Dennis Ross: 18 Months to Avoid War with Iran

In his view, the slow-motion diplomacy taking place between Iran and the West does not match the rapid pace of Iran's uranium enrichment effort which will be sufficient to produce weapons-grade material in months.
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Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who is so radical he thinks Oliver Stone is a charter
member of the Great Satan club, said recently that "the countdown to the destruction of the
Zionist regime is underway." Dennis Ross, chief negotiator on the Middle East for Bush Sr. and Clinton, thinks a countdown is also underway to war with Iran.

In his view, the slow-motion diplomacy taking place between Iran and the West does not
match the rapid pace of Iran's uranium enrichment effort which will be sufficient to produce
weapons-grade material in months. More importantly, in Ross' view, the Russian-upgraded
air defense system for Iran will be in place in 18 months, after which it will be difficult to strike Iran's nuclear facilities from the air. His fear, therefore, is that Israel, which cannot live with a nuclear Iran, will have to strike within that window if diplomacy fails. For now, Ross contends, we are on the path to the use of force. See my conversation with him below:

(Dennis Ross has played a leading role in shaping U.S. involvement in the Middle East peace process, dealing directly with the parties in negotiations. He was U.S. point man on the peace process in both the George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton administrations. In that capacity, Ambassador Ross was instrumental in assisting Israelis and Palestinians in reaching an interim agreement in 1995; he also successfully brokered the 1997 Hebron accord, facilitated the 1994 Israel-Jordan peace treaty and worked intensively to bring Israel and Syria together. Presently, Ross is a counselor at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. His latest book is Statecraft, And How to Restore America's Standing in the World.)

Nathan Gardels: Former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the leader of the Likud Party, has warned all along that unilateral Israeli withdrawal from southern Lebanon and Gaza would create a vacuum that Iran-allied Hezbollah and Hamas would seize to attack Israel. Since that has now happened, Netanyahu's standing has risen in the polls.

What are the prospects of a Netanyahu government? Wouldn't he move to attack Iran's nuclear capacity?

Dennis Ross: If there were an election today, Netanyahu would win. Yet, his standing in the polls is also a reflection of the weakness of Ehud Olmert, the current prime minister -- who stands at 2 percent in a recent poll -- and the enduring weaknesses of the Labor Party.

Netanyahu's prospects when an election is actually called will depend largely on whether Ehud Barak, another former prime minister and war hero who is now defense minister, can restore credibility to this government and to himself as a leader.

For the moment, this government is more stable than generally believed because half of those in the Israeli Knesset would stand to lose their seats if an election were called now.

So, there is a predisposition against calling an election. I don't think we'll see an election until the fall of 2008.

The larger issue is how Netanyahu might act on Iran compared to others. My view is, Netanyahu or not, there is a very strong view in the Israeli security establishment that they cannot live with an Iran with nuclear weapons.

They take what (Iranian President Mahmoud) Ahmadinejad says very seriously, and only last (month) he said, "The countdown to the destruction of the Zionist regime is under way." Even (Former President Ali Akbar Hashemi) Rafsanjani, who is seen as more pragmatic, said several years ago that it would take only one nuclear weapon to destroy Israel.

Overwhelmingly, Israel's political and military establishment want the rest of the world to act diplomatically or otherwise to stop Iran. But if that doesn't happen, then the impulse toward the use of force will become quite strong.

For Israel, the "redline" is not so much when Iran has enough enrichment capacity for weapons-grade material. Their deadline is 18 months from now when Iran's air defense system, which is being upgraded by the Russians, will be completed. That will make it much more difficult to successfully strike Iran's nuclear capacity from the air. The closer we get to that window without resolution of the Iranian nuclear problem, the more Israel will feel compelled to strike.

Clearly, at the moment, we are headed down the path of use of force. The slow-motion diplomacy of the West simply does not match the rapid development of Iran's nuclear capacity and the closing window when Iran's upgraded air defenses will be in place.

Gardels: What can be done during that 18-month window to avoid war?

Ross: Successful diplomacy is an alignment of objectives and means. So, three things need to happen on the diplomatic front, all geared to getting the Europeans to more seriously sanction Iran on the economic front. The Europeans are the key here, especially Germany and Italy with their credit guarantees, which are economic lifelines for the Iranians.

First, the Saudis must push Europe. An Iran with nuclear weapons is a profound threat to Saudi Arabia, which fears that Iran will be able to hide behind a nuclear shield behind which they can engage in coercion and subversion across the Middle East. The Saudis could use their economic clout in Europe to affect the choices of European banks, investment houses and governments which have links to Iran.

Second, the Israelis need to go the Europeans and say, "If you think you are on a path that will avoid war, you are mistaken. You are increasing the risk of war because we will not be able to live with an Iran with nuclear weapons."

Third, the United States must join with the Europeans in direct talks with Iran the way it did with others over North Korea. Europeans know they will only be able to reach a deal with Iran if the U.S. is at the table.

Already, many Europeans want the U.S. to suspend the condition that Iran stop enrichment before it enters talks. I am not in favor of dropping that condition unless there is another one. I would say to the Europeans that the U.S. will favor suspending the enrichment condition if they cut the economic lifeline to Iran now.

The essence of statecraft is that all parties must get something. Many Europeans are concerned that stronger sanctions are a slippery slope toward war unless the U.S. is at the table. To answer that concern, the U.S. must give them something in return: joining the talks with Iran.

U.S. President George W. Bush and Russian President Vladimir Putin said in Maine this week that they will work together on Iran. Is that an important element?

Ross: It can certainly help. The Iranians have counted on the Russians to act as an insurance policy in the U.N. Security Council to block effective sanctions. The more the Russians are in, it means the more U.N. sanctions can be biting enough to be effective. We'll see. My fear is that relying on the U.N. will only mean more slow-motion diplomacy while Iran continues on a fast pace in its nuclear program and Israel prepares to act.

Gardels: What makes you think biting sanctions would bring Iran around instead of make it more intransigent?

Ross: The Iranian ruling elite is split between those who are intransigent and think they can live with isolation, and those who don't. For me, the incident a few months back when the British sailors were taken hostage was instructive. The Revolutionary Guard, which seized the sailors, didn't want to release them unless they got something for it. They got nothing because the decision to release the British sailors was imposed on them from above.

In the end, the balance of power will shift toward those in the elite who want to avoid war, economic misery and social unrest. Look at the turmoil that has erupted already over the relatively modest rationing of gasoline! Sanctions would make the unsettled atmosphere in Iran much more acute.

We are headed on a pathway now that will lead to the use of force. We don't want it to be that way. It doesn't have to be that way. There are alternatives, but the clock is ticking.

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