President Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu were all smiles in the color coordinated press conference yesterday. Both know that the media are suckers for superficiality and were careful to refer to the other by his first name and exchange lots of pleasantries. As compared to open bickering, this is greatly preferable and conveys a sense of solidarity.
However, for those attuned to the content of what they were saying it is apparent they aren’t exactly in sync. There was this explanation from Netanyahu regarding the president’s statement that Iran is a year or more away from making a nuclear weapon:
I think that there is a misunderstanding about time. If Iran decides to go for a nuclear weapon, that is to actually manufacture the weapon, then probably, then it will take them about a year. I think that’s correct. They could defer that a long time, but still get through the enrichment process.
That is to make a weapon you need two things, you need enriched uranium, a critical amount, and then you need a weapon. You can’t have the weapon without the enriched uranium. But you can you have the enriched uranium without the weapon. Iran right now is enriching uranium, it will, it is pursuing it. I hasn’t yet reached the red line that I have described in my speech at the UN. They are getting closer.
And the question of manufacturing a weapon is a different one. The President said correctly that we have, on these issues that are a little arcane and they sound a little detailed to you, but on these matters we share information and we have a common assessment. We have a common assessment.
In any case, Iran gets to an immunity zone when they get through the enrichment process, in our view, in our view. And whatever time is left, there is not a lot of time. And every day that passes diminishes it. But we do have a common assessment on the schedules, on intelligence, we share that intelligence and we don’t have any argument about it.
This is significant, as several national security experts pointed out to me. The hard part in making a nuclear weapon is in manufacturing sufficient enriched material; the weaponization part can be done in a relative short time frame and is hard to detect. So what Netanyahu is saying is that Israel doesn’t have oodles and oodles of time to decapitate the enrichment process (“whatever time is left, there is not a lot of time. And every day that passes diminishes it”).
As the Obama administration has been going through the motions on negotiations and sanctions, Iran has been vastly increasing its enrichment program and setting up an infrastructure for more than enough material to make multiple bombs.
Will Israel be forced to act sooner than Obama is willing to (which, granted, may be never)? Very possible. The toughest target, of course, is Fordow, built into a mountain. It is widely believed the United States has superior capabilities and could destroy that facility. Might Israel have to nevertheless go forward with lesser capacity? That in essence is what Netanyahu’s remarks suggest: The gap between Israel’s red line and U.S. willingness to act may compel Israeli action.
Although Obama assured his counterpart that he’d get right on the investigation of Syria’s potential use of chemical weapons, Syria is looming larger than ever before in the Iran equation. An old Middle East hand says, “I still think Syria matters a lot, psychologically. If we are willing to see all that is happening there without lifting a finger, how can they trust us on Iran?” Indeed the more Obama says “he’ll get right on it” and in fact does nothing as the military, humanitarian and political situation deteriorates, the more Netanyahu must worry that foot-dragging is the president’s modus operandi.
The Sunni Arab states, which have as much to lose from a nuclear-armed Iran as Israel does, understand the importance of Syria, which is why they have been attempting to aid the rebels. Bashar al-Assad’s continued presence on the scene is a painful reminder that Iran’s influence is outpacing the U.S. willingness to act. Netanyahu sees that. The Arab states see it. And Iran sees it.