The United States could lose its role as the "main player" in the Middle East if Washington fails to stop Iran from developing nuclear weapons, according to a special envoy of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
"The leaders in the Middle East look very carefully [to see] whether the United States is intent and serious about maintaining its position as the main player in the area or whether it's going to give that up to someone like Iran, and that will depend on whether America is successful in stopping the Iranian nuclear effort," Zalman Shoval told editors and reporters at The Washington Times.
If Iran builds a nuclear bomb, "people in the area ... will say, 'We can't rely [on the United States] and maybe we should shore up our position with the Iranians," he warned.
Israel would be the exception because the Jewish state "has no alternative, and it will always be in the American camp," Mr. Shoval added.
Mr. Shoval, who served two tours as Israel's ambassador to the United States in the 1990s, issued his warning on a visit to Washington last week as speculation mounted that Israel might launch airstrikes against Iranian nuclear facilities.
Speaking at the Brookings Institution's Saban Forum in Washington earlier this month, Secretary of Defense Leon E. Panetta cast doubt on the effectiveness of a military raid. He said his "Israeli friends" had told him that "at best," an attack would delay Iran's nuclear program "maybe one, possibly two years."
Mr. Shoval told The Times he was "a bit worried" that Mr. Panetta's comments could convey the perception that any threat of military action is hollow.
"The Iranians might have interpreted this as, 'Well, the military option is on the table, but how central is it on the table?" Mr. Shoval said.
"I don't really think that this is the American position, and I don't think this is Secretary Panetta's position," he added, "but as we all know, perceptions - especially in the Middle East - sometimes weigh heavier than facts."
Mr. Shoval said he is hopeful about proposed U.S. sanctions on Iran's central bank but warned that "even crippling sanctions can only be effective if you know that there is a bullet in the pistol, if you know that if those sanctions don't work, then there's something else."
Mr. Shoval also questioned Western optimism about new elections across the Middle East, referring several times to the "so-called Arab Spring."
He expressed particular concern about Egypt's parliamentary elections, in which the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafist Nour Party together have captured roughly two-thirds of the vote. He said there is "no guarantee" that an Islamist government would preserve Egypt's 33-year-old peace treaty with Israel.
"If you elect a body or a party or a group whose very ideology and whose basic beliefs are the very opposite of what we understand by democracy, then we might have a repeat of what happened in 1933 in Germany or in the early '20s in Italy by democratic elections," he said.
Mr. Shoval, 81, is a former member of Israel's Knesset for Mr. Netanyahu's Likud Party.
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