Tony Karon writes: Their poor chemistry and well-documented differences notwithstanding, President Barack Obama may yet emerge as the friend Benjamin Netanyahu most needs right now — by offering the Israeli Prime Minister a path that would avoid a dangerous confrontation with Iran while strengthening Israel’s sense of security against any Iranian nuclear threat. What remains to be seen, in the course of Netanyahu’s Washington visit and beyond, is whether he’ll accept the terms on offer.
Asked in a lengthy interview with the Atlantic Monthly’s Jeffrey Goldberg published Friday, March 2, to clarify the terms of his oft stated vow that “all options are on the table” in dealing with Iran’s nuclear program, Obama answered, “I think both the Iranian and the Israeli governments recognize that when the United States says it is unacceptable for Iran to have a nuclear weapon, we mean what we say.”
It has been widely reported that while in Washington, Netanyahu intends to press Obama to clarify the “red line” that, if crossed by Iran, would trigger the military response signified by the “all options” phrase. In the Goldberg interview, Obama appeared to draw that red line at Iran’s actually building a nuclear weapon. Not that he accepts all of Iran’s current nuclear activity and defiance of International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) demands, but Obama sees “crippling sanctions” as sufficient to give Iran’s leaders pause on that score. But building a nuclear weapon — which Iran, by the consensus of U.S. and Israeli intelligence, has not yet decided to do — appears, from Obama’s statements, to be the red line.
Israeli officials had suggested in the media in the weeks ahead of the visit that unless Netanyahu is satisfied that the Obama Administration is willing to take military action should Iran’s nuclear work breach a red line, Israel would be obliged to take matters into its own hands. The Goldberg interview suggests that Obama is willing to do that — but also that his red line is not necessarily the same one that the Israelis have drawn up to now.
Obama warns that “it is unacceptable for Iran to have a nuclear weapon,” but that’s not the same as the Israelis’ insistence that it is unacceptable for Iran to have the capability to build such a weapon. That’s a distinction with a profound difference, because Iran’s existing nuclear infrastructure arguably already gives it the capability to build a nuclear weapon, although the U.S. and Israel agree that it hasn’t taken a decision to do so. [Continue reading…]