With talks between Iran and the five major powers due to resume on 23 May in Baghdad, it is no surprise to see the pressure on Iran being ratcheted up once again. However, to hear Spain's former prime minister Jose Maria Aznar invoking Russian President Vladimir Putin as allegedly providing tacit support for an Israeli strike is a surprise.
There is widespread scepticism in Iran, in the West, and in Israel itself about Israel's ability to launch a unilateral attack against Iran. There is also considerable doubt about America's willingness to take on the task. This feeling that caution will prevail can only have been increased by the Rand Corporation's just published view that "diplomacy and economic sanctions are better suited than military action to prevent the emergence of a nuclear-armed Iran, [and] Israeli security will be best served by military restraint combined with greater US-Israeli cooperation..."
The influential think tank goes on to argue: "An Israeli or American attack on Iranian nuclear facilities would make it more, not less, likely that the Iranian regime would decide to produce and deploy nuclear weapons. Such an attack would also make it more, not less, difficult to contain Iranian influence."
These and similar comments from a plethora of Western (and Israeli) experts are no doubt behind the view expressed on Tuesday (15 May) by Iran's Minister of Defence Brigadier-General Ahmad Vahidi, who said about Israel's threats of military action: “I have said this before that such words only have a psychological warfare aspect. The Zionist regime has a lot of problems and it is trying to cover up its internal issues by making such statements...Western countries are already protesting against the Zionist regime.”
But the last 48 hours has seen what seems to be a concerted effort to redress the balance. Today, 17 May, the US's ambassador to Israel, Dan Shapiro, said on Israel's Army Radio: "It would be preferable to resolve this diplomatically and through the use of pressure than to use military force. But that doesn't mean that option is not fully available - not just available, but it's ready. The necessary planning has been done to ensure that it's ready."
He added: "The US will do whatever is necessary to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons. I think this is a statement that America can take to the bank, that Israel can take to the bank, and that Iran should take to the bank."
Perhaps even more interestingly, though, on 16 May former Spanish Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar told the Jerusalem Centre for Public Affairs that Russia's President Vladimir Putin had tried to allay his fears about Iran going nuclear by saying: “Don’t worry...because at the end of the day, Israel will take care of it.”
If that is really true, it provides important background to remarks made on 12 May by Israeli foreign ministry official Yacov Livne, who said that Israel could discern a “positive evolution in the Russian attitude towards Iran”.
Aznar also told his Israeli audience that when he had met with Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei in 2000, Khamenei had been explicit about his desire to "eliminate" Israel. According to Aznar, the Iranian leader said it was "necessary to eliminate the threat Israel posed”. Asked to clarify whether Khamenei had used the word “eliminate”, Aznar recalled that he had said: “Finish, eliminate, end their history.”
Such first-hand testimony from a former Western prime minister will, of course, be seized upon by Israeli hawks to strengthen their case. They will also now be able to argue that there should be no serious adverse reaction from the Kremlin.
In the same context, it is worth recalling that on 10 May, the leader of the Hamas movement in Gaza, Ismail Haniyeh, said that Hamas would not allow itself to be dragged into a war with Israel over the Iranian nuclear question. In an interview with the Reuters news agency, he said: “Hamas is a Palestinian movement that acts within the Palestinian arena and it carries out its political and field actions in a way that suits the interests of the Palestinian people. Iran did not ask anything from us and we think Iran is not in need of us.”
Back in February, similar remarks by the leader of the Hezbollah movement, Hassan Nasrallah, who pronounced that “Iran does not command us”, were equally taken by those in favour of a military strike as a sign that Hezbollah did not want to be dragged into an Israel-Iran conflict.
The key unanswered question is to what degree any of this might dent Iranian confidence ahead of the Baghdad talks.