to hold meetings with Iranian foreign minister, Kamal Kharazi.
Israeli lobbyists and diplomatic sources believe any effort to stave off this change in the U.S. administration will be fruitless and will only antagonize powerful elements in Washington. Instead, they suggest Sharon should concentrate Israeli efforts in garnering U.S. resources to dissuade Iran from developing weapons of mass destruction and the missiles to deliver such dangerous payloads - specifically by pressuring Moscow to block weapons technology transfers to the Iranians.
During the first year of the Clinton administration, the U.S. declared a "dual containment policy" in checking Iran and Iraq. Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin gave his full endorsement to the American approach and said Iran was the most serious threat to Israel's security. Bill Clinton responded by a series of laws which imposed sanctions on American and other companies seeking to do business with Iran.
However, when the French energy giant Total and the Russian Gazprom signed lucrative deals with Tehran, Washington faced strong pressure from Paris and Moscow and eventually backed down. This did not lead to a lifting of the sanctions, and there was no rush by other firms to bypass them, mostly due to the tough terms imposed by the Iranian government.
During the term of Benjamin Netanyahu as prime minister, Israel sought American help to prevent the flow of nuclear and missile technology from Russia to Iran. Both Clinton and vice-president Al Gore agreed to adapt U.S. policy in line with Israel's request, however no serious pressure was put on Moscow and little was gained through the relatively mild efforts at convincing their Russian counterparts of the threat which the proliferation of nuclear known-how to Iran posed on Israel.
For reasons involving U.S.-Russian bilateral relations, Clinton also avoided enforcing a law which was passed in Congress imposing sanctions on those assisting Iran in the development of nuclear weapons and long-range missiles.
During the tenure of outgoing Prime Minister Ehud Barak, minimal importance was placed on countering the flow of technology from Russia to Iran for use in weapons programs. Talks between the U.S. and Israel were limited to the level of senior advisers and meetings were infrequent.
The National Security Council is now eager to concentrate its efforts on the problem of technological flow to Iran and is waiting for Ariel Sharon to take a decision. Sharon, who dispatched envoys to Washington last week, reminded the Bush administration of the threat posed by Iran to Israel, in parallel with the dangers emanating from Baghdad.
In a briefing on February 7, the head of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), George Tenet, emphasized the dangers facing the U.S. from the development of Iranian ballistic missiles and nuclear weapons, with Russian technological assistance.
However, a lobbyist for Israel in Washington said that "the main problem now between the U.S. and Russia is the dispute over the National Missile Defense system (NMD) and efforts by Bush to convince Moscow to accept it. As long as they concentrate on this problem, other issues will receive secondary attention - just as the Clinton administration focused on the expansion of NATO and pushed other issues in relations with Russia to the periphery."
Deputy Defense Minister, Ephraim Sneh, one of the most loudest voices emphasizing the threat from Iran, is pessimistic about what to expect from the U.S.. "If indeed the U.S. adopts a conciliatory approach to Iran, and does not prevent the flow of nuclear and missile know-how from Russia, the implications are that we will need to face this threat alone and we need to be ready for this. The Americans will flex their muscles against Saddam Hussein and we will need to deal with the Iranian problem on our own.