After signals that the United States and Israel were not united on their approach to Iran, President Barack Obama sought to put such concerns to rest this week by declaring unequivocally that all options are indeed on the table. He said containing a nuclear-armed Iran was not an option and even went so far as to mention “a military effort” as a means to stopping Iran from getting nuclear weapons.
In fact, he came close to matching Israel’s intensity, if not their urgency, in his comments on Iran. There remains one area where the two allies don’t appear to be lining up: timing.
An article on Obama’s meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu from Ynet reported that Israeli sources were disappointed with the US handling of timing with regard to Iran.
“We have different perspectives when it comes to the question of time and red lines,” a senior Israeli official said, with one official noting that the US feels a decision by Iran to build a nuclear weapon is a red line. Such a stance is vague and difficult to determine, to say the least.
That’s not to say either side is ready to attack Iran now. The Ynet report quoted an Israeli official as saying that at that point they had not decided to strike. Similarly, Obama pointed out that both the US and Israel agree Iran is not building a nuclear weapon yet.
It certainly appears that Israel, like the US, feels there is more time left for sanctions and diplomacy to win out and to avoid a costly and tragic military campaign. But the question is how much remains.
The Israeli perspective appears to be a diminishing window. Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak has been cited in The Jerusalem Post and elsewhere talking about an “immunity zone,” at which point Iran’s nuclear program will become too well defended for an attack.
A similar article in the German Der Spiegel said Barak feels that “immunity zone” could be achieved by Iran within the next nine months. In other words, time is of the essence from Israel’s perspective.
The US too has said a nuclear-armed Iran is unacceptable and won’t be allowed, but Obama has used language implying he thinks military action would be dangerously premature for at least the next couple of months.
In his speech to AIPAC, Obama proudly lauded the European oil sanctions as proof the world is pressuring Tehran, sanctions he pointed out come into effect this July. Similarly, in his press conference on Tuesday, Obama said that making a decision to attack Iran doesn’t need to be made in the next couple of months. “This notion that somehow we have a choice to make in the next week or two weeks, or month or two months, is not borne out by the facts,” said Obama.
How much time is really left? That’s unclear. Dr. Ephraim Asculai, a senior research fellow at The Institute for National Security Studies (INSS) in Israel, was inclined to feel the more cautious American view is more accurate.
“Some people—like the Israelis, I would say—look at the worst possible case. I would say that the opinions uttered by the American officials are more like the more reasonable state of affairs,” Asculai told a conference call sponsored by The Israel Project last week.
However, he noted that the viewpoints are not as far apart as they once were. “At the moment, I think that they are converging more rapidly than we thought in the past.”
While the American caution is understandable, Israel’s concerns that action could come too late are also sensible—after all, Iran is a mortal enemy and has openly spoken of Israel’s destruction.
Timing, then, is indeed everything. Will the Israelis act too soon? Will the US act too late? Leaders from both countries will need to coordinate closely and the US in particular needs to be more open to Israeli intelligence than they have been in the past.
Timing has played another role recently as well. This week, with all this discussion at the forefront, has come the same week as the Biblical holiday of Purim, which commemorates the events of the Book of Esther.
Reports noted that Netanyahu even gave Obama a copy of the Book of Esther, which coincidentally describes a courageous Jew going to the most powerful man in the world seeking his permission to save the Jewish people from destruction. And the context for the account of Esther? Ancient Persia—which is modern-day Iran.
One can only wonder if Netanyahu quoted from the Book of Esther in requesting Obama’s support for Israel in the face of a modern plot of annihilation: “Who knows whether you have not come to the kingdom for such a time as this?”
(By Joshua Spurlock, www.themideastupdate.com, March 8, 2012)