Bluffwatch

09.08.12

Red Lines And Deadlines

If Israeli leaders' bluster about Iran is, as it looks to many, a bluff aimed at pressuring the U.S., the next natural question is: What does Bibi Netanyahu want from Obama? At least one answer seems abundantly clear: "red lines." Another ask—and an altogether more daunting one—may have slipped out in an interview with Israeli Finance Minister Yuval Steinitz, a Netanyahu ally.

In an Israeli television interview, Steinitz said Netanyahu's position was that the international community "should set an ultimatum with a timeline" for Iran. The deadline he calls for presumably refers to demands that Iran comply with a handful of U.N. resolutions calling for suspension of its nuclear enrichment and accounting of alleged past weapons work, or else...

The threat of a deadline is new.

"Until today I have not heard of anyone in the Israeli government, especially someone as close to Netanyahu as Steinitz to call for the western world to give clear deadlines with dates to Iran," wrote Iranian-Israeli analyst Meir Javedanfar on his blog. "Steinitz was so adamant that he was almost shouting this point across during his interview with Israel’s Channel 2."

Javedanfar's probably right that it won't happen. It's nonetheless a bit of extra pressure on the U.S., perhaps a result of Netanyahu's weakening position. Even heretofore hawkish Defense Minister Ehud Barak might be wavering on whether a strike is a good idea or not, and some of Netanyahu's security cabinet were reportedly nonplussed by a recent U.N. report on Iran's program. (The leaks caused Netanyahu to abruptly cancel a subsequent meeting with the group.)

The IAEA report still, wrote Judi Rudoren and David Sanger in the New York Times, "puts Israel in a box" by "forc(ing) Israel to strike Iran or concede it is not prepared to act on its own." By coming out and making public asks of the U.S., Israel seems to have chosen the latter.

Steinitz's comments came almost a week after Netanyahu's most recent public demand—to his cabinet, but in English—for a "clear red line" on Iran's program. That request was aimed at the international community, but the real recipient was the U.S., as evinced by a Times story about Obama considering saying what, exactly, would spur a U.S. attack to placate Israel.

The incessant demands for a red line seem redundant. Obama and officials from his administration have said time and again that Iran making moves toward actual actually producing nuclear weapons would be "unacceptable." But actually, Netanyahu and his stateside allies have long sought to make the red line an Iranian nuclear weapons "capability"—a term without a consistent definition, but generally meaning the ability, but not actual moves, to kick up nuclear enrichment rates and use the fissile material to construct a viable weapon.

A deadline is a different matter. Imposing one would shatter the delicate status quo, what Blake Hounshell called a "tacit agreement" that "Iran does not cross any red lines, and we do not bomb." So, who's putting whom in a box?