- The Washington Times - Tuesday, July 28, 2009

TEL AVIV | Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates told top Israeli officials Monday that the United States expects Iran to respond to an offer of nuclear dialogue by late September, narrowing differences between Washington and Tel Aviv amid a growing paralysis in Iran over a disputed presidential election.

If the U.S. policy of engagement fails to make progress, Mr. Gates said, the United States would press for tougher international sanctions. He added that Israeli officials had agreed to “let our strategy play out” as long as it is not open-ended.

President Obama has said he expects progress with Iran by the fall. But Mr. Gates’ comments made the timetable more explicit and appeared to mollify some Israeli concerns that the United States has accepted the notion that nothing can stop Iran from developing nuclear weapons.

“We’re very mindful of the possibility that the Iranians would simply try to run out the clock. The president is certainly anticipating or hoping for some kind of a response this fall, perhaps by the time of the U.N. General Assembly,” Mr. Gates told reporters after meetings with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak.

The General Assembly session begins Sept. 23. Mr. Obama and Mr. Netanyahu are due to take part. In the past four years, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has also attended.

However, political turmoil in Iran has weakened the Iranian leader and made Iran more vulnerable to external pressure, and it has persuaded Western leaders to take a harder line against the regime, said Zalman Shoval, a foreign-policy adviser to Mr. Netanyahu and a former Israeli ambassador in Washington.

“The recent events in Iran certainly have lit up a sort of a red light in Washington,” he said. “It seems that the administration, supported by the Europeans, are taking a fresh, harder look at goings-on in Iran.”

Mr. Shoval noted that “events have made things clearer than anything we could say ourselves.”

“We’re going with the flow of events. I think that all in all, Israel’s position has gained more understanding,” Mr. Shoval told The Washington Times.

Mr. Netanyahu’s office said the two countries see “eye to eye” on the Iranian nuclear threat.

Skeptical of the effectiveness of the Obama administration’s engagement policy, Israel has wanted the United States to set a narrow window for talks.

The suggestion by Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton last week that the United States could provide a “defense umbrella” to allies in the Middle East disturbed Israelis because it seemed to imply a U.S. acceptance of a nuclear Iran.

In a press conference with Mr. Gates on Monday, Mr. Barak hinted that Israel would be ready to use force if necessary.

“We are not hiding our position that no option should be removed from the table and suggest that the others operate in a similar manner, and we mean what we say,” Mr. Barak said.

However, The Times reported earlier this month that Israel has not sought explicit permission from the United States to attack Iran because Israeli officials fear that Mr. Obama would not grant it.

A senior Israeli official in Washington told reporters Monday that Iran has produced about 3,300 pounds of low-enriched uranium and is “capable of further enrichment” to convert the material to fuel for a weapon.

The official, who asked not to be named because of the sensitivity of the issue, also said that for now, Israelis still support economic pressure and diplomacy with Iran.

The street protests that started up in June following the Iranian presidential election “put a question mark on the regime’s survivability,” the official said.

Meir Javedanfar, an Iran specialist based in Tel Aviv, said that the Iranian government has unwittingly helped Israel by botching the election process and trying to snuff out protests.

With the Iranian government’s increased international isolation and declining credibility among its own people, Israel’s position will continue to get a better hearing, he said.

“This has helped Jerusalem’s argument that the threat posed by the Iranian regime needs to be addressed,” Mr. Javedanfar said.

When Mr. Netanyahu visited the White House earlier this year, Mr. Obama said the United States would assess the dialogue with Iran by the end of the year to see if it was bearing fruit.

Mr. Netanyahu sees the neutralization of Iran’s growing influence in the region as a precursor to resolving the Arab-Israeli conflict, while the Obama administration has pushed for progress in negotiations with the Palestinians first.

“There was basic agreement between the two administrations on Iran from the beginning,” said Shlomo Brom, the former head of the Israeli army’s strategic planning branch. “The [Obama] administration is clarifying that they are not going to let Iran drag them into a futile, endless dialogue.”

Eli Lake contributed to this report from Washington.

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