Al-Ahram Weekly Online   6 - 12 December 2007
Issue No. 874
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

The real goal of Annapolis

While the world watched the Arabs, Annapolis was for Israel and the US to prepare the ground for attacking Iran, writes Saleh Al-Naami


At 8.45 last Wednesday morning, when most of the Arab delegation members to the Annapolis meeting were still in their hotel rooms, American President George W Bush met alone with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert in Bush's White House office. According to most commentators in Israel, this very early meeting was the most important event related to the Annapolis meeting because it was entirely devoted to discussing Iran's nuclear programme. Spokespersons for Olmert have affirmed that the meeting addressed means of coordination between the two allies to confront Iranian nuclear activities. Although both parties have kept quiet on the outcome of the meeting, Israeli sources have indicated that it was devoted to answering the follow question: To what degree can bets be placed on economic sanctions thwarting Iranian nuclear ambitions, and if the answer indicates an insufficient likelihood of success, what kind of military mobilisation can meet this goal? This important meeting suggested to many that Israeli and American enthusiasm for the Annapolis meeting was essentially because it provided an opportunity for Israel and the United States to address the Iranian issue.

Israeli sources have indicated that President Bush showed great interest during the meeting in discussing ways to confront Iran's nuclear ambitions. One week prior to the Annapolis meeting, Shaul Mofaz, who is responsible for coordinating Israeli strategic relations with the United States, transmitted "decisive" strategic information confirming Iran's intentions and efforts to produce nuclear arms.

Professor Dan Shiftan, head of the Israeli National Security Studies Centre and a well-known specialist in American-Israeli relations, published an article in Haaretz newspaper on the eve of the Annapolis meeting stressing that it had absolutely no relation to resolving the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. Shiftan wrote that the meeting was held in order to help President Bush create the necessary conditions for striking Iran. He further wrote that the Annapolis meeting must be viewed as a purely American-Israeli affair, with no input by the Palestinians or Arabs, and that Israel's goal in participating was to help Bush confront Iran. Shiftan mocked statements issued by Arab and Palestinian leaders describing the meeting as a "window of opportunity".

The ruling Israeli elite believes that Iran's possession of nuclear arms forms an "existential threat to Israel" that Tel Aviv must invest all of its capacity to divert. Ephraim Sneh, a leader in the Israeli Labour Party and former deputy defence minister, said, "if Iran succeeds in developing nuclear arms, it won't need to use them against Israel. It will be enough for the Jewish public in Israel to know that Ahmadinejad has acquired nuclear capacities for most of the Jews to leave Israel."

Israel and the US believe that it is better to undermine Iran's nuclear programme through the use of economic sanctions, but Israel at least is vocal in saying that should sanctions fail to meet their goal, military force must be used. Yet Israel prefers that Washington take on the onus of military activity against Iran should the effect of economic sanctions prove limited, on the argument that Iran's nuclear programme "threatens global security and not Israel's alone," as Olmert often says.

Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni holds that the Annapolis meeting will drive more states to join American efforts in increasing economic pressures on Iran. Israeli Deputy Foreign Minister Mejli Wehbi said that the US has informed China and Russia that regardless of whether a resolution is issued by the UN Security Council calling for increased economic sanctions on Iran, the American administration and the European Union will impose sanctions on Iran without being instructed by the council.

Wehbi has indicated that the EU is now waiting for Foreign Policy Chief Javier Solana to submit his report on ways of dealing with the Iranian nuclear issue, suggesting also that an increasing number of European states support imposing strict economic sanctions on Iran, including Germany, France and the UK. He further suggests that these sanctions are expected to create popular Iranian reaction against the policies of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Former Israeli foreign minister Silvan Shalom calls for investing in the atmosphere produced by the Annapolis meeting so as to enlist a growing number of states to confront Iran economically. So as to highlight the importance of economic sanctions, Shalom points out that the decision made by the governors of several American states to impose sanctions on American companies cooperating economically with Iran has had a strong influence on worsening the quality of services in a number of sectors of life in Iran.

According to the Israeli newspaper Maariv, shortly before the Annapolis meeting the Israelis hoped to exploit it to convince European states to agree to a new bundle of extreme sanctions against Iran and to cancel agreements worth $22 billion granted annually to European companies trading with Iran. With regard to communications made on the eve of the Annapolis meeting, Tel Aviv and Washington circulated proposals to impose sanctions on banks dealing with Iran, in addition to pressure placed on European companies to not renew oil infrastructure in Iran, along with a long chain of other economic measures that will directly affect the Iranian economy, as understood by American and Israeli experts.

