Iran hawks push Obama on deadline for diplomacy

WASHINGTON, May 22 (IPS) - After an uneventful first meeting between U.S. President Barack Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that seemed to produce no real breakthroughs, hawks in the U.S. and Israel are seizing upon what they claim is a significant concession by Obama: his setting a 'timetable' for negotiations with Iran.

Although Obama merely promised a 'reassessment' of the situation at the end of the year without providing any benchmarks for progress, in the days since Monday’s meeting those pushing for tougher measures against Iran’s nuclear programme have portrayed his remarks as setting a hard-and-fast cutoff point for diplomacy.

By attaching so much importance to the end-of-year assessment, the Iran hawks - many of whom have publicly supported a significantly earlier deadline - may hope to box the president in politically, setting up a December showdown on Iran policy whether Obama likes it or not.

A relatively short Iran timetable would also suit Netanyahu, who has sought to make the Iranian nuclear programme a higher priority than the Israel-Palestinian peace process and who notably offered no real concessions on the Palestinian front in his meeting with Obama.

On Monday, Obama told reporters that 'it is important for us, I think, without having set an artificial deadline, to be mindful of the fact that we're not going to have talks forever'.

'My expectation would be that if we can begin discussions soon, shortly after the Iranian elections, we should have a fairly good sense by the end of the year as to whether they are moving in the right direction and whether the parties involved are making progress and that there's a good faith effort to resolve differences,' Obama continued.

'That doesn't mean every issue would be resolved by that point, but it does mean that we'll probably be able to gauge and do a reassessment by the end of the year of this approach,' he said.

Obama did not set any benchmarks that would have to be met for the administration to judge that discussions were 'moving in the right direction', nor did he threaten any specific consequences if talks did not result in progress. This was in keeping with his administration’s stated desire to move away from the 'carrots and sticks' approach of incentives and threats, which Iranian officials have called insulting.

'[The end-of-year reassessment] all amounts to nothing,' wrote M.J. Rosenberg, policy director of the Israel Policy Forum, at the website TPMCafe. 'Of course, he will assess how his diplomacy is working and, of course, he would never (publicly) rule out the use of force. This is what Obama always says and said during the campaign.'

Similarly, some prominent Iran hawks were sceptical that Obama’s comments implied any real deadline.

'Obama has provided no metric by which to judge progress,' wrote Michael Rubin, a neoconservative Iran analyst at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI). 'If there is a 1 percent chance that talks might advance, will Obama grant a 90-day extension?'

More frequently, however, Iran hawks sought to promote the idea that Obama had endorsed a fixed timetable for diplomacy, and that - barring a major breakthrough - the administration would turn to punitive measures by the end of the year.

'The timeline that [Obama] set openly was that if by the end of the year there is no indication of significant movement with Iran, it's over, and he will turn to strong sanctions,' said influential neoconservative columnist Charles Krauthammer.

Bret Stephens of the Wall Street Journal conceded that Obama’s actual statement was far less definite, but argued that 'every single media takeaway' took the statement as evidence for a hard deadline, and that Obama sent a message that 'they’re going to move to sanctions' at the end of the year.

Indeed, a great deal of mainstream news coverage reflected the hawkish spin that Obama had caved to Netanyahu and set a strict timetable for diplomacy.

The New York Times, for instance, claimed on Wednesday that 'Netanyahu got his timetable... [b]ut Obama did not get his settlement freeze' in the West Bank in return. The Israeli newspaper Ha’aretz went so far as to claim that, 'Netanyahu agreed to give Obama until the end of the year' to halt the Iranian nuclear programme.

The Netanyahu government and its allies in the U.S. have been pressuring Obama from the moment he entered office to cut short his diplomatic outreach to Tehran and move swiftly to a stepped-up sanctions programme.

The Iran Refined Petroleum Sanctions Act (IRPSA), a bill currently moving through the U.S. Congress, would require Obama to impose sanctions on foreign firms exporting refined petroleum products to Iran. The American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), Washington’s powerful and hawkish pro-Israel lobby, has been pushing strongly for the bill in Congress.

Even an end-of-year deadline would be significantly later than what most Iran hawks have been urging. Many, such as Sen. Jon Kyl, an Arizona Republican who is co-sponsoring the IRPSA, have argued that the U.S should wait no later than the summer before turning to sanctions.

Since Iran’s presidential elections will not be held until Jun. 12, a summer deadline would have permitted only a few weeks of post-election diplomacy before the onset of sanctions.

If the notion of an end-of-year deadline for diplomacy becomes conventional wisdom, it may well pave the way for a showdown in December over whether negotiations are 'moving in the right direction'.

Hardliners in Israel and the U.S. are likely to argue that nothing short of a full suspension of uranium enrichment by Iran - a concession that most experts feel Iran is unlikely to make - would constitute sufficient progress to stave off sanctions.

One subject that went unmentioned at the Obama-Netanyahu meeting, but seemed to be on everyone’s mind in Washington, was the possibility that Israel might unilaterally attack Iranian nuclear facilities if it is not satisfied with the rate of progress.

In March, Netanyahu told The Atlantic that 'if we have to act, we will act, even if America won’t'. By contrast, top Obama administration officials - including Vice President Joe Biden, Defence Secretary Robert Gates, and Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Adm. Mike Mullen - have cautioned that an Israeli attack on Iran would be counterproductive.

Although analysts may disagree about the significance of Obama’s 'timetable' remarks, few would contest the fact that Netanyahu refused to budge on the Palestinian front.

Many had expected the Israeli prime minister to offer at least a nominal statement of support for a two-state solution in Israel-Palestine, but he pointedly did not. Nor did Netanyahu acknowledge the Obama administration’s calls to freeze settlement activity in the West Bank.

On Thursday, the Israeli government dismantled one illegal West Bank outpost, but Israeli Defence Minister Ehud Barak claimed that the action was not due to U.S. pressure, and the settlers immediately began rebuilding the outpost without resistance.

More significantly, Netanyahu on Thursday reiterated his claim that Jerusalem 'shall never be divided'. Since all proposals for a two-state solution are built around East Jerusalem as the capital of a Palestinian state, Netanyahu’s statement marked an explicit rejection of the two-state formula endorsed by the U.S.

(END/2009)