Iran conspiracy report adds more of the same to US polls

Talk of assurances by the United States to Tehran that it would not be dragged into a future Israel-Iran war brings back memories of 'October surprises'.

Democrats Sharon Winesberry and Gus Mansour on the first day of the Democratic National Convention in North Carolina, yesterday. In the lead-up to the November election, an Israeli newspaper is claiming the White House secretly negotiated with Iran to stay out of hostilities with Israel.
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JERUSALEM // In 1980, Ronald Reagan was accused of carrying out secret negotiations with Iran to delay the release of 52 American hostages, fearing their freedom at the end of the campaign would clinch victory for his rival, Jimmy Carter.

Since then contenders have lived in dread of "October surprises".

But this US election season the mischief may be starting early.

The White House has denied an Israeli press report on Monday accusing it of secretly negotiating with Tehran to keep the US out of a future Israel-Iran war.

Israel's most popular newspaper, Yedioth Ahronoth, cited anonymous sources claiming Washington had approached Tehran through two unidentified European countries to say the US would not be dragged into hostilities if Israel attacked Iran over its nuclear programme.

The story coincided with Labor Day in the US, a holiday that traditionally marks the start of the final round of campaigning for national elections in November.

The White House spokesman Jay Carney dismissed the report as "incorrect, completely incorrect".

But the timing and subject leave little room for doubt that it was an attempt to influence the election that pits President Barack Obama, unpopular in Israel, against the Republican challenger Mitt Romney.

In 1980, Iran announced it would free the US hostages, less than half an hour after Reagan delivered his inauguration address.

But Yossi Beilin, an Israeli politician who has served in a number ministerial posts, doubted whether issues in the region would have much impact on this year's election. The vote would be decided over domestic matters, Mr Beilin said.

But he did not dismiss the possibility of Israeli leaders trying to come up with their own surprise over the Iran issue.

For one thing, the relationship between Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister, and Mr Obama is perhaps the frostiest of any Israeli and US heads of state.

"They don't have any relationship," Mr Beilin said.

He said this came from the Israeli premier's hawkishness on Iran and unequivocal backing of Mr Romney in the coming polls.

"And for Obama, the fact that Netanyahu is so involved in the election in the US is a big issue," he said.

Mr Obama is widely believed to resent the Israeli leader's lack of commitment towards the brief round of peace talks with Palestinians that Washington held in September 2010.

And Mr Netanyahu's apparent berating of the US president in a televised White House meeting in May last year did not help matters.

The Israeli public also appears to have mixed feelings about Mr Obama. They were evenly split on whether or not they thought he was more pro-Israeli or pro-Palestinian, according to an April survey conducted by Smith Research and sponsored by The Jerusalem Post.

In 2009, a similar poll found half of all Israeli respondents thought Mr Obama favoured Palestinians. That followed his landmark speech in Cairo to the Muslim world.

But as the poll approaches, reports of discord over Iran have become more pronounced.

The same day as the Yedioth Ahronoth report was published, the leader of Lebanon's Shiite movement, Hizbollah - a firm ally of Tehran - warned Tehran could strike US military bases in the region in response to an Israeli attack.

"If Israel targets Iran, America bears responsibility," said the group's secretary general, Hassan Nasrallah.

That followed a recent meeting with the US ambassador to Israel, Dan Shapiro, during which Mr Netanyahu lashed out at Mr Obama for not backing Israel on a potential attack on Iran's nuclear programme, The Jerusalem Post reported last month.

"Time has run out!" he reportedly told the US envoy. Mr Shapiro shouted back at the Israeli leader, accusing him of "distorting" Mr Obama's decision.

That coincided with a report in Time magazine that the US had scaled back the participation of US troops in a joint exercise to be held with Israel's military next month, so as not to encourage an Israeli attack on Iran.

Gen Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, was more direct about the US military's feelings about an Israeli attack, in Britain's The Guardian newspaper last month.

"I don't want to be complicit if they choose to do it," Gen Dempsey said.

* With additional reporting from Reuters


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