Yet much of the ruling elite in Israel holds that economic sanctions may not succeed in dissuading Iran from continuing its nuclear programme. Amos Yadlin, head of Israeli military intelligence, has said that in addition to doubts over the ability of Israel and the United States to convince world states to participate in economic sanctions against Iran, even if they do it is doubtful that Iran's leadership can be convinced to give up on the nuclear path.

Opinion within Israel that the military option is the sole option capable of halting Iran's nuclear programme is gaining ground. As mentioned above, Tel Aviv prefers that Washington undertake the mission militarily. Yet despite the congruence of Israeli and American views on the dangers of Iranian nuclear ambitions, there are differences between the two regarding the conditions required for using military force. Israeli sources have suggested that this point in particular was discussed in the recent Olmert-Bush meeting. Israel holds that the point of no return is Iran's success in developing scientific, technological and human capacities for the production of nuclear arms, even if the weapons themselves are not produced. Were such a point reached, Israeli officials believe there is no benefit in bombing Iranian nuclear facilities, as Iran would exploit its scientific, technological and human capacities to develop its nuclear programme anew. The Americans, however, hold that the point of no return is Iran's success in producing nuclear arms.

At the same time, the calculations of some circles within the American administration regarding military action against Iran differ from Israel's. There is strong opinion within the American administration that any military action against Iran will have negative ramifications on American interests, including the threat for tens of thousands of American soldiers in Iraq who will become easy targets for Iran. American army leaders in Iraq are thus at the head of opposition to military activity against Iran.

Yet this does not mean that President Bush has decided not to direct military action against the Islamic Republic. And this is what has made Israelis decide to convince him of military mobilisation against Tehran as soon as possible. Some in Israel hold that when Bush and Olmert stressed the necessity of confronting "forces of extremism and darkness" in their speeches at the Annapolis meeting, they essentially intended to prepare global public opinion for military action against Iran.

Yet there are numerous indicators that confirm that the Israelis are prepared to strike Iran's nuclear facilities themselves should deterrent economic sanctions against Iran not be imposed or should Washington not undertake the mission of military action itself. Shortly before the Annapolis conference, Maariv indicated that the Israeli army was undergoing intense training in preparation for a possible strike on Iranian nuclear facilities. According to the newspaper, the Israeli air force is undergoing long-distance air training, including long-distance attack flying and re-fuelling while in flight.

Yet this is not all. The Israeli government has entrusted the head of the Israeli air force, General Eliezer Shkedi, to develop a mechanism for coordinating between the various aspects of the Israeli military to prepare for the issuance of instructions for military action beyond the country's borders -- meaning a strike on Iran. At the same time, Olmert's government has entrusted the head of Mossad, Meir Dagan, with responsibility for presenting strategic evaluations regarding Iran's nuclear programme. Dagan is taking this mission seriously, and Mossad recently published advertisements in the Israeli press to recruit Israeli youth who know Farsi, which has been interpreted as a step towards planting agents in Iran to garner the necessary intelligence.

Former deputy defence minister Sneh holds that prior to military action against Iran, two primary conditions must be met. The first is successful protection of Israel's interior from missiles and shells, thousands of which Iran may fire at Israeli cities. The second is the provision of budgets to provide fortification against chemical weapons by developing the "Hits" anti-missile programme.

Yet there are those who have doubts over the extent to which the Annapolis meeting will help Israel to forge the conditions that would permit a strike against Iran's nuclear facilities. Yoel Marcus, senior commentator for Haaretz newspaper, holds that there are many material and other obstacles in the way of a strike on these facilities. Marcus points out that Iran benefited from Israel bombing Iraq's atomic reactor in 1981 by building its nuclear facilities in various areas distant from each other, and constructing them deep underground. The Iranians intentionally separated the areas in which facilities are found according to stages in the atomic cycle, whereby there is not one facility that brings together all the stages of the nuclear programme. This way, if one of the facilities is bombed, only the stage for which this facility was built would be affected.

There are also those in Israel who warn against exaggerating the betting on post-Annapolis events. Shlomo Ben Ami, former Israeli foreign minister, claims that the sole means to halting Iran's nuclear programme is through political approaches, and suggests that Israel will also be asked to dispose of its nuclear weapons. "The best way to put an end to Iran's strategy in creating a lack of stability in the region is through comprehensive Israeli-Arab peace, after which would come international funding for building a system of peace and security in a Middle East free of nuclear weapons," he wrote in Yediot Aharonot newspaper following the conference.

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