Israel is again turning up the pressure on the Obama administration to issue an ultimatum threatening military action if Iran refuses to abandon its suspected pursuit of an atomic weapons capability.
Israeli Finance Minister Yuval Steinitz is the latest member of Israel’s cabinet and national security establishment to come to Washington to press senior U.S. officials to lay out a tougher line on the Islamic Republic’s nuclear activities.
The time has come for President Barack Obama to give Iran a “very clear ultimatum, very clear deadline combined with a very credible also military threat” Steinitz told a group of reporters this morning before planned meetings with Treasury Secretary Timothy F. Geithner and other administration officials today and tomorrow.
Steinitz declined to comment on Obama’s announcement today that he will nominate former Senator Chuck Hagel, a Nebraska Republican, as defense secretary, saying “it is not our custom to interfere in democratic procedures in other democracies.”
Hagel has come under criticism from Republicans including Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina who say he is soft on Iran and not a strong enough ally of Israel.
As a two-term senator until 2009, Hagel opposed unilateral U.S. sanctions against Iran, while supporting United Nations and multilateral penalties. Hagel, currently chairman of the Atlantic Council, a Washington policy institute, has also served as co-chairman of the group’s Iran Task Force, which has studied Iran’s internal politics, the impact of sanctions, the likely cost of military action and the possibility of improved relations with Western nations.
“We will accept and respect any results, any decision made by the president and the Congress here,” the Israeli finance minister said of Hagel’s nomination.
Steinitz said he would tell Geithner that Israel views the financial sanctions imposed on Iran by the Obama administration as “very serious and very effective and the Iranian economy is in bad shape already now.”
During Obama’s first term, the U.S. and its European allies have imposed dozens of new sanctions affecting banking, finance, energy, shipping, insurance and trade with Iran. The Obama administration persuaded the 20 countries that imported crude oil from Iran in 2011 to cease imports entirely or “significantly reduce” their crude purchases from Iran.
Oil is Iran’s leading source of revenue and, according to the International Energy Agency in Paris, Iranian exports in November were estimated at 1.3 million barrels per day, down from almost 2.3 million barrels last year. Iran’s economy minister Shamseddin Hosseini said last month that Iran had lost half its oil revenues in 2012 because of sanctions, and that drop in revenue was responsible for a 40 percent government budget deficit for the year starting March 20.
Steinitz said he would discuss with Geithner and other White House and State Department officials what Israel perceives as loopholes in sanctions and Iran’s efforts to subvert legal restrictions. He declined to provide examples.
Steinitz said he is encouraged by the sanctions that are crippling Iran’s economy, and said it appears that “for the first time maybe at least some Iranians” are questioning whether the nuclear program is “worth the cost.”
Iran says its uranium-enrichment and other nuclear activities are for civilian energy production and medical research. Israel, the U.S. and European powers say Iran is clandestinely seeking the technology to produce a nuclear weapon.
Steinitz said Israel’s government is “not confident” to say that the sanctions alone will be sufficient to deter Iran from nuclear-weapons ambitions. The U.S. needs to make clear that Iran will never be allowed to build nuclear weapons, so that any reasonable Iranian leaders should conclude that it is pointless to “suffer from the sanctions,” he said.
Asked if he thinks negotiations between Iran and six world powers, including the U.S., may yield a durable deal to avert any military action, he said he hopes “a sound and credible diplomatic solution” is possible.
Still, he said, sanctions alone -- or sanctions combined with negotiations -- are “insufficient” to stop Iran from continuing to pursue an atomic-bomb capability. The U.S. must issue “a credible military threat” to persuade Iran’s leadership to abandon any nuclear military ambitions, he said.
“It seems they need something else” to “convince them to change their behavior, to make significant compromises at least for several years,” Steinitz said.
In Israel, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu emphasized the Iranian threat in remarks today to Jewish youth touring Israel on “Birthright” scholarships.
“The time has come for the world to wake up,” he said according to remarks issued by his office. “The danger to the world is not Jews building in Jerusalem. The danger is from nuclear weapons in Iran and chemical weapons in Syria.”