The conference was held in accordance with the Chatham House Rule, which forbids participants from disclosing what has been said in the meetings and lectures. The Middle East and Arab Spring were two of the most discussed issues at the conference, and were addressed with a great deal of concern. In particular, what hung heavily in the air was the question of war breaking out in the Middle East because of Iran's nuclear program. The effect of such a flare-up on the global economy, everyone agreed, could have extremely grave consequences.
In some discussions, participants attempted to understand why Israel was so strongly opposed to American or European negotiations with Iran, which are regarded by many bankers, presidents of international companies and oil market analysts as the best way to approach and solve the issue of Iran’s nuclear project.
What appears easy to explain "at home" in Israel, became slightly more difficult for me in Singapore. One frequent question was: Why won't Israel back a dialogue, from which it can only benefit, with the Ayatollah regime? After all, even those in Israel who support an air strike know that its fallout could be challenging, and that it should be used only as a last resort.
When it comes to Iran and the threat of an Israeli attack, Obama engaged in a multi-front and quite successful policy prior to the presidential elections in the US: Imposing extremely tough sanctions on Iran, while at the same time applying heavy pressure on Netanyahu not to order a strike, which could have disrupted the presidential campaign. Obama was in favor of conducting open negotiations with Iran, leading Tehran authorities to take some technical steps that slightly delayed the arrival to the point of nuclear weapons.
Now, after his reelection, Obama will likely reconsider his steps. Sources with knowledge of the issue say that before the elections the US secretly informed Iran – through Russian channels, among others– that the real negotiations would begin now. These reports, which reached Israel, caused a great deal of concern in Jerusalem. Israeli officials don't believe that the Iranians are seriously considering giving up their nuclear program. They believe Iran is biding time in an effort to have the sanctions lifted and advance towards the bomb.
Israel will gain
Jerusalem officials fear that the US and Europe will agree to compromise, and that Israel will eventually be left on its own to decide whether to strike or accept a nuclear Iran. These concerns are not groundless: Iran has flagrantly lied to the international community in the past, buying time to secretly move its nuclear program forward. On the other hand, today Iran is on the brink of an economic disaster. The tough sanctions are taking their toll, and Iran is producing about one-third less of its regular oil production and is losing enormous amounts of money due to other restrictions to which it is subject. The Iranian people understand the link between their grim financial situation and the country's adherence to its nuclear project.
The influence of the Arab Spring, combined with Iran’s financial difficulties, may send crowds back to the streets of Tehran and Isfahan. Iran's government has proved in the past that every time its survival is at stake, it demonstrates flexibility and pragmatism. There is no better time than this to take advantage of the regime's weaknesses.
If Netanyahu declares, even discreetly, that he will not oppose a secret channel between the US and Iran— a channel which does not begin with red lines— he stands to improve his difficult personal relations with Obama, and might even be portrayed as less trigger happy and more in favor of a diplomatic solution.
Such negotiations must not continue forever and they should only conclude under certain conditions. The US should make it clear to Iran that it must dismantle significant parts of its nuclear project, and do so with full transparency as soon as possible. Even if the move fails, Israel will gain: Obama will have to prove that he is standing by his word that Iran will not attain a bomb, and that he will use all possible options to fulfill his promise.