Friendship Under Fire / The Iranian nuclear threat will challenge Obama and Netanyahu´s sometimes-rocky relationship like never before (FP) FOREIGN POLICY) BY DAVID MAKOVSKY 02/22/12)
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Next month, U.S. President Barack Obama and Israeli Prime Minister
Benjamin Netanyahu will hold a key meeting over the Iranian nuclear
challenge that will test their sometimes rocky relationship. After a
weekend visit by National Security Advisor Tom Donilon to Israel, the
White House announced this week that Obama will host Netanyahu in
Washington on March 5. This will be an opportunity for the two
leaders to synchronize their positions on Iran. Whether they can
reach some common ground -- now or in the near future -- could be a
decisive factor in Israel´s decision-making on whether to strike Iran
sometime this year.
International pressure on the Islamic Republic has never been higher.
In addition to the new, crippling U.S. sanctions enacted on Dec. 31
and Feb. 6, the European Union recently pledged to halt the
importation of Iranian oil by July 1. Iran´s economy is reeling.
For their part, Iranian leaders have struck an increasingly
aggressive note. They have threatened a preemptive strike against
their foes, and warned that they could close the Strait of Hormuz,
through which roughly 20 percent of the world´s traded oil flows
daily. In another recent act of defiance, Iranian President Mahmoud
Ahmadinejad announced on Feb. 15 that a "new generation" of Iranian
centrifuges had just been activated at the Natanz nuclear site. And
this week, IAEA inspectors charged with monitoring Iran´s nuclear
program were denied access to a military facility, returning to
Vienna after what they termed "disappointing" talks with their
Despite its saber-rattling, Iran is feeling the heat of international
sanctions. Over the past month, the Iranian rial has been devalued by
50 percent. Iran has also indicated that it may even be willing to
resume diplomacy, which it has scorned since the last round of
negotiations in 2009 and 2010.
With the media rife with speculation about a possible Israeli
military strike against Iran´s nuclear facilities by this summer,
tensions between the two countries have risen to an all-time high.
Iran is blaming Israel for the recent assassinations of its nuclear
scientists, and Israel is accusing Iran of masterminding the Feb. 13
terror attack against Israeli diplomats in New Delhi, as well as
attempted attacks in Tbilisi and Bangkok.
It is no secret that Netanyahu and Obama have never been close, but
now is the time for the two leaders to find common ground over the
Iranian nuclear issue.
There has already been some progress in getting top U.S. and Israeli
officials to speak about Iran in similar terms. Last week in the
Knesset, Netanyahu said it is critical that the world -- not just
Israel -- identify "red lines" when dealing with the Iranian nuclear
program. In a CBS appearance last month, Defense Secretary Leon
Panetta declared that Iran´s development of a nuclear weapon, as well
as closure of the Strait of Hormuz, are "red lines" for the United
However, the United States and Israel clearly differ in where their
red lines lie. The United States has put the focus on Iran actually
gaining a nuclear weapon, while Israel -- more vulnerable to Iranian
missiles due to its geographic proximity -- views the threshold as
the Iranian regime´s acquisition of enough low-enriched uranium to
build a bomb, pending a political decision to convert it to weapons-
The other set of differences between the United States and Israel has
to do with how long they are willing to wait before judging the
international sanctions of Iran to be a success or failure. On the
one hand, this is the first time that the United States and the EU
have imposed the type of "crippling" sanctions that Israel has long
called for. But on the other, recent statements by Israeli Defense
Minister Ehud Barak signal that Israel believes its window for
military action is rapidly closing. As a result, Israeli officials
fear they might not have the time to wait and see whether the
sanctions halt Iran´s nuclear program peacefully.
Israeli military capabilities to strike Iran´s proliferating nuclear
sites -- especially those bunkered deep within a mountain outside the
city of Qom -- are more limited than those of the United States. The
prospect of a new round of Iranian-U.S. diplomacy is another critical
component of this equation, as it could further postpone U.S.
military action in the event that sanctions fail. Taken together,
these circumstances could force an Israeli decision on a preemptive
strike under suboptimal conditions.
All this puts Israel on the horns of a dilemma. It can hope that
sanctions will ultimately deter Iran´s nuclear program, but this may
mean foregoing decisive action against what it sees as an existential
threat in the hope that the United States will act further down the
road. Barak and Netanyahu are commonly identified as favoring a
strike, but based on my recent trip to the region, it is clear that
others within the Israeli cabinet and defense establishment still
have doubts. As such, the prospect of a strike is not inevitable. If
Israel believed that the United States were absolutely committed to
handling this issue, it would certainly shift the Israeli debate
about whether to strike.
But without absolute certainty, holding off on a strike is a tough
decision for Israeli officials to make. Many Israeli military leaders
are children of Holocaust survivors who joined the Israeli army to
ensure Israeli self-reliance in fighting against enemies who
regularly pledge to eradicate it. A poignant reminder is the iconic
photo of Israeli jets flying over Auschwitz in 2003, which hangs on
the walls of many of their offices.
Nonetheless, it is a fundamental misreading of Israel to view this as
an ideological issue. Israeli considerations of a strike are rooted
not in their ethos of self-reliance, but in the fear that the United
States will ultimately fail to strike, even if sanctions fail.
Israeli officials´ fears are compounded by their knowledge that the
American people are fatigued by conflict, and by the suspicions of
some that the United States has not entirely ruled out a strategy of
containment, U.S. protestations to the contrary.
The Obama administration´s official policy opposes containment,
holding that the Iranian nuclear program is too destabilizing for the
Middle East. As the president told NBC on Feb. 5, "We are going to do
everything we can to keep Iran from getting a nuclear weapon, and
creating an arms race -- a nuclear arms race -- in a volatile
region." Concerns about Iran handing dirty bomb technology to non-
state actors, such as the Lebanese militia Hezbollah, along with
fears that Iran would seek to dominate the Persian Gulf, are also all
In light of these threats, some analysts could argue that Obama --
who is known for his preference for Predator drone strikes in
Pakistan and such surgical operations as the one that killed Osama
bin Laden -- would indeed resort to military action if sanctions
failed. And despite tensions between Obama and Netanyahu over the
Middle East peace process, sources close to Obama argued to me that
these policy differences in no way infringe upon the president´s
commitment to Israel´s security.
At the same time, U.S. officials have also raised fears of an Israeli
strike in the short term -- as evidenced by Chairman of the Joint
Chiefs of Staff Gen. Martin Dempsey´s comments on Feb. 19 that an
Israeli attack would be "destabilizing." Their fears center on the
belief that an attack by Israel could unravel international
sanctions, and that Iran would be able to reconstitute its program in
fairly short order.
How can Obama and Netanyahu win each other´s trust? The two sides
should come to a more precise understanding of U.S. thresholds for
the Iranian nuclear program and American responses should they be
breached, as well as an agreement on a timetable for giving up on
sanctions so their Iran clocks are synchronized. In other words, the
two sides need to agree on red lines that might trigger action.
Israel will probably seek some guarantees from the United States
before agreeing to forgo a pre-emptive strike that might not succeed.
It may turn out that such guarantees are impossible, given the
mistrust between the two parties and the ever-changing regional
circumstances. Whatever the mechanism, there is no doubt that the
U.S.-Israel relationship could benefit greatly from a common approach
toward the Iran nuclear program at this tumultuous time. Their
upcoming meeting and the months ahead promise to test the Obama-
Netanyahu relationship like never before.
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