Israel’s Iran Policy Appears to Shift Further Toward More Sanctions

Jerusalem – Benjamin Netanyahu, the prime minister of Israel, plans to travel to Europe before the end of the year, among other things to press for a toughening of sanctions against Tehran, Israeli officials said on Tuesday. The plans appeared to be another indication of a shifting Israeli emphasis, at least for now, toward efforts to stop the Iranian nuclear program by means other than military action.

Mr. Netanyahu told the United Nations General Assembly last week that a red line must be drawn capping Iran’s ability to enrich uranium, asserting that Iran might reach an irreversible point in its drive for a nuclear weapon by next spring or summer.
While American-led international sanctions have so far not succeeded in stopping Iran’s nuclear program, Mr. Netanyahu said, he added that he believed that “faced with a clear red line, Iran will back down. This will give more time for sanctions and diplomacy to convince Iran to dismantle its nuclear weapons program altogether.”

The Israeli leader’s speech appeared to suggest that the deadline for any military strike had been pushed off to mid-2013, well past the American presidential election, smoothing over a main point of contention between the Israelis and the Obama administration.

The growing Israeli focus on a new round of sanctions comes amid reports of the deep impact that current sanctions are having on the Iranian economy. A recent internal report prepared by the Israeli Foreign Ministry stated that the sanctions may, according to some assessments, also be affecting the stability of the Iranian government, which insists that its nuclear program is for purely peaceful purposes.

But since the sanctions have not yet persuaded the government in Tehran to suspend its nuclear drive, the Israeli report concluded, another round of sanctions was needed.

“We are calling for even stiffer sanctions to be imposed against the regime, but in the background there also needs to be a credible military option,” Moshe Yaalon, one of Mr. Netanyahu’s top ministers, told Israel Radio on Tuesday. “That integrated strategy is supposed to bring the Iranian regime to a point of decision.”

Mr. Netanyahu is expected personally to urge leaders in France and Germany to step up the already severe sanctions against Tehran, according to one senior Israeli government official. He added that the new strategy was to focus on Europe out of concern that the impending American presidential elections made any new action from Washington less likely.

At the same time, the official said, a recent meeting of European foreign ministers in Cyprus suggested some openness to further ratcheting up sanctions. “Our feeling is that with the elections and everything, we’ve not seen much on the American front except for sealing holes where the Iranians have found ways to get around the sanctions,” the official said. “Up until now, it’s been the U.S. and then the Europeans following. If it’s the other way around, so be it, we’ve got to go with what we’ve got.”

He added, “Personally, I don’t think we’ll get a full trade embargo, but it’s always good to aim high and see what comes out of the wash.”

Other Israeli officials downplayed the notion of a policy shift regarding Iran and noted that Mr. Netanyahu’s plans for a trip to Europe had not yet been finalized.

“We have been calling for a beefing up of sanctions all the time,” said one, adding that the latest moves were part of a “continuum.”

Another cautioned that “Nobody has yet ascertained that the Europeans are ready to impose a new round of sanctions.” Determining the type of sanctions would require a lot of work, he said, and would carry serious economic consequences for Europe.

The officials were speaking on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to comment on the issue publicly.

Polls show that there is not much appetite among the Israeli public for a unilateral strike against Iran’s nuclear facilities, and Israel’s president, Shimon Peres, is one of several prominent figures who have spoken out against such a course of action.

On Tuesday, Mr. Peres repeated those reservations. Paying a traditional Sukkot holiday visit to Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, the spiritual guide of the ultra-Orthodox Shas Party that sits in the governing coalition, Mr. Peres said it would be preferable to deal with Iran without a war, and that it was necessary “to continue to work with a wide coalition and to increase the diplomatic pressure on Iran.”

Mr. Peres added that the current economic and diplomatic sanctions were “serving to isolate the corrupt regime in Tehran,” and that the most important thing was “to work hand in hand with the United States of America, which remains the largest and most significant world power and a true friend of Israel’s.

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