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Israel’s plans frozen

Obama opens up talks with Iran, attack seems off the table

JERUSALEM — President Barack Obama’s decision to open a dialogue with Iran’s new president appears to have robbed Israel of a key asset in its campaign to prevent the Islamic Republic from developing a nuclear weapon: the threat of unilaterally attacking Iranian nuclear facilities.

Despite some tough rhetoric in a speech to the U.N. by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, it will be all but impossible for Israel to take military action once negotiations between Iran and world powers resume.

As a result, Israel could find itself sidelined in the international debate over how to handle the suspect Iranian nuclear program over the coming months and reliant on the United States at a time when American credibility in the region is in question.

Addressing the U.N. General Assembly on Tuesday, Netanyahu repeated his mantra that Israel is prepared to act alone if it determines diplomacy has failed.

“Israel will never acquiesce to nuclear arms in the hands of a rogue regime that repeatedly promises to wipe us off the map. Against such a threat, Israel will have no choice but to defend itself,” he said. “I want there to be no confusion on this point. Israel will not allow Iran to get nuclear weapons. If Israel is forced to stand alone, Israel will stand alone.”

Israel considers a nuclear-armed Iran a threat to its very survival, given repeated Iranian assertions that the Jewish state should not exist. Israel has a long list of other grievances against Iran, citing its support for hostile Arab militant groups, its development of long-range missiles and alleged Iranian involvement in attacks on Israeli targets around the world.

Yet behind Netanyahu’s rhetoric, his options appear to be limited as a consequence of Iranian President Hassan Rouhani’s outreach to the West.

At the U.N. last week, Rouhani delivered a conciliatory speech in which he said Iran has no intention of building a nuclear weapon and declared his readiness for new negotiations with world powers.

Capping off the visit, Rouhani and Obama held a 15-minute phone call as the Iranian leader was traveling to the airport. It was the first conversation between the nations’ leaders in 34 years and raised hopes that a breakthrough on the nuclear issue could portend even deeper ties between the U.S. and Iran.

Netanyahu has greeted Rouhani’s outreach with deep skepticism, expressing fears that Iran will use upcoming nuclear talks as a ploy to get the world to ease painful economic sanctions while secretly pressing forward with its nuclear program. In his address Tuesday, Netanyahu urged the world to step up the pressure on Iran until its nuclear weapons program is dismantled.

Now, as Iran and world powers move toward talks, Israel will likely be forced to watch from a distance for fear of being considered a spoiler. The U.S. has pledged to keep Israel updated on progress.

“There is no way that Israel could strike while the U.S. and Iran are engaging. That would be a disaster,” said Reuven Pedatzur, a prominent Israeli military affairs analyst. “Israel would only consider an attack if intelligence pointed to Iran being just a few weeks from having an actual bomb.”

Many analysts have long questioned whether Israel could realistically attack Iran’s nuclear facilities. Such a mission would be extremely complicated, requiring long-distance flights and the refueling of warplanes above potentially hostile airspace. Iran also possesses sophisticated anti-aircraft systems, and its nuclear facilities are scattered throughout the country, in some places deep below ground, raising questions over how much damage Israel could inflict.

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