Friday, March 5, 2010

Tel Aviv: Israel and some Arabian Gulf states have been lobbying for more U.S. military muscle-flexing toward Iran

Posted by newsonline at 5:49 PM 0 Comments

The Obama administration is considering using maritime levers to ratchet up pressure on Iran, from a modest expansion of existing international interdiction initiatives to the more extreme or less likely blockade of the Arabian Sea mouth and the Gulf of Aden.

Implemented unilaterally or as part of an upcoming United Nations Security Council Resolution, such moves would complement the diplomatic drive to roll back Iran's nuclear program through sanctions.

A senior U.S. government official said Washington was not willing to consider - "at least at this stage" - what he termed "tripwire-type military challenges" to Tehran.

Nevertheless, he confirmed that U.S.-proposed sanctions are likely to expand maneuvering room to board, inspect and interdict shipping to and from Iran.

"When there's a next U.N. resolution, we're going to want to see consideration for empowering rights already provided for under international maritime laws and the PSI," or Proliferation Security Initiative, the official said Feb. 25.

The official said the U.S. State Department is also intensifying efforts to conclude ship-boarding agreements with flag-of-convenience countries, another part of the effort to keep Iran from importing nonconventional, weapon-related materials and technologies or exporting missiles and other arms to its regional proxies.

In addition to the PSI, a 2003 pact meant to keep weapons of mass destruction and related goods from terrorists and countries of concern, the official cited a 2005 amendment to the Convention for the Suppression of Unlawful Acts (SUA) that bolstered the legal basis for acting against violators.

"We're always looking to expand the interpretation and application of international law to persuade countries to exercise their rights and obligations in ways we think they should be used," the official said.

When asked whether DoD was planning for heightened maritime operations in the region, a senior U.S. defense official said "we don't talk about military contingency plans, but I will tell you what you're describing sounds far fetched."

For months, Israel and some Arabian Gulf states have been lobbying for more U.S. military muscle-flexing to back up the proposed sanctions, saying Tehran will change its behavior only if presented with a compelling show of force to back up diplomatic steps.

"If we don't underscore our intent with some kind of serious measure, up to and including the physical cordoning of the coasts of Iran, we will have a war," said Sami Al Faraj, a retired Kuwaiti military officer and former government adviser who now consults internationally on crisis management. "There's no way for a new layer of sanctions to be imposed effectively without some sort of blockade imposed in the Arabian Sea and the Gulf of Oman."

Al Faraj, a retired special forces officer and former president of the Kuwait Center for Strategic Studies, said others in the Gulf have communicated similar views in various levels of intensity to Washington.

"If the question is whether the Gulf Cooperation Council will come out tomorrow or even next month with public calls for blockade, the answer is no," he said. "But if you put the question to many officials and laymen in the gulf, the consensus would support such a measure as the only way for sanctions to have a chance of succeeding."

Would a blockade be a casus belli or a trigger for the "grave unintended consequences" that Adm. Michael Mullen, chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, is trying to prevent?

"A blockade is not a declaration of war. It is considered a belligerent act that falls just short of war," Al Faraj said. "And when you're facing a nation that doesn't abide by any rules, this is the only language Iran is going to understand."

In Feb. 25-26 meetings in Washington, an Israeli source said Defense Minister Ehud Barak was less definitive, but no less resolute, in the need to bolster sanctions with manifestations of military intent.

It could not be confirmed by press time whether Barak, in his Pentagon meeting with Defense Secretary Robert Gates, specified a naval blockade as one of Israel's preferred muscle-flexing options.

However, a member of the Israeli cabinet said Feb. 26 that "the issue of using the U.S. military to prevent critical imports to and exports from Iran is prominent on our agenda."

The political official acknowledged internal discussions of a blockade, but could not confirm whether Barak or members of his delegation "would go as far as to spell this out for our American friends."

He said, "Significant gaps remain in our positions, but we hope the latest Washington meetings and the upcoming visit of [U.S. Vice President Joseph] Biden over here will serve to narrow our differences. ... The real issue is will we have time, or will it be a matter of too little, too late."

At Barak's Pentagon meeting with Gates, Mullen and other senior U.S. officials, the defense minister stressed Iran's undeterred pursuit of nuclear weapons and a unified strategic front with Syria, Lebanese-based Hizbollah and the Hamas leadership in Gaza, according to an Israeli post-meeting statement. Barak also presented updated threat assessments of Iran's nuclear and missile-related activities as well as its rearming, military training and funding of regional proxies.

"At this stage, it's important to impose sharp and crippling sanctions on Iran to prevent its process toward nuclear weapons," the statement said.

According to sources, in the Gates meeting as well as in a follow-on, one-on-one meeting with Mullen, Barak noted a Feb. 25 meeting in Damascus by Syrian President Bashar el-Assad, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Hizbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah. In televised remarks at the three-way summit in Damascus, Ahmadinejad described a "new Middle East without Zionists and without colonialists."

John Bolton, the Bush administration's U.S. ambassador to the U.N. and author of the PSI, said Feb. 26 that sanctions without meaningful maritime interdiction will fail to halt or even slow Iran's nuclear weapon drive.

"Given Iran's repeated and blatant violations of their legal obligations, the United States has an inherent right to self-defense," Bolton said. "This right, under the circumstances, allows us to calibrate PSI in ways that allow us, in a targeted, selected way, to achieve many of the practical effects of a blockade without actually imposing a blockade.

"There's two possible outcomes: Either Iran gets nuclear weapons or somebody uses force to prevent that. Israel has given the Obama administration as much time as they could. But diplomatic outreach failed, predictably, and sanctions will also fail, predictably, and every day that passes makes it more difficult for Israel to take the decision needed to ensure its survival."

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