Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has sought to reassure the Israeli people that his positions regarding Iran’s nuclear program have not changed. He told an audience at Israel’s Bar-Ilan University that the international community should tighten rather than relax economic sanctions against Iran until Tehran completely ends its suspected nuclear weapons program. Israel sees Iran’s nuclear activities as a military threat and has said it would attack the country’s nuclear sites if necessary.
Iran has long insisted its nuclear program is peaceful. This stance has been reiterated most recently by Iran’s newly-elected president, Hassan Rouhani, at his September 24 address before the United Nations General Assembly, described by many observers as a ‘charm offensive.’
Elliott Abrams, a senior fellow for Middle Eastern Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, has authored an article, published in Foreign Affairs, about Israel’s influence in steering the international response to Iran’s nuclear ambitions. VOA’s Susan Yackee spoke with him about his analysis.
Below please find a transcript of the interview. To listen to it, use the audio player on the bottom of this post.
Yackee: You ask, can Israel prevent a deal with Iran. Can It?
Abrams: The only way it can absolutely prevent a deal is by striking Iran militarily. That is, it can argue against what it views as a bad deal, publically and privately, but it can’t actually prevent it. It has no veto power except to use its own military.
Yackee: You raise the ‘good cop-bad cop’ scenario. Should Israel play the bad cop to make any deal with Iran more restrictive?
Abrams: Yes, Israel in a sense has been doing that for a couple of years, that is – one of the things that has motivated the United States, England, France and Germany to push for a negotiated deal, a tough negotiated deal to have sanctions on Iran, I think has been [due to the] political and moral pressure from Israel.
Israel won’t be alone in this. It’s not the only country concerned about avoiding a bad deal. I know, for example, the French have been a little bit worried that the United States might be tempted to go for a bad deal just to create what appears to be a solution to this. So Israel will have some allies in Washington, London and in other capitals as well, in and out of government.
Yackee: You suggest Israel may call for increased sanctions against Iran. Is the international community likely to agree to that since Iran has shown some signs of improving its tone?
Abrams: ‘I think it’s tough to see that happening. That is, I think it’s tough to see Israel persuading the P5+1 – Europeans for example – to increase sanctions right now in the face of this charm offensive by Rouhani. What they might be able to achieve by demanding more sanctions is that they at least prevent the lifting of sanctions until Iran has actually performed, that is – no more sweet talk – but ‘what have you actually done in your nuclear program?’ So perhaps that is in a sense a tactic on the part of Israel: Ask for more than you might get but see what you can get.
Yackee: Does the possible adjustment in U.S. relations with Iran that we appear to see put Israel is a worse situation than it hes been?
Abrams: Yes, I think the problem for Israel is that the United States, if I can put it this way, appears to many Israelis to be falling for the charm offensive. Israel a year ago, for example, had an Iran under [President Mahmoud] Ahmadinejad, who was widely reviled in the West, who had given a horrendous series of speeches at the U.N., and Israel’s statement that it might ‘pull the trigger’ was viewed by many in the West as not so illogical. Today they are in a worse position because of this charm offensive. Everybody is talking about diplomacy, and this leaves the Israelis somewhat isolated in saying that ‘this is just a charm offensive – it has no substance, beware!’
Yackee: The U.S. and Israel have long been tied together as great, strong allies. Do you think the issue of Iran [having] nuclear weapons might come between the two?
Abrams: I don’t think so. There is an awful lot of support in the country and in Congress to having a really hard line on Iran. Iran has been an enemy of the United States since the hostage taking in 1979. And I think a lot of Americans would agree that we just can’t permit Iran to get a nuclear weapon and, indeed that is official U.S. policy; those are words President [Barack] Obama has spoken. So, I think, the worst thing that can happen is that we diverge in that we think that there’s a good deal and the Israelis don’t. Well, that’s a disagreement and they will be unhappy but we remain their top ally. Or they’ll think this deal is so bad, if one is struck, that they actually go ahead and do the military attack on Iran. I think many Americans would view that as a gutsy thing to do, and I think that the United States in those circumstances would be likely to support Israel in the aftermath. I don’t think it would cause any type of deep break.
Listen to our interview with Elliott Abrams:
Susan Yackee is anchor of VOA's International Edition radio show. She has been a reporter in the Washington area for more than 35 years and regularly interviews newsmakers and analysts in DC and around the world. Susan works in television, radio and social media.