- The Washington Times - Sunday, September 13, 2009

TEL AVIV | Israel remains on board with the Obama administration’s decision to open high-level talks with Iran, even though officials in Jerusalem are skeptical of the chances for success and want the U.S. to set a hard-and-fast deadline.

“We’ve never had reason to be optimistic Iran will reciprocate, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t give it a go,” said an Israeli official who requested anonymity. “I think the Israelis and Americans are looking at two different clocks. We’re looking for a bit more intensive consideration of the issues.”

Despite Iran’s refusal to discuss its nuclear program as part of the dialogue with the U.S., Israel concurs with the U.S. and Western allies that, at a minimum, engagement is necessary to convince Russia and China that diplomacy was exhausted before taking harsher measures.

While Israeli officials have been encouraged by signals from the U.S. that it has started to plan for a new round of international sanctions against Iran, they remain uncertain about the end point of the engagement phase.

At first, some thought it might be the United Nation’s General Assembly at the end of the month, but the expected date was pushed back to the end of the calendar year. Now some believe that the engagement could run into the beginning of 2010.

Though Israel supports international action to prevent Tehran from gaining a nuclear weapon, it is worried that Iran may cross the Rubicon of becoming a nuclear power despite those efforts.

Israeli Deputy Prime Minister Dan Meridor said world powers have a good chance of blocking Iran’s nuclear program through political and economic sanctions, but warned that time is running out.

“The clock is ticking,” Mr. Meridor told Reuters news agency. “If there is enough political and economic action put together, there is a good chance that Iran will listen to reason. I don’t think they are irrational.”

Mr. Meridor confirmed reports that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu made a secret visit to Russia last week for meetings with officials. Israel’s press has speculated the trip was to discuss allegations that Russia is supplying ballistic missiles to Iran.

Even though Israel is pessimistic about the U.S. engagement policy, supporting the talks is a win-win, said Meir Javedanfar, co-author of the book “The Nuclear Sphinx of Tehran.”

“If America succeeds, it saves Israel. If Iran doesn’t agree, imposing sanctions is much easier,” Mr. Javedanfar said. Israel “is very much in a wait-and-see policy.”

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