Iran's steady march towards building a nuclear weapon dominated the 2012 American Israel Public Affairs Committee's (AIPAC) policy convention in Washington, DC. It also was the focus of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's meeting with President Obama on Monday afternoon. A day earlier, Obama declared at the AIPAC conference that his administration was committed to a policy of prevention—stopping Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon, rather than containment—preventing Iran from deploying nuclear weapons after acquired. In working to prevent Iran from passing the nuclear threshold, the president said, "I will take no option off the table," including military efforts.
While on the surface it might appear that the U.S. and Israel finally view the Iranian nuclear threat through the same lens, the fact remains that they differ on their belief of what constitutes a red line—the point at which a military option against Iran must be exercised. No doubt these red lines were the topic of conversation in the Oval Office meeting. After all, the points of departure are stark.
At AIPAC, Prime Minister Netanyahu made clear that Israel has little, if any, time left to act when it comes to Iran: "Israel has waited patiently for the international community to resolve this issue. We've waited for diplomacy to work. We've waited for sanctions to work. None of us can afford to wait much longer." For his part, President Obama's AIPAC speech made no mention of a timeframe or an Iranian action that would trigger an American military reaction. Rather, he stated that the window for diplomacy and sanctions to work remains open, so there's no need to specify any American red lines beyond "all options are on the table." Clearly, Israel's clock is ticking faster than the American clock.
The difference in perceived red lines lies is what Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak termed "the zone of immunity"—when Iran reaches a point of no return in its nuclear program. Iran's "zone of immunity" will arrive for Israel when the Jewish State is no longer within its military capability to significantly damage Iran's nuclear program; thus, Iran obtaining the capability to build a nuclear weapon is a potential red line for Israel. But the U.S. has far more robust military options in dealing with Iran and therefore has more time available than Israel to decide when the right moment to act has arrived. Thus, Iran acquiring a nuclear weapon is a potential red line for Washington.
Given American actions in the Middle East, inconsistent messaging from the Obama administration, divergent views of what constitutes a red line, and a frosty three-year relationship between Obama and Netanyahu, it is difficult to see why the rulers in Tehran would either fear or anticipate American military action enough to change their behavior on the nuclear file. Indeed, with the torrent of mixed signals coming from inside the beltway, it is no wonder that those who are actually concerned are the Israelis.
The U.S. is in the midst of disengaging from the Middle East and pulling out of Iraq and Afghanistan. The low-hanging fruit of Syria—Iran's junior partner and only Arab ally—is still convulsing after a year of protests demanding regime change. President Obama's goal vis-à-vis Syria when he came to office was to flip Damascus out of Iran's orbit, thereby weakening Tehran. Yet, the White House remains on the sidelines. Washington's inability to assist the Syrian opposition against the Asad regime—whose security forces are bolstered, armed, and trained by the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps—no doubt resonates in Tehran. It demonstrates that America lacks the will to use its military in both large and small theaters, even when U.S. interests are at stake.
Then there is the problem of messaging. For the threat of military force to be credible, it has to be believable. The Obama administration has frequently disparaged Israel's military capabilities when it comes to attacking Iran. In November 2011 before meeting with Ehud Barak, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta previewed his message in public, saying he would warn Barak against a military strike. While Panetta has stated numerous times that Iran's acquisition of a nuclear weapon would cross an American red line where Washington would "take whatever steps necessary to stop it," both he and his senior military advisor, Joint Chiefs Chairman General Martin Dempsey, continue to emphasize in public that such a military attack from either Israel or the U.S. would have unintended and undesirable consequences. Dempsey even went further on January 8 on Face the Nation, when he was asked if the U.S. possesses the military capability to take out Iran's nuclear program with conventional weapons. He replied, "I certainly want them [Iran] to believe that's the case." It undermines the U.S. and Israeli threat of force when the administration demonstrates doubt over both countries' military capabilities and undercuts the perception of American-Israeli unity on how to deal with Iran's nuclear threat.
The Obama administration has also given Israel mixed messages when it comes to red lines. On February 29, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton explained that U.S. policy "is to prevent Iran from having nuclear weapons capability." But on January 31, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper told the Senate that "Iran has the scientific, technical, and industrial capacity to eventually produce nuclear weapons, making the central issue its political will to do so." In other words, Iran already has the capability.
In fact, the prospect of Iran achieving nuclear breakout capability is becoming a clear threat. Reports in February indicated that Iran has built the infrastructure required for operating more efficient and advanced centrifuges at the Fordow Fuel Enrichment Plant. This allows the Iranian regime to dramatically shorten the time required to produce fuel for a nuclear weapon once the centrifuges are installed and begin operating. This means that Iran could rapidly produce 20 percent enriched uranium and then further reduce the time necessary to create weapons grade uranium—enriched to 90 percent—to just a few months. During the course of the Obama administration, Iran accelerated its enrichment of uranium by every metric, installing more centrifuges, stockpiling more enriched uranium, and enriching uranium to higher levels. In the last three years Iran has now stockpiled over 3,000 kg of low enriched uranium, more than one-and-a-half times the amount necessary to produce the weapons-grade material needed in a nuclear bomb.
For President Obama, asking Israel to alter its "zone of immunity" timetable is like asking Israel to let Washington be responsible for Israel's security. That is quite a leap for Netanyahu, who after his meeting with Obama addressed both foreign and domestic audiences at AIPAC's conference and said, "I promise you that as Prime Minister, I will never gamble with the security of the State of Israel."
In fact, the Jewish State has never gambled with its security by putting all its faith in the United States to act in Israel's interest. It is Israel, not the United States, that has set the precedent for military action against nuclear facilities in the Middle East. The first was Iraq's Osirak reactor, destroyed by the Israeli air force in June 1981. The second was Syria's al-Kibar reactor, again destroyed by Israel's air force in September 2007. In both cases the U.S. was against the Israeli attack. And in both cases, Iraq and Syria did not reconstitute their nuclear program. Moreover, in both cases, Israel understood that the international community would not act in the face of these nuclear threats, thus it acted in its own security interests—something successive American presidents have demonstrated only a loose ability to understand, given their distance from the Middle East and different perceptions of how and when they could or should act.
In the wake of the Oval Office meeting, questions remain: Did Netanyahu and Obama come to an agreement on what constitutes a red line? What assurances did Obama give Israel if Jerusalem waits beyond its own capability to set back Iran's nuclear program? If Jerusalem acts alone, would the United States stand with Israel and ensure the mission's success if needed, or would the White House distance itself from Israel? Did Netanyahu promise to give Obama advanced warning if Israel decides to act, giving the president the ability to either green or red light an Israeli operation? And lastly, does Netanyahu believe the U.S. would act militarily at the end of the day?
Benjamin Netanyahu said at the beginning of his speech at AIPAC, "Every day, I open the newspapers and read about these red lines and these timelines. I read about what Israel has supposedly decided to do, or what Israel might do. Well, I'm not going to talk to you about what Israel will do or will not do, I never talk about that." It is likely that both Netanyahu and Obama are keeping their red lines pink in order to preserve room to maneuver. But at the same time, it would be foolhardy for Netanyahu to entrust the existence of the Jewish State to an American administration that has proven so inept at handling Middle East affairs, and to a president who continues to misread the region.