That message seemed to resonate with reports that the Pentagon was scaling back U.S. participation in a joint military exercise in Israel next month. Thus the emerging narrative, according to some Israeli analysts, of a political leadership whose insistence on launching a war of choice has cost it the confidence of its own security chiefs, its president (and possibly its public), and also of its most important strategic ally. That’s not a comfortable position for any Israeli political leader, and Barak appears to have backtracked even before any new “red line” statement from Obama. Not known for the consistency of his statements — he earned the nickname “Mr. Zigzag” during his tenure as Prime Minister — the Israeli Defense Minister who just weeks ago was painting himself as “the decision maker” on the verge of scrambling the jets, is now reportedly opposed to bombing Iran before the U.S. election.
Netanyahu appears to be holding out for a declaration of U.S. red lines. The New York Times reports that the Obama administration is currently debating options to placate the Israelis, even if by rhetorically repackaging a number of existing plans for military exercises and tighter sanctions. The Israeli prime minister plans to attend the U.N. General Assembly session in New York later this month, where he is expected to meet with President Obama on the sidelines.
The Israeli prime minister’s supporters will paint whatever statements and gestures emerge from the White House as a victory for his strategy of relentless saber-rattling. Netanyahu’s problem, though, is that Obama’s red line — preventing the Iranians from acquiring a nuclear weapon — is not the same as the Israeli red line, which insists that Iran can’t be allowed to maintain the nuclear infrastructure that it already has, even though that infrastructure falls within the limits of what is permissible for NPT signatories, because it can be repurposed to create weapons-grade materiel. And as last week’s IAEA report confirmed, Iran is gliding past Israeli red lines while carefully avoiding approaching U.S. limits.
The U.N. agency reported that Iran had doubled the centrifuge capacity at its underground Fordow plant which the Israelis complain makes that capacity immune to their air power. Those centrifuges, now numbering 2,000 with the target of 3,000 to be reached later this year, are not yet spinning, and remain under IAEA scrutiny. While they expand Iran’s capacity to produce 20% enriched uranium, the top concern of Western powers because of the reduced time-frame for converting it to weapons-grade material, Iran has also converted a substantial proportion of its stockpile of that material into fuel plates that would be useless in any dash to weaponization. That appears to reflect care to avoid moving towards Washington’s red lines, despite failing to comply with its IAEA and UN Security Council obligations.
But it could also reveal something about the nature of Iran’s program: Many analysts have long suspected that Iran’s goal is not to build a nuclear weapon at this stage, but to achieve the sort of breakout capacity enjoyed by countries such as Japan, which remains within the terms of the Non Proliferation Treaty but has put nuclear weapons within easy reach should the government deem it necessary for reasons of national security to build them. That’s an outcome the Israelis strenuously reject, and Western powers won’t easily accept while Iran remains non-compliant with its NPT obligations. If Tehran was willing to cooperate with the IAEA and accept enhanced guarantees against weaponization, however, the Western consensus may begin to shift.
For now, the U.S. looks likely to persuade Israel to sit on its hands while sanctions and other pressures on Iran mount. Indications thus far, however, are that even if those measures succeed in pressing Iran to compromise, such compromise as are offered are unlikely to involve the capitulation on the issue of uranium enrichment that the Israelis demand. So, even if a war before November is looking increasingly unlikely, it’s probably a safe bet that war talk will be revved up again come spring.