Israel: Hoping Sanctions Work but Readying Gas Masks

Preparations for a strike against Iran’s nuclear program are as evident as ever: the introduction of an attack drone capable of flying hundreds of miles, the frequent open talk of a possible attack, the distribution of new gas masks to the public.

But lately, the real action in Israel on the Iranian issue has been the parade of top American security officials. The chairman of the joint chiefs, the director of the C.I.A. and the national security adviser have all just been here; the vice president arrives on Monday.

“Some have described it as a bear hug,” a senior Israeli official said of the near-daily high-level meetings, speaking on condition of anonymity in order to express himself freely on a charged issue, as did three other top Israeli officials for this article.

“All the visitors to Israel are sending us and the region a message: that Israel is not alone,” said Ilan Mizrahi, a former head of Israel’s National Security Council. “That means that Israel will not pull the trigger without a lot of consideration and consultation.”

The American decision to press Israel to hold its fire stems partly from war game exercises in both countries that have raised complex questions about how effective a strike would be, how Iran would react and when it would be clear that a nuclear line had been crossed in Iran. The officials say this is the time to try to put tougher sanctions against Tehran into place. And Israel is going along.

“No Israeli prime minister wants to make the decision to attack Iran,” commented a former official closely involved in these discussions. “And for Iran to go nuclear on Obama’s watch would be seen as a colossal failure. There is a common interest to make sanctions work.”

As a result, the Israeli-American relationship has actually been improving lately over Iran. Both countries still find it useful to note that Israel is preparing for a strike and that its government includes some real hawks. This is a point American officials made to China recently to persuade it to join the sanctions regime.

But few believe an attack is imminent. Intelligence cooperation between the United States and Israel is intensifying, and assessments regarding Iranian intentions and capabilities are closer than they were during the Bush administration.

A year ago, the differences were starker. The Obama administration wanted to engage Iran in talks; the Israelis viewed that as a waste of time that would give Tehran greater opportunity to enrich uranium while stringing along President Obama with promises of diplomatic breakthroughs.

The troubled June election in Iran, the violent repression of dissent there and the Iranian rejections of Western offers to enrich uranium outside Iran altered Washington’s views. “We have seen a real change in the administration,” a senior Israeli official said. “They now see Iran as riper for tough sanctions.”

Israeli officials agree that the Iranian government and economy are weak and that harsh sanctions could pressure it into changing its nuclear policy. But which sanctions?

“The question now is how much the desire for international consensus will dilute the sanctions,” one senior official said.

The United States is aiming at a broad coalition, including Russia and China, signing onto a United Nations resolution. That would mean less severe sanctions than those Israel would seek to impose. Many Israelis would like to single out Iran’s energy sector because penalties of that kind are seen as more likely to deal a severe economic blow.

The Israelis have made recent high-level visits to China and Russia in an effort to bring officials there aboard. In addition, Israeli officials are due in Washington next week to urge Congress to take a tough unilateral stand on the issue.

The Obama administration has not backed sanctions on Iran’s energy sector for fear of alienating ordinary Iranians, including the country’s struggling opposition movement. But Senator John Kerry, Democrat of Massachusetts and chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, was here this week and spoke of the importance of tough sanctions. “I believe that the most biting and important sanctions would be those on the energy side,” he said at a news conference after meeting with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

One of the challenges of forging a coherent joint policy is that developments on the ground are not static. Recently, Iran said it had started to enrich uranium up to 20 percent, a huge step from its current enrichment of 4 percent. This would put it much closer to the capacity to enrich at bomb-making levels.

Moreover, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of Iran attended a summit meeting in the Syrian capital with the leaders of Syria and the Lebanese group Hezbollah. His verbal attacks on Israel were harsher than usual.

Israel says it is watching with enormous concern. Its officials say they do not want to be lured into what could be an Iranian trap: a confrontation in Lebanon or Syria aimed at diverting the world’s attention from Iran. At the same time, they worry about weapons being smuggled into Lebanon and to Hamas in Gaza, and feel they may need to act.

The United States hopes to prevent any slide into armed confrontation by increasing its diplomatic relations with Syria and appealing to President Bashar al-Assad to stop transferring arms to Hezbollah.

Still, for all the agreement between Jerusalem and Washington, there remains a significant difference. It emerged last month when Israel’s defense minister, Ehud Barak, was asked at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy how cooperation was going between Israel and the United States on Iran.

“From America, when you look at a nuclear Iran, you already have, just besides allies like France and the U.K., a nuclear Russia, nuclear China, nuclear India, nuclear Pakistan,” he replied. “North Korea is going toward turning nuclear. So probably from this corner of the world, it doesn’t change the scene dramatically.

“From a closer distance, in Israel, it looks like a tipping point of the whole regional order.”

In other words, as a top Israeli official put it afterward: “For the Americans, Iran is a strategic threat. For us, it’s an existential one.”

Whether that difference becomes more significant in the coming year will help determine whether Israel breaks ranks with Washington. NYT