Monday, 9 March 2015

OP ED THE OZ March 9:Netanyahu’s focus too narrow

Netanyahu’s focus too narrow

THE rapturous response Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu received from the US congress last week may assist him in a tight Israeli election race. Mr Netanyahu’s intense focus on containing Iran’s nuclear ambitions was understandable. It would also be hard to disagree with his assertion that the battle against Islamic State does not turn Iran into a friend of the US.
At the same time, it is in the interests of the US, the West and Israel itself to recognise how profoundly the emergence of Islamic State has transformed the strategic landscape of the Middle East. Confronted with this growing international menace, realpolitik demands that the US and the West recognise the possibility that Shia Iran — especially if it undergoes a process of economic modernisation — could play a crucial role in fighting the Sunni legions of Islamic State.
The calculation in dealing with Iran is finely balanced. Perceptions of an emerging de facto alliance between the US and Tehran, forged by common interests in the battle to defeat Islamic State, have raised the ire of major Arab nations such as Saudi Arabia, as well as Israel. The government in Riyadh has warned Iran is “taking over” Iraq, pointing out that Iranian generals are now in command of the 30,000-strong Iraqi force of mainly Shia militiamen trying to retake the Iraqi city of Tikrit from Islamic State fighters.
Mr Netanyahu regards the proposed nuclear deal between the US and Tehran — with agreement on its political framework due by the end of this month — as a major threat to peace. But on balance, Barack Obama is probably correct when he says Islamic State poses a more immediate and universal threat. The majority Republican congress’s invitation to Mr Netanyahu at such a delicate stage of negotiations between the US and Iran was mischievous. Provided the President and Secretary of State John Kerry hold fast to the principle that Iran will never be allowed to acquire nuclear weapons, it would be advantageous to conclude a deal with Iran. Lifting the sanctions that cripple the Iranian economy and opening it up to the positive, moderating influences of the global economy and trade might assist the long-term strategic interests of the West.
Negotiations appear headed towards an outcome that would see Tehran, in return for sanctions being lifted, agreeing to freeze its nuclear capacity for 10 to 15 years. Such an outcome would allow it to remain a so-called nuclear threshold state, with the technical ability to resume its program later. Mr Obama and Mr Kerry insist, however, that whatever the agreement, Iran will remain bound by the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and forever forbidden from building a nuclear weapon.
Mr Netanyahu’s apprehensions about such an outcome are understandable. As he told congress, even since the supposedly moderate Hasan Rowhani became Iran’s President in 2013, internal repression in Iran had worsened. Iran had intensified its support for the murderous Assad regime in Syria, gained control of Yemen through its Houthi proxies and continued to arm and use Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in Gaza. An Iran freed from sanctions would be even more aggressive, Mr Netanyahu argued.
The collapse of the negotiations between the US and Iran, however, would not abolish Iran’s nuclear program. Nor would it do anything to diminish the threat to Israel and the wider region. Iran would simply continue its advance towards building nuclear weapons. Bombing Iran’s nuclear facilities, as is sometimes touted, is not an option. The ayatollahs have ensured those facilities are beyond the range of any attack.
The only realistic path to containing Tehran is through hard-headed negotiations for a nuclear deal based on absolute guarantees of non-proliferation and Israel’s security. The emergence of Islamic State has changed the Middle East irrevocably. A more modern, outward-looking Iran could play a formidable role in combating it.

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