The Upcoming Obama-Netanyahu Meeting and Iran’s Nuclear Program

One issue will dominate President Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s upcoming meeting in Washington: Iran’s nuclear program and the possibility of an Israeli strike to stall it.

When it comes to Iran, Israel and the United States appear to be on two different timelines. Both fear that an Iranian nuclear program might make an already unstable Middle East more dangerous, by spurring a nuclear arms race in the region, encouraging Iranian belligerence and threatening oil prices. The United States, along with others, has pursued a mixture of diplomacy and increasingly harsh sanctions to dissuade the Iranian regime from pursuing its nuclear program. The Obama administration prefers to stay the course and use non-military means to deal with Iran, at least for the time being.

The Israeli leadership, however, is concerned that the Iranian nuclear program will soon enter what Defense Minister Ehud Barak calls a “zone of immunity,” when substantial portions of the Iranian program are transferred to locations secure from an Israeli air strike. At that point, an already complex aerial operation might become nearly impossible to accomplish. If Israel must strike eventually, Barak argues, it should do so as early as this spring or summer, when weather conditions are amenable to precision bombing operations of this kind.

Of course, unilateral action is not preferable for the Israeli leadership or its public. Israelis are acutely aware of the grave prospective repercussions of a strike and are deeply divided over the wisdom of unilateral action. They reasonably fear a missile campaign by Iran and its proxies in Lebanon and Gaza that could strike Israeli cities, or a prolonged terror campaign against Israeli and Jewish targets abroad.

Still, Israeli and international intelligence suggests that neither sanctions nor a variety of covert measures attributed to Israel have prevented the Iranian program from advancing and Israeli leaders appear to be seriously considering a unilateral strike.

Netanyahu thus comes to Washington hoping to receive guarantees that the United States will act decisively, and even forcefully, to stop the Iranian nuclear program. He hopes to get a clear statement of what would bring the United States, rather than Israel, to strike. At the very least, Netanyahu hopes to persuade President Obama to maintain the public credibility of the Israeli military option, a ramping up of U.S. sanctions even further, and to gain tacit U.S. acceptance for—if not approval of—a prospective Israeli operation.

Obama, on the other hand, hopes to be reassured by Netanyahu that an Israeli strike is not imminent and that, should one be ordered, the United States would be discretely warned in advance, something the Israelis have so far refused to guarantee. At the very least, the President wants Netanyahu to wait with a strike until 2013, when the president is less constrained by U.S. electoral considerations. Moreover, Obama hopes to achieve this without committing to use U.S. force if all else fails.

The high stakes involved suggest that most other issues will be sidelined, including the stalled Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, and that much of the detail on the Iranian issue may not be made public for some time. Publicly, the leaders will likely issue a joint statement reaffirming their commitment to preventing a nuclear armed Iran and leaving “all options on the table.” They will likely seek to project a degree of coordination between the two countries—while avoiding implicating the United States directly in any unilateral Israeli action.

Given mounting international pressure and discord within Israel over the wisdom of a strike, Netanyahu is likely to give Obama more time to pursue non-military options. Still, Netanyahu has long viewed a belligerent nuclear Iran as the main threat to Israeli security and, perhaps, as the defining issue of his legacy. Despite President Obama’s wishes, a Netanyahu-led Israel may yet decide to operate on its own.