President Obama plans to caution Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu next week against attacking Iran’s nuclear facilities in the coming months, urging patience while international economic sanctions take full effect.
Obama’s meeting with Netanyahu on Monday begins a critical week in his effort to contain Iran’s nuclear ambitions and preserve the trust of the United States’ closest Middle East ally. Israeli leaders have made clear they think time is running out to stop Iran from achieving the ability to build a nuclear weapon.
But U.S. officials are not convinced, and many within the administration fear that a preemptive Israeli attack could set off a regional war. This disagreement between the United States and Israel will color the meeting between two leaders often at odds over how best to navigate the changing Middle East.
The White House talks are likely to focus on the effectiveness of sanctions and the dangers of an Israeli attack, administration officials say. Obama will seek to avoid discussing the details of how one might unfold out of concern that Israel might interpret such planning as a veiled endorsement of military action.
“We’re trying to make the decision to attack as hard as possible for Israel,” said an administration official, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal deliberations.
For Obama, the political stakes are high. With his approval ratings improving on the strength of a better economy, he still faces the intertwined election-year threats of rising gas prices and the possibility of a military confrontation involving an oil-rich Iran. The issue preoccupies the White House but does not resonate as urgently among Israelis.
How Obama intends to convey his message of patience to Netanyahu, a security hawk who faces political pressures of his own, will entail a measure of public showmanship and private diplomacy.
Administration officials say Obama will attempt to reassure Israel of U.S. resolve while also urging patience and signaling to Iran that the two allies agree on the importance of stopping it from getting a nuclear weapon.
In an interview published Friday in the Atlantic magazine, Obama said that “the Israeli government recognizes that, as president of the United States, I don’t bluff.”
But he suggested that any Israeli strike on Iran before international oil and gas sanctions take effect this summer would undermine the tenuous unity the United States and its allies have built to oppose Iran’s nuclear ambitions. Privately, White House officials say the coalition would explode with the first Israeli airstrike.
“At a time when there is not a lot of sympathy for Iran and its only real ally [Syria] is on the ropes, do we want a distraction in which suddenly Iran can portray itself as the victim?” Obama said in the interview.
Israeli leaders are operating on a far shorter timeline for military action than the United States, which has the ability to fly multiple sorties over days or weeks and drop larger, more sophisticated bombs that would damage even the most well-protected of Iranian nuclear facilities.
Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak has warned that Iran is approaching what he calls “the zone of immunity,” a milestone after which an Israeli attack would prove far less effective in setting back the Iranian program.
Iranian leaders have said its uranium enrichment program is for civilian power purposes, but international inspectors have uncovered evidence to suggest a military intent. Israel has its own undeclared nuclear program, including a large arsenal of nuclear weapons. Obama has declined to call on Israeli leaders to declare the program, a source of frustration and fear in the Middle East.
Obama begins the week of diplomacy Sunday, when he addresses the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the Jewish state’s most conservative and politically influential U.S.-based advocacy group.
A Washington Post-ABC News poll in January showed that nearly half of Americans — 48 percent — disapproved of Obama’s handling of the Iranian nuclear issue. But the poll also found that very few respondents, including Republicans, favored a U.S. military operation against Iran over allowing time for diplomatic efforts such as the oil and banking sanctions to take effect.
U.S. and Israeli officials acknowledge privately that there is diplomatic value in Israel’s public threats of war.
Israel’s anxiety and declared readiness to strike Iran give the Obama administration leverage in persuading Japan, Russia and other countries to rally behind sanctions and tighten them as necessary — or risk a military confrontation with potentially devastating consequences for a fragile global economy.
“People really don’t want war,” said a second administration official. “They really don’t.”
Much of the friction between Obama and Netanyahu has emerged from the administration’s management of the Israeli-Palestinian peace issue. But officials from both countries say that on matters of military cooperation and intelligence sharing, the relationship is strong.
“When the chips are down and there’s a lot at stake, the Israeli prime minister still calls the president of the United States,” said Dennis Ross, a counselorat the Washington Institute for Near East Policy who served as Obama’s senior adviser on Israel and Iran before leaving the National Security Council staff at the end of last year.
Administration officials say that no formal agreement has been reached with Israel over how a strike would be conducted — or when Obama would be informed about it.
Some officials said the assumption inside the White House and the Pentagon is that Israel would not give the United States warning, allowing the administration to deny prior knowledge but also limiting its ability to defend U.S. military assets in the region.
It is unclear whether the subject of an early warning will come up during Obama’s meeting with Netanyahu. While administration officials worry about inadvertently giving Israel a tacit green light by talking about the logistics of a possible attack, Israel might also seek to avoid discussing specifics out of fear that detailed revelations could trigger negotiations that might limit options later, analysts said.
“They’ve always wanted to preserve their own freedom of action,” Ross said.
Instead, Ross and others outside the administration think Obama and Netanyahu will seek an understanding on the zone of immunity concept — that is, when Israel believes it must attack to effectively damage the Iranian program.
Israeli officials have told their U.S. counterparts that it is impossible to know the full scope of the Iranian intent and the reaches of its program.
But Obama told the Atlantic that Iran is not yet in a position to build a nuclear weapon and would require “a pretty long lead time” to do so, if it chose to. That means there is time, he said, for non-military solutions that might prompt Iran to relinquish its nuclear ambitions for good.
“Our argument is going to be that it is important for us to see if we can solve this thing permanently, as opposed to temporarily,” Obama said.
Polling analyst Scott Clement contributed to this report.