Prepared for the
Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations

by the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs
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February 20, 2012

In-Depth Issues:

Iran Halts Oil Sales to France and Britain (BBC News)
    Iran has halted oil sales to British and French companies, the nation's oil ministry has said. EU member states had earlier agreed to stop importing Iranian crude from 1 July.
    The French news agency AFP says the decision is not expected to have a big impact. Last year France bought only 3% of its oil from Iran and the UK imported even less.
    See also China Rebukes Iran for France, UK Oil Ban (Reuters)

Iran Poised to Expand Uranium Enrichment at Underground Facility (AP-Washington Post)
    Diplomats said Iran is completing the electrical circuitry, piping and supporting equipment for the installation of thousands of new-generation centrifuges at its fortified underground Fordo facility.
    The diplomats added that the older centrifuges now operating there can be reconfigured within days to make fissile warhead material because they already are enriching to 20% - a level that can be boosted quickly to weapons-grade quality.

Turkey and China "Helping Iran Evade UN Sanctions" - Con Coughlin (Telegraph-UK)
    Iran's central bank is using a number of financial institutions in China and Turkey to fund the purchase of vital goods to keep the Iranian economy afloat.
    According to Western security officials, China, which is Iran's largest oil trading partner, is playing a major role in helping Iran to avoid the sanctions.
    Instead of transferring payments to Iran owed from oil purchases, Chinese banks are using the money to buy goods on behalf of the Iranians and then shipping them to Iran. "It is like an old-fashioned barter mechanism," explained a senior security official.

IDF Uncovers Iranian-Made Explosive Device in Gaza - Yoav Zitun (Ynet News)
    A powerful explosive device placed alongside other charges near the Gaza border fence and meant to target an IDF force was found to contain unmistakable Iranian trademarks similar to previously intercepted weapons with Iranian Revolutionary Guards stamps on them.
    A military source from the IDF's Gaza Division said there was no doubt the explosives were Iranian-made.

U.S. Capitol Suicide Bomb Plot Foiled - Patrik Jonsson (Christian Science Monitor)
    Amine Al Khalifi, a Moroccan, was arrested on Friday after he set into motion a plot to blow himself up inside the U.S. Capitol in hopes of killing at least 30 people.
    Khalifi worked with what he thought was an al-Qaeda associate to take possession of a weapon and a suicide bomb vest - both of which turned out to be fakes provided by a U.S. undercover agent.
    Authorities have unraveled 36 homegrown terror plots in the last three years.
    Khalifi, who came to the U.S. as a teenager, was in the country illegally. He was arrested, authorities say, near the Capitol, wearing the non-functioning suicide vest.
    See also Capitol Bomb Plotter Considered Hitting Synagogue - Sari Horwitz, William Wan and Del Quentin Wilber (Washington Post)
    For more than a year, Khalifi considered attacking targets including a synagogue, an Alexandria building with military offices and a Washington restaurant frequented by military officials, authorities said.

