It’s frankly impossible for outside observers to tell what the public back-and-forth between the United States and Israel on Iran is all about. The Post reports: “Israeli leaders on Thursday delivered one of the bluntest warnings to date of possible airstrikes against Iranian nuclear sites, adding to the anxiety in Western capitals that a surprise attack by Israel could spark a broader military conflict in the Middle East.” It appears to mean there is “a deepening rift between Israeli and U.S. officials over the urgency of stopping Iran’s nuclear program, which Western intelligence officials and nuclear experts say could soon put nuclear weapons within the reach of Iran’s rulers.”

As one Middle East expert put it to me, “The Israelis are trying to influence the U.S., EU, and Iran, and the U.S. is trying to push Iran into negotiations to prevent an Israeli strike. But the rhetoric from Israel gets tougher and tougher.”

Meanwhile there are two recent developments to keep in mind. First, the Wall Street Journal reports:

U.S. officials say they believe Iran recently gave new freedoms to as many as five top Al Qaeda operatives who have been under house arrest, including the option to leave the country, and may have provided some material aid to the terrorist group. . . .

U.S. officials believe there have been recent indications that officials in the Iranian government have provided Al Qaeda operatives in Iran limited assistance, including logistical help, money and cars, according to a person briefed on the developments.

In short, the notion that we could tolerate an Iranian nuclear weapons program and “contain” the regime’s conduct is undermined daily by reminders that allowing Iran to get the bomb effectively opens the door to every imaginable terrorist operation by its proxies (e.g., dirty bombs in U.S. cities). While the administration would have us believe that Israel is too alarmist, the United States and Europe should share the same sense of urgency. The West in general, not simply Israel, is at risk from an Iranian nuclear weapons program.

Second, our own actions in Iraq and Afghanistan give both Israel and Iran the impression that we are unserious about our own security. The Iranians were delighted to see us bug out of Iraq, opening the way to bolder intrusion into Iraq’s affairs. Then, as The Post editorial board observes, we’ve thoroughly confused our allies and enticed our foes by a “muddled” and premature drawdown plan in Afghanistan: “A rapid U.S. drawdown in Afghanistan will most likely lead to a renewed civil war in which the Taliban could again gain the upper hand. That would endanger U.S. interests throughout the region — starting with a nuclear-armed Pakistan — and mean an unforgivable breach of faith with the Afghan women and men the United States promised to enfranchise and defend.”

If you were the Israeli prime minister seeing all that, would you rely on the American cost-benefit analysis in determining when to strike Iran? If you were in the shoes of Iranian leaders, would you see the administration’s desperation to negotiate with the Taliban and conclude that it’s possible to dangle the prospect of talks in front of the Americans’ noses while moving forward with one’s strategic objectives (i.e., become a nuclear power)?

I’d like to think that the current rhetoric is a carefully choreographed dance between the United States and Israel to force Iran to capitulate. But somehow I doubt it. For if capitulation (rather than a return to endless, fruitless negotiations) is the endgame, why is the administration dawdling on sanctions, forgoing full support for the Green Movement, dragging its feet on oil sanctions and repeatedly downplaying the utility of military action?

It is far more likely that the public sparring match reflects what we have seen all along, namely a split between the Israeli government and a U.S. administration driven by domestic politics (no wars right now, please!), wary of military action and disinclined to do anything that might disrupt its dreams of “negotiated settlement” with a regime that shows no inclination to abide by agreements, respect fundamental human rights or deny itself the status of nuclear superpower.