Red Lines, Deadlines and End Games: Netanyahu Turns Up Iran Heat on Obama

The Israeli prime minister's problem is not the lack of a red line. It's that the U.S. one isn't the same as his.

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Pablo Martinez Monsivais—AP

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu listens as President Barack Obama speaks during their meeting in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, March, 5, 2012.

Updated: Sept. 11, 2012, 10:00 p.m.

Benjamin Netanyahu‘s frustration with the Obama Administration’s handling of the Iran nuclear issue is unlikely to be assuaged any time soon, with the Israeli daily Haaretz alleging on Tuesday that the White House has “declined” the Israeli Prime Minister’s request for a meeting during the U.N. General Assembly session in New York later this month. The White House immediately denied the report, with national security spokesman Tommy Vietor explaining that Netanyahu is scheduled to arrive in New York after Obama leaves. “They’re simply not in the city at the same time,” Vietor wrote in an email. “But the President and PM are in frequent contact and the PM will meet with other senior officials, including Secretary [of State Hillary] Clinton, during his visit.” Vietor later emailed: “Contrary to previous press reports, there was never any request for a meeting between the Prime Minister and President in Washington, nor was this request ever denied.” But Israeli media, encouraged by unnamed Israeli officials, are interpreting the decision as a snub – in a week where Netanyahu has made no secret of his exasperation with the Obama Administration.

The Prime Minister on Tuesday fired a thinly-disguised broadside against the Administration, telling reporters in Jerusalem, “Those in the international community who refuse to put a red line before Iran don’t have the moral right to place a red light before Israel.” That was in response to Washington’s rebuff of the Israeli leader’s demand that the U.S. publicly declare a “red line” for Iran’s nuclear work, that if crossed, would trigger a U.S. military response. The Israelis have also demanded that the U.S. set a deadline for Iran to comply with Western demands. But all of Israel’s key Western allies have delivered stern warnings against a go-it-alone military strike, which is also opposed by Israel’s military and security chiefs, as well as by a majority of its polled public. Unable to bend the Administration into accepting his terms and timeline, then, Netanyahu is reduced to playing Cassandra.

(MORE: Exclusive: U.S. Scales Back Military Exercise with Israel, Affecting Potential Iran Strike)

Clinton drew Israeli ire when she set out the Administration’s position on Iran in an interview, on Monday, with Bloomberg TV. “We’re not setting deadlines,” she said. “We’re watching very carefully about what they do, because it’s always been more about their actions. We’re convinced that we have more time to focus on these sanctions, to do everything we can to bring Iran to a good faith negotiation.” But Netanyahu was having none of it, claiming that “as of now, we can clearly say that diplomacy and sanctions have not worked. They have hit the Iranian economy, but they haven’t stopped the Iranian nuclear project.”

Netanyahu is certainly correct that the pain of sanctions has not stopped Iran from continuing its nuclear work in violation of U.N. Security Council resolutions, nor has it prompted Tehran to concede to Western demands at the negotiating table. At the same time, however, the U.S. assessment is that while Iran continues to accumulate nuclear infrastructure that would give it the capability to build a weapon, Tehran has not yet decided to build a bomb. (Many analysts suspect Iran’s current goal is the “nuclear latency” enjoyed by countries such as Japan, which could build nuclear weapons in a matter of months should they deem it strategically necessary to do so.) Defense Secretary Leon Panetta told CBS on Tuesday that if Iran took the strategic decision, right now, it would need “a little more than a year” to build a bomb. “We think we will have the opportunity, once we know that they’ve made that decision, [to] take the action necessary to stop them,” Panetta said. And it’s at an Iranian move to weaponize nuclear material that the Obama Administration has drawn its own red line. White House Press Secretary Jay Carney had reiterated on Monday, “The line is the President is committed to prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon, and he will use every tool in the arsenal of American power to achieve that goal.”

(MORE: How Sending Fewer U.S. Troops to Israeli Joint Exercise Further Strains Relations)

The real problem for Netanyahu, is not that Obama hasn’t stated a red line; it’s that Obama’s red line is not the same as Israel’s red line. “If Iran knows that there is no red line, if Iran knows that there is no deadline, what will it do?” Netanyahu said Tuesday. “Exactly what it’s doing. It’s continuing, without any interference, towards obtaining nuclear weapons capability and from there, nuclear bombs.”

Netanyahu’s red line is not simply Iran “acquiring a nuclear weapon”, but rather Iran attaining the capability to build one — a capacity Tehran arguably already has, but hasn’t begun to use. That’s why Israel insists that the only acceptable outcome of a diplomatic process is the complete dismantling and shipping out of Iran’s enrichment infrastructure and stockpile of fissile material. Prospects for such an outcome remains remote, even if Iran has at various times indicated a willingness to negotiate limits to its nuclear work.

The Obama Administration hasn’t until now outlined its view of an acceptable diplomatic outcome should the Iranians prove willing to compromise, avoiding the question of whether it shares the Israeli view that Iran can’t be allowed to enrich uranium, even as part of a peaceful energy program. And the lack of progress in diplomacy means it hasn’t had to do so. But as things stand, Iran can conceivably continue doing what it’s currently doing without tripping a U.S. red line, incrementally expanding its nuclear capability but being careful to avoid steps that could be construed as moving to build weapons. It’s the fact that Iran’s current incremental expansion of its capabilities will bring ever-tighter sanctions but not a U.S. military strike, that Netanyahu is trying – apparently in vain – to reverse, mostly by threatening a unilateral military strike.

(MORE: Is Israel Angling for a Vow from Obama on Iran?)

In an attempt to restate the status quo, the White House released a statement on Tuesday night declaring: “President Obama spoke with Prime Minister Netanyahu for an hour tonight as a part of their ongoing consultations. The two leaders discussed the threat posed by Iran’s nuclear program, and our close cooperation on Iran and other security issues. President Obama and Prime Minister Netanyahu reaffirmed that they are united in their determination to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon, and agreed to continue their close consultations going forward.”

While Netanyahu has been rattling his saber all summer, the Israeli leader has found his position on military action increasingly isolated, both at home and abroad. Even his erstwhile wingman, Defense Minister Ehud Barak, has now reportedly backed off pushing for a strike that would damage ties with the U.S. A number of Israeli and American military establishment figures have warned that a solo strike by Israel could, at best, briefly delay Iran’s progress, but at the same time ensure that Iran goes ahead and builds a bomb. And without the diplomatic consensus fashioned by the Obama Administration, Israel find it difficult to prevent Iran forging ahead with a covert program.

Perhaps it was the need to create a face-saving retreat from his constant threat to scramble the bombers that had prompted the Israeli leader to begin pressing for the alternative of a declaration of U.S. red lines and deadlines. Now, it appears, the Obama Administration has made clear that it’s not going to have its Iran script written by Netanyahu. And that portends an election season of noisy complaints from an Israeli leader who’s never exactly been shy about letting Americans know what he thinks of their President.

With reporting by Jay Newton-Small/Washington

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