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News Resources - North America, Europe, and Asia:
  • U.S. Officials Believe Iran Sanctions Will Fail, Making Military Action Likely - Chris McGreal
    Officials in key parts of the Obama administration - including in the Pentagon and the State Department - are increasingly convinced that sanctions will not deter Tehran from pursuing its nuclear program, and believe that the U.S. will be left with no option but to launch an attack on Iran or watch Israel do so. They believe the principal use of sanctions now is in delaying Israeli military action, as well as reassuring Europe that an attack will only come after other means have been tested.
        "Sanctions are all we've got to throw at the problem. If they fail then it's hard to see how we don't move to the 'in extremis' option," said an official knowledgeable on Middle East policy. Skepticism about Iranian intent is rooted in Iran's repeated spurning of overtures from successive U.S. presidents from Bill Clinton to Barack Obama, who appealed within weeks of coming to office for "constructive ties" and "mutual respect."
        American officials are resigned to the fact that the U.S. will be seen in much of the world as a partner in any Israeli assault on Iran - whether or not Washington approved of it. The administration will then have to decide whether to, in the parlance of the U.S. military, "pile on," by using its much greater firepower to finish what Israel starts. "The sanctions are there to pressure Iran and reassure Israel that we are taking this issue seriously," said one official. "The focus is on demonstrating to Israel that this has a chance of working. Israel is skeptical but appreciates the effort. It is willing to give it a go, but how long will it wait?"  (Guardian-UK)
  • Syrian Forces Fire on Anti-Assad Crowd in Damascus - Khaled Yacoub Oweis and Angus MacSwan
    Syrian security forces fired on a huge protest against President Bashar al-Assad in Damascus Saturday at the funerals of three youths killed a day earlier, opposition activists said. "They started firing at the crowd right after the burial," said a witness. (Reuters)
        See also Venezuela Ships Fuel to Syria - Marianna Parraga and Emma Farge
    The government of Venezuela's Hugo Chavez is emerging as a rare supplier of diesel to Syria, helping the Syrian government fuel its military in the middle of a bloody crackdown on civilian protests. A cargo of diesel was expected to arrive at the Syrian port of Banias this week, according to two traders and shipping data.
        Chavez is a vociferous advocate of Syrian President Assad and Iranian President Ahmadinejad. Asked on Thursday about whether the shipments to Syria could be used for military purposes, Chavez said that no one could dictate to Caracas. "We are a free country," Chavez said, standing with his friend Sean Penn, the U.S. actor, who is visiting Venezuela. (Reuters)
        See also Iranian Warships Arrive at Syrian Port
    Two Iranian warships - the Khark supply ship and Shahid Naqdi destroyer - that passed through the Suez Canal earlier this week docked in Syria on Saturday, Iran's semi-official Mehr news agency reported. (Jerusalem Post)
        See also Report: Iranian Ships Disrupt Syrian Opposition Communications - Roi Kais
    Egyptian security sources and members of the Syrian opposition are claiming that the two Iranian ships docked off the Syrian coast are equipped with "military communications jamming devices that are disrupting communications made by the Syrian opposition via satellite," London-based Asharq al-Awsat reported Monday. (Ynet News)
  • Egypt Sets Trial Date for Pro-Democracy Workers - Ernesto Londono
    The trial of 43 people charged with unlawfully conducting pro-democracy work in Egypt will begin Feb. 26, state media reported Saturday. The defendants include at least 16 Americans. The state-run newspaper al-Ahram also said that Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, the chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, had asked Egyptian officials during a recent visit to let him take the seven Americans under indictment who remain in Cairo on his military plane, but the officials turned down Dempsey's request. (Washington Post)
        See also Is Egypt's Government Malicious or Incompetent? - Eric Trager (New Republic)
News Resources - Israel and the Mideast:
  • Netanyahu: Arab Spring Puts Strain on Efforts for Agreement with PA - Omri Efraim
    Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations in Jerusalem on Sunday that revolutions in the Middle East put enormous pressure on Israel's security, which in turn is creating difficulties in reaching an agreement with the Palestinian Authority. The prime minister also noted that Israel will need to invest much more on defense in the wake of the massive changes in the region. (Ynet News)
  • Peace Talks Off as Israel Waits to See If Hamas and Fatah Unite - Herb Keinon
    The Israeli-Palestinian talks held in Jordan last month ended without progress, and now Jerusalem is waiting to see whether the Hamas-Fatah agreement signed in Doha will fall through before deciding what to do next, an Israeli diplomatic source said Sunday. Israel would not deal with a PA government under Hamas' sway, even if the ministers were "technocrats" and not Hamas members, the source said.
        The source added that while the idea of the talks in Jordan was to generate a positive dynamic and create confidence, the positions put forth by the Palestinians "harmed confidence," and that no Israeli government could "accept them."  (Jerusalem Post)
        See also Hamas, Fatah Feud over Political Platform of Unity Government - Khaled Abu Toameh (Jerusalem Post)
Global Commentary and Think-Tank Analysis (Best of U.S., UK, and Israel):
  • Inside Free Syria - Jonathan Spyer
    I entered Syria with smugglers across the Turkish border. My purpose was to gain an impression of the Free Syrian Army from inside one of its heartland areas. Once we entered Idleb Province, in towns like Binnish and Sarmin, the regime of Bashar al-Assad no longer exists. The flag of the Syrian revolution, which is the flag of the Syrian republic before the Baath party took control in 1963, flies above the main square. Together with army deserters, Salafi Islamist fighters are prominent among the FSA men in Binnish. They are nearly all Sunni Arabs.
        One of the commanders in Sarmin, Lt. Bilal Khaibar, 25, is a seven-year veteran of Assad's airborne forces. His unit was deployed in the south in the early months of the uprising. They were told that armed Israelis had crossed the border and that they were to engage them. On closing with the "enemy," they discovered unarmed Syrian civilians.
        The troops were accompanied by non-Arabic-speaking men, who Bilal later discovered were Iranians. These men were responsible for the execution of a brother officer who refused to fire on civilians in the Daraa area. Khaibar joined the Free Syrian Army days after the killing of his friend. (Weekly Standard)
  • Obama Administration Takes Back Seat on Iran Sanctions - Paul Richter
    In recent months, the toughest moves to deter Iran from pursuing its nuclear ambitions have come from a bipartisan group in Congress and European allies, especially Britain and France. The White House at first resisted these steps before embracing them as inevitable. The administration has imposed dozens of sanctions on Iran since 2009, but it has carefully calibrated their effect, fearing that too powerful a blow to the world's third-largest oil exporter could cause an oil price increase.
        This month, Congress began crafting legislation that would essentially cut Iran out of the global clearinghouse for international financial transactions known as SWIFT. The far-reaching step could inflict severe damage to Iran's economy by restricting the ability of banks to move funds in or out of the country.
        Top administration officials late last year were strongly resistant when Congress slapped Iran's central bank with harsh sanctions. "The Obama administration was, in fact, inclined to continue a kind of incremental ratcheting of sanctions, but thanks to one of the most universal votes we've seen in a divided Capitol Hill in several years, the administration was really forced to move forward with the decision to sanction the central bank," said Suzanne Maloney, an Iran specialist at the Brookings Institution's Saban Center for Middle East Policy. (Los Angeles Times)

