Relations between Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and President Obama have been famously strained over the past three years, but their upcoming meeting this Monday may be the tensest moment to date.
While both sides have been tight-lipped about the topic of discussion, it’s clear the dominant issue will be how to deal with Iran’s nascent nuclear threat. Despite agreeing on the nature of that threat, the two sides depart dramatically in their assessments about how advanced Iran’s nuclear program is and the steps necessary to halt its continued development.
The Obama administration favors a more passive approach. In the administration’s view, there is still sufficient time to prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon. Believing that U.S. and European sanctions passed this summer can slow down Iran’s nuclear program, Obama has consistently argued that a two-track policy of stiffer sanctions and muscular diplomacy should be given a chance to work.
That assessment delays a military reckoning for Iran, but even administration officials concede that it is rooted in part on wishful thinking. James Clapper, Obama’s director of national intelligence, admitted in January that “so far” sanctions had not convinced Iran to change its behavior. Instead, he said, the administration was hopeful that continued pressure held out the “prospect that they could change.” Accordingly, Obama will likely pressure Netanyahu to hold off on a military strike against Iranian nuclear facilities until sanctions have been given a chance to work.
Netanyahu is unsympathetic to that view. As he has pointed out in the past, sanctions have been tried before, with little deterrent effect on Iran’s nuclear ambitions. The current Israeli view is that a strike will have to happen before the summer in order to prevent Iran from getting a nuclear weapon.
Still, Israel recognizes that the Obama administration is unlikely to support such an attack. That is one reason why Israeli intelligence leaked this week that Israel would not give the U.S. warning of an impending Israeli strike, thus leaving the U.S. with plausible deniability in the aftermath. Although that is unlikely to sit well with the Obama administration, Israel believes it has little choice, and little time, if it wants to destroy Iran’s weapons capability before it becomes fully operational.
If Israel’s red line action is lower than Obama’s, it’s because the Israeli assessment of Iran’s nuclear project is more dire. American intelligence agencies have hedged on the question of weather Iran truly seeks a nuclear bomb, as opposed to a nuclear program. Israel has fewer doubts. This week, for instance, Israeli officials pointed to the International Atomic Energy Agency’s findings that Iran has accelerated uranium enrichment, a precondition for a nuclear weapon’s program, and is increasingly moving its nuclear operations deeper underground, likely to avoid their being targeted in an aerial attack. It has hardly allayed Israel’s concerns that Iran, demonstrating its traditional contempt for international law, recently denied IAEA inspectors permission to visit a key military site.
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