Sources at the Israeli defense establishment say Iran is viewing the recent statements made by US Defense Secretary-designate Robert Gates in a positive light. Gates said at a Senate hearing this week that the US would use force against Iran only as a last resort. This statement has emboldened Iran, which has interpreted this declaration as giving it more time to continue its nuclear ambitions without interruption.
And this is exactly what it is doing, emphasize senior defense sources. In the current US-Iranian show of force, Iran has the upper hand.
Even the celebrations in Israel this week, relating to the drop in the Iranian president's popularity and the possible shortening of his term in office, came too soon. The reports coming out of Iran regarding a shortened term in office are not related to his status, but rather, to the periodical muscle-flexing demonstrated by the Iranian parliament, the Majles.
The Iranian parliament is seeking, for economic reasons, to combine the two electoral systems – the presidency and the Majles - and to hold them in the spring of 2008. The trend in Iran today is indeed to unite the elections, but to hold them in the summer of 2009, the date set for the presidential elections.
Subsequently, not only will the presidential elections not be brought forward, leaving Ahmadinejad in office until 2009 as planned, but the parliamentary elections are likely to be postponed for more than a year.
Overall, diplomatic sources in Jerusalem note, there is a strengthening of Iranian influence in the region, whereas the American influence is directed at its rearguard battle.
The report submitted by Baker and Hamilton Wednesday related to the change of American policies in the region and demonstrates this process: Acceleration of the radical Shiite momentum in the region and waning of "regional American order" that peaked in 2003 and is deteriorating with the American imbroglio in Iraq. This process will impact countries in the region, including Israel, say our diplomatic sources.
Baker and Hamilton's document is aimed at preventing the collapse of American influence in the region against the backdrop of a planned decrease in the number of American troops in Iraq.
To prevent this collapse, the report proposed several diplomatic measures: Engaging in dialogue with Iran, looking into the option of dialogue with Syria, strengthening the moderate Sunni forces in Egypt, Jordan, Turkey and the Gulf, and stepping up involvement in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Israel to pay price?
According to estimates by diplomatic sources in Israel, this may come at the expense of Israel. There are many voices in Washington, such as that of new Defense Secretary Gates, who are urging that Israel be used to promote America's interests in the region.
And indeed one of the central recommendations appearing in Baker and Hamilton's report is for America to adopt a much more dynamic approach towards the Israeli-Arab conflict.
In Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice's meeting with Mahmoud Abbas last week, she reiterated that the US administration would work with every Palestinian government it found acceptable. In other words, any compromise Abbas reaches with Hamas that would lead to the establishment of a unity government would be acceptable by the US.
Diplomatic sources in Jerusalem are already pointing out the flexibility in the US' "uncompromising stance" regarding the three conditions set out by the Quartet that enable the lifting of sanctions on the Hamas cabinet.
One of the staunchest conditions was that Hamas would recognize Israel's right to exist. Now the American administration is prepared for a more flexible phrasing: It can live with a Hamas government whose ministers do not publicly condemn Israel's right to exist.
According to Israeli diplomatic sources, Hamas is very much aware of this erosion in the American stance and is sensing the loosening of the sanction rope around its neck. Even IDF military pressure on Hamas has waned.
It is no wonder, therefore, that Hamas is walking around with a sense of achievement, and the immediate result is the hardening of the Hamas stance vis-à-vis Mahmoud Abbas, which is likely to lead to further inflexibility on the issue of abducted soldier Gilad Shalit.