Talk of Strike on Iran "Premature," Top U.S. General Says (CNN)

  • The U.S. believes talk of military strikes against Iran's nuclear program is "premature" and has advised Israel that an attack would be counterproductive, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff says.
  • In an interview aired Sunday on CNN's "Fareed Zakaria GPS," Gen. Martin Dempsey said U.S. officials aren't convinced Iran has decided to pursue nuclear weapons. Meanwhile, economic and diplomatic sanctions are taking a toll on the Islamic republic, he said. "On that basis, I think it would be premature to exclusively decide that the time for a military option was upon us," Dempsey said.
  • Dempsey said American officials believe an Israeli strike would delay Iran's nuclear development "probably for a couple of years, but some of the targets are probably beyond their reach." He said he and others have had "a very candid, collaborative conversation" with the Israelis about the issue.
  • "I'm confident that they understand our concerns, that a strike at this time would be destabilizing and wouldn't achieve their long-term objectives," he said. "But, I mean, I also understand that Israel has national interests that are unique to them. And, of course, they consider Iran to be an existential threat in a way that we have not concluded that Iran is an existential threat."
    See also The President Has Been Given a False Choice on Iran - Edward N. Luttwak (Wall Street Journal)
  • As the pros and cons of attacking Iran's nuclear installations are debated inconclusively, Iran's nuclear efforts persist - along with daily threats of death to America, Israel, Britain, Saudi Arabia's rulers, and more. Yet everyone seems to assume the scope of the attack itself is a fixed parameter. This is misleading. The magnitude and intensity of an attack is a matter of choice, and it needs to be on the table.
  • The Joint Chiefs of Staff and their planners offered President Bush only one plan, a full-scale air offensive with all the trimmings - an air war rather than an air strike. The assault would last weeks rather than hours and require more than 20,000 sorties.
  • The target list included every nuclear-related installation in Iran, with several hundred primary strike sorties and many more support sorties for electronic suppression, refueling, air-sea rescue readiness, and overhead air defense. Given the longest possible target list, casualties on the ground could run to the thousands, with many more targets justified by "Suppression of Enemy Air Defenses." In the name of not risking the loss of even one aircraft, planners put every combat airplane in the Iranian air force on the target list.
  • But this war planning denied to the president and American strategy the option of interrupting Iran's nuclear efforts by a stealthy overnight attack against the handful of buildings that contain the least replaceable components of Iran's enrichment cycle.
  • This kind of attack was carried out in September 2007, when the Israeli air force invisibly and inaudibly attacked the nuclear reactor that Syria's Assad regime had imported from North Korea, wholly destroying it with no known casualties. An equivalent attack on Iran's critical nuclear nodes would have to be several times larger. But it could still be inaudible and invisible, start and end in one night, and kill very few on the ground.

    The writer is a senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

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