Exclusive: U.S., Israel Forming Working Group on Iran

The United States and Israel are quietly forming a high-level working group to assess the progress of President Obama's outreach to Iran and to share intelligence about the Islamic Republic's nuclear weapons program, officials familiar with the two countries' deliberations said Tuesday.

The agreement, reached during Monday's meeting between Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Mr. Obama, gives the U.S. a clear channel for communicating with the new Israeli government and a vehicle for keeping tabs on any military contingency plans Israel might make if diplomacy fails and Iran develops nuclear weapons capability.

While Mr. Netanyahu publicly endorsed the president's plan for negotiating with Iran, the Israeli leader has also pressed for a timetable for negotiations and is seeking a firm commitment from Mr. Obama about what would happen if diplomacy doesn't persuade Iran to end uranium enrichment, Israeli officials said.

The Israeli officials, who asked not to be named because they were describing private conversations between the two leaders, said the working group would begin to examine contingency plans now in case Iran continues a nuclear weapons program. Mr. Obama, for his part, refused to set a deadline for diplomacy, but said he would be able to assess the progress of U.S. outreach to Iran by the end of this year.

After their meeting Monday, Mr. Netanyahu told Israeli reporters that he had "reached a great understanding on Iran" with Mr. Obama, and that the president understood that Iran was a "threat to be countered."

The two leaders authorized aides to form the working group Monday following one-on-one Netanyahu-Obama talks. Officials familiar with the consultations said that final details are still being discussed but that the American side would be represented either by deputy national security adviser Thomas E. Donilon or by national security adviser James L. Jones. The Israeli side would be represented by Mr. Jones' counterpart, Uzi Arad.

Israel and the U.S. have long consulted closely on strategic issues, but the new working group will focus exclusively on Iran. Israel sees Iranian nuclear weapons capability as an existential threat, and Mr. Netanyahu campaigned on a pledge to counter that threat.

"There's always been a U.S.-Israel strategic dialogue that spends a lot of time focusing on Iran," said Suzanne Maloney, an Iran specialist at the Brookings Institution's Saban Center for Middle East Policy. "So this may just be institutionalizing a dialogue that already exists. To the extent that it gives the Israelis a greater sense of buy-in to the diplomatic process, it's positive. But it could also exacerbate Iranian paranoia about U.S. intentions and Israel's role in formulating U.S. foreign policy."

Thus far, Mr. Obama has focused on diplomacy, as opposed to military action, and rarely has used the phrase "all options are on the table," in contrast to former President George W. Bush. The terminology refers to military action, which Mr. Obama has made clear he hopes will not occur.

Instead, Mr. Obama has said that there are a "range of options" if Iran does not respond to U.S. overtures. Those options appear to encompass what Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton called "crippling sanctions" earlier this month on Capitol Hill. Such sanctions could include penalties against foreign companies that sell Iran refined petroleum and provide an insurance policy for Iranian shipping.

One Israeli official told The Washington Times that the working group intends to meet at least once a month. "Contingencies would include sanctions and other forms of pressure," said the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the subject.

President Reagan signed a directive forming the first U.S.-Israel strategic dialogue in 1983. It originally discussed contingency plans for downed pilots in the region, said Steven J. Rosen, the former director of foreign-policy issues for the American Israel Public Affairs Committee. Since then, consultation between the two countries has expanded and became especially close during the last administration.

John Hannah, who served as Vice President Dick Cheney's national security adviser said, "As good as the relationship was in the Bush administration, the interagency strategic dialogue was useful, but tended to be formalistic, which is different than high-level strategic consultations. It was not the place for discussing what will happen when and if the balloon goes up with Iran."

Mr. Hannah added that contingency planning could cover a range of options. "Contingency planning in this context could be anything from developing agreed standards for judging if engagement is working, next steps if engagement fails, under what conditions - if any - military force might be used and coordinating our actions in the event of conflict with Iran."

He added, "It's been reported that in the last year of the Bush administration, the Israelis made a number of military requests related to a possible Iran contingency, including bunker-buster bombs, refueling capability and overflights of Iraq. The Bush administration left those requests outstanding. Will this group be a place to resurrect them?"

Flynt Leverett, a former Mideast specialist on the National Security Council and advocate of a "grand bargain" between the U.S. and Iran, said the new working group could undermine the credibility of any U.S. offers to Iran. So far, the Obama administration has not offered new proposals, but has lifted the Bush administration's precondition that Iran suspend uranium enrichment before U.S. diplomats would talk directly with Tehran.

"It is an idea that unfortunately is in keeping with a number of other statements and decisions by the Obama administration that will completely undercut the credibility of any U.S. overtures in the eyes of Iranian leaders - assuming the U.S. will make such overtures," he said. "The Iranians are going to see this as Israel setting policy toward them."

Patrick Clawson, the deputy director for research at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said, however, that it was smart for Mr. Obama to create the working group. "Obama has asked for no surprises. This will let the Obama administration have a better understanding of what Israel is thinking and what it is considering doing."

Source: The Washington Times