By many accounts, U.S. President Barack Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu don’t much like or trust each other. It’s important that they use their meeting on Monday to end at least the mistrust.
For many months now U.S. diplomacy has been directed as much at stopping an Israeli pre-emptive military strike against Iranian nuclear facilities, as at Iran itself. It’s partly thanks to the tension created by Israel’s threats to act that the Obama administration was finally able to persuade European allies to apply harsh economic sanctions aimed at throttling Iran’s oil revenue.
Now, however, that creative tension between the U.S. and Israel threatens to turn destructive. In recent weeks, public rhetoric and semi-official leaks have increased the likelihood of the very outcome the new sanctions were in part designed to avoid -- namely, an Israeli attempt to resolve the Iranian nuclear question by force. That’s an outcome neither the U.S. nor Israel wants.
At the root of this vicious circle lies a deep suspicion on Netanyahu’s part that Obama, despite public commitments to prevent a nuclear-armed Iran, has not in fact ruled out a policy of containment. This uncertainty has led to a growing Israeli focus on attacking Iran’s presumed nuclear-weapons effort before it achieves “immunity” -- the moment Iran’s facilities are so deeply bunkered and its progress so advanced that Israel would no longer be able to neutralize the program on its own.
It’s unclear whether Netanyahu really intends to go it alone, or is simply trying to pressure the U.S. into action. But there are real differences of analysis and interests, too.
Israelis see a nuclear-armed Iran as a threat to their existence. For the U.S., it is a far less serious concern. Comments from U.S. officials suggest the administration has set its red line at Iran’s enriching nuclear fuel to weapons grade, which nobody claims Iran has yet done. Israel’s red line is more imminent: an Iranian nuclear-weapons capacity, defined as the moment when it possesses enough low-enriched uranium to be able to quickly “break out” and produce a weapon. This difference, plus Israel’s lesser ability to destroy Iran’s bunkered facilities, make for a shorter Israeli timetable.
A public dispute between allies helps nobody but the regime in Tehran. As we have argued before, we believe the tough new sanctions should be given a chance to work. They have already triggered a sharp devaluation in the Iranian rial and may choke off the oil revenue that funds the regime and its nuclear project. Iranian officials have expressed willingness to resume negotiations with the so-called P5+1 (the five permanent United Nations Security Council members plus Germany), indicating they’re feeling pain.
There are, of course, no guarantees that renewed talks would be serious or that sanctions will change Iran’s nuclear policy. Neither sanctions nor Iran’s regime has a glowing track record. But the alternative for now looks worse. There is deep skepticism even within the Israeli military and intelligence services that they have the reach and hardware to destroy Iran’s nuclear infrastructure. Israeli warplanes and missiles could doubtless cause damage and create some delay, but there is a significant risk that the attempt would mainly give the Iranians an excuse to leave the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, kick out international inspectors and go for broke to build a nuclear arsenal.
Just as damaging, an unsuccessful attack could reverse Iran’s growing international isolation, with Israel looking like the aggressor. U.S. efforts to draw other countries into sanctions, tightening the noose in terms of Iranian oil exports and dual-use technologies, could be damaged.
A Last Resort
In a speech to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee on Sunday, Obama said clearly that he isn’t interested in containing a nuclear Iran and will do whatever it takes -- including the use of military force -- to prevent the Tehran regime from acquiring a weapon, a development that would trigger a nuclear arms race across the Middle East. We take him at his word. He ordered the U.S. military to update a plan for attack as long ago as 2010.
We also agree with Obama when he said “there is too much loose talk of war.” Like him, we hope he will never have to use those plans for attack and that Iran will agree to a negotiated solution. The president’s task on Monday is to convince Netanyahu that if Israel gives time for sanctions and diplomacy to work, it can be sure the U.S. will use force as the last resort should those policies fail.
To do that, Obama should on Monday clearly set out his red lines, without committing to a timetable. It is vital that he and Netanyahu reach a broad understanding of how they plan to handle Iran over the coming months, and engender enough trust that they can work together, instead of against each other. Obama should also make sure Iran understands those red lines -- perhaps through naval deployments or military exercises in the region, which would make the threat of a U.S. strike more credible.
There were signs even before Sunday’s speech that the administration wants to give the kind of assurance that would allow Israel to stand down for now. U.S. military officials, who had been briefing against an Israeli attack, in recent days have been talking up the capacity of the U.S. to strike, discussing plans to refuel Israeli aircraft and asserting that U.S. 30,000-pound bunker-busting bombs could successfully penetrate the new Iranian uranium enrichment facility near Qom.
Should it come to military action, the full force of the U.S. military and the international legitimacy gained by pursuing diplomacy to the last possible moment would greatly improve the chances of success for the goal that Obama and Netanyahu share: an Iran without nuclear arms.
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