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Netanyahu envoy: Our position on red lines has not changed

Israeli leaders remain intent on acting to degrade Iran’s nuclear capabilities, probably within 6 to 8 months, and Israel believes it has the capability to succeed in such a mission, an envoy of Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu told The Cable Friday. Following the battle of words between the U.S. and Israeli governments over Israel’s call ...

Mario Tama/Getty Images
Mario Tama/Getty Images

Israeli leaders remain intent on acting to degrade Iran's nuclear capabilities, probably within 6 to 8 months, and Israel believes it has the capability to succeed in such a mission, an envoy of Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu told The Cable Friday.

Following the battle of words between the U.S. and Israeli governments over Israel's call for Washington to set "red lines" for Iran that, if crossed, would trigger a military strike, the public discord between the Netanyahu and Obama administrations has been dialed down, former Israeli ambassador and Special Envoy for the Israeli Prime Minister Zalman Shoval said in an interview.

Israeli leaders remain intent on acting to degrade Iran’s nuclear capabilities, probably within 6 to 8 months, and Israel believes it has the capability to succeed in such a mission, an envoy of Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu told The Cable Friday.

Following the battle of words between the U.S. and Israeli governments over Israel’s call for Washington to set "red lines" for Iran that, if crossed, would trigger a military strike, the public discord between the Netanyahu and Obama administrations has been dialed down, former Israeli ambassador and Special Envoy for the Israeli Prime Minister Zalman Shoval said in an interview.

But the basic disagreement over what the threshold should be for striking Iran remains, as does the disagreement over how to communicate that threshold to the Iranian regime, he said.

"The good news is that war didn’t break out between Israel and America. Things have abated a little bit, the verbal part of it, which is good," Shoval said. "But the basic strategic view of Israel has not changed. We still believe that setting a red line, in terms of benchmarks, is the important step right now."

He rejected out of hand the reported deal offered by Iran, in which Iran would gradually suspend the production of uranium but only after a full suspension of sanctions. He also said that the Obama administration’s red line — that Iran would not be allowed to possess a nuclear weapon — was insufficient as far as Israel’s security was concerned.

"Israel doesn’t set dates, but if by a certain point the sanctions have not achieved the desired results, than other measures will have to be very practically considered," he said. "We talk in terms of 6 to 8 months."

The red line for Israel is when the Iranians have produced enough fissionable material from which they can produce at least a dirty bomb within a short time, he said.

Israel would welcome the harsher sanctions that the United States and Europe are reportedly considering, but the Israeli government doesn’t see any evidence that those sanctions would convince Iranian leaders to change course on the nuclear program, Shoval said.

Even the collapse of the Iranian currency is not going to cause the Iranian regime to abandon its pursuit of nuclear weapons, he argued.

"This will not be enough with an ideological fanatical regime in Iran where they don’t care so much, unless it endangers their own survival… [A]s long as they can they will do all sorts of things but they will not stop the nuclear effort," he said. "They see this as a life preserver for themselves."

Israel is confident it can achieve success in a solo strike on Iran’s nuclear program, Shoval said, as long as the term "success" is correctly defined.

"Israel doesn’t pretend that it can totally eliminate Iran’s nuclear program," he said. "But the general view in Israel is that we could stop the Iranian effort for 3 to 5 years. Well, in the Middle East 3 to 5 years is not such a short time, as we have seen. And the Americans could get into the game if they want to, within that delay."

U.S. participation and leadership in any military strike would increase the likelihood of success, but that’s for the United States to decide, he added.

Shoval also commented on the perceived cool relationship between Netanyahu and Obama.

"Personal relationships are important but they are not the number one criteria. The number one criteria for both countries are interests," he said. "On a day to day basis, on a technical and professional basis, the contacts are very friendly and this has been going on for a long time."

Shoval also argued that Netanyahu’s controversial bomb graphic at the U.N. General Assembly was a great success.

"It was in order to get attention," he said. "[Netanyahu] didn’t go to the U.N. General Assembly because he expected a pro-Israel vote. Shakespeare said, ‘All the world is a stage,’ and the U.N. is a stage for the world."

Josh Rogin covers national security and foreign policy and writes the daily Web column The Cable. His column appears bi-weekly in the print edition of The Washington Post. He can be reached for comments or tips at josh.rogin@foreignpolicy.com.

Previously, Josh covered defense and foreign policy as a staff writer for Congressional Quarterly, writing extensively on Iraq, Afghanistan, Guantánamo Bay, U.S.-Asia relations, defense budgeting and appropriations, and the defense lobbying and contracting industries. Prior to that, he covered military modernization, cyber warfare, space, and missile defense for Federal Computer Week Magazine. He has also served as Pentagon Staff Reporter for the Asahi Shimbun, Japan's leading daily newspaper, in its Washington, D.C., bureau, where he reported on U.S.-Japan relations, Chinese military modernization, the North Korean nuclear crisis, and more.

A graduate of George Washington University's Elliott School of International Affairs, Josh lived in Yokohama, Japan, and studied at Tokyo's Sophia University. He speaks conversational Japanese and has reported from the region. He has also worked at the House International Relations Committee, the Embassy of Japan, and the Brookings Institution.

Josh's reporting has been featured on CNN, MSNBC, C-Span, CBS, ABC, NPR, WTOP, and several other outlets. He was a 2008-2009 National Press Foundation's Paul Miller Washington Reporting Fellow, 2009 military reporting fellow with the Knight Center for Specialized Journalism and the 2011 recipient of the InterAction Award for Excellence in International Reporting. He hails from Philadelphia and lives in Washington, D.C. Twitter: @joshrogin

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