Israel watches diplomatic chess game with alarm

A weak UN sanctions package will leave Israel alone to deal with Iran’s nuclear threat

By Tim Marshall, September 17, 2009

The weather turns, the leaves begin to fall, a new diplomatic season is upon us.

The first day of term is always the beginning of September. World leaders return from Kennebunkport, Provence and the Aegean to be pestered by special advisers over their contributions to the UN General Assembly.

The UNGA is where the great powers set out their stalls for the coming year. Sometimes this is via set-piece speeches by heads of government; sometimes it is in what are called “the margins” — as in meetings in corridors or in overpriced restaurants with tariffs doubled for the visiting diplomats who are spending our money (and who will go on to spend even more of it at the G20 summit in Pittsburgh at the end of the week).

The Assembly will be dominated — especially in the margins — by Iran and the nuclear question.

This week, in order to place their diplomatic ducks in a row ahead of UN General Assembly, the European foreign ministers gathered in Brussels with sanctions on their minds.

Meanwhile, the International Atomic Energy Agency held its annual summit in Vienna.

The French and British are leading the EU charge towards what Hillary Clinton has called “crippling sanctions”, which would centre on oil and would seek to prevent Iran making and selling petroleum-based products.

But others — notably Germany — are getting cold feet as they weigh the economic cost to themselves. A UN resolution, even with full EU support, would be unlikely to pass, due to the Russian veto.

That would leave a coalition of the lukewarm to go it alone.

In order to muddy the already murky waters, the Iranians chose this week to announce that they would engage in talks on October 1 — rather unhelpfully, past an unofficial deadline. The Persians didn’t invent chess not to excel at it.

And the Russians also don’t win at it so often without good reason. Their move was to convene a meeting with Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan, to discuss how to bust Western sanctions against Iran by bringing in supplies through the north. A look at the map and the calendar explains all.

Viewing this chess game with alarm was Israel. Prime Minister Netanyahu allegedly flew to Moscow to discuss the possibility that Russian arms are reaching Iran and to persuade the Kremlin to back UN sanctions.

Britain and France want the same thing but privately are preparing for that coalition of the lukewarm. They know they need to be seen to be putting together a sanctions package now — which they hope will begin to bite by late winter.

If they leave it till next year they fear Israel and the Arabs will lose faith that an Iranian bomb can be stopped by diplomacy. That leaves the Arab states (and possibly Turkey) contemplating their own nuclear weapons or hedging their bets by cosying up to Tehran.

And Israel? It is relying on the Americans to get a sanctions deal. If not, Israel is probably on its own, as country after country falls like leaves in autumn, away from the hard choices approaching.

Tim Marshall is Foreign Editor of Sky News

    Last updated: 2:25pm, September 17 2009