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reflections

Nov 19, 2008 | 02:58 GMT

Geopolitical Diary: Military Intelligence Chief Shifts Israel's Iran Policy

It can be difficult to separate the important from unimportant on any given day. Reflections mean to do exactly that — by thinking about what happened today, we can consider what might happen tomorrow.
Maj.-Gen. Amos Yadlin, head of military intelligence in Israel, said that he would not regard a dialogue between Washington and Iran as necessarily negative. In a public speech, Yadlin said, "Dialogue is not appeasement." Even if the talks failed, Yadlin said, they could lead to a strengthening of sanctions and might lead to some success as well. He said, "Iran will do anything not to be cornered in the position of Iraq or North Korea," adding that "Iran is also very susceptible to international pressure because of the (financial) crisis." This is a shift in Israeli thinking. While the future of Israel's government is unclear, to say the least, Yadlin is certainly expressing more than his private views. He is certainly speaking for the leadership of the Israel Defense Forces and in all probability for the Israeli intelligence community. Over the past months, there has been a shift in the way Israelis have presented the imminence of the threat from Iran, indicating that the threat of an Iranian nuclear weapon is neither as immutable nor as near as previously thought. Yadlin's statement brings Israel one step further in this direction. The change in tone tracks with the change in Iranian-U.S. relations. While hardly warm, there are signs of some thawing, as we have discussed. U.S. President George W. Bush's administration appears to be moving toward more extensive, open discussions with Iran, and President-elect Barack Obama has indicated a commitment to exploring dialogue with Iran. Under those circumstances, Israel is not going to simply oppose talks. Israel cannot stray too far from the American position, and given that the Bush and Obama positions are converging, Israel cannot attempt to play off political disagreements in Washington. Yadlin's statement was far from an enthusiastic endorsement of diplomatic dialogue, since he recognized that a failure in talks between Washington and Tehran would open the door to harsher sanctions against Iran. He did point out that Israel recognizes two weaknesses in the Iranian position. First, Iran does not want to be a pariah state like North Korea or Saddam Hussein's Iraq. Second, Iran — whose economy was already fragile — is under heavy pressure because of the global financial crisis. Given Iran's long-term fear of isolation and attack, and its immediate financial problems, Yadlin seemed to be saying that if there are going to be talks with Iran, now is the time to have them. The Israelis have been shifting positions on a number of issues in the past few months. Israel shifted its position on Georgia even before the war with Russia began, and then reached out to the Russians in the hope of preventing arms sales to Syria. Now Israel is shifting its views on talks with Iran. A great deal of this redefinition undoubtedly has to do with Obama's election, but some of it has to do with a recognition that the dynamics of the world are changing and Israel's posture was not aligned with new realities. Russia is becoming a more important player that Israel cannot take for granted, and talks with Iran are inevitable. There is one deeper level here. The Israelis always wanted a balance of power between Iraq and Iran. They saw Iran as a block to Arab aspirations. Whatever the internal ideology of Iran, the tension between Iran and the Arabs benefits Israel. Many Israelis were less than thrilled by the U.S. invasion of Iraq because it collapsed that balance. A permanent presence of American forces in Iraq would of course have compensated, but the new Status of Forces Agreement means that U.S. troops will be leaving Iraq — and perhaps leaving it stronger than when they arrived. If there is going to be a strong Iraq, Israel will want a strong Iran. Now we are far from a strong Iraq, but we are also far from a glowing endorsement of U.S.-Iranian dialogue. What Yadlin has done is open the door to the idea that talking to Iran would not mean catastrophe for Israel. For the moment, that is quite enough.
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Geopolitical Diary: Military Intelligence Chief Shifts Israel's Iran Policy
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