In several appearances over two days in Israel this week, Barack Obama spoke at length about the Iranian nuclear crisis. Much to the chagrin of the Israeli right, Obama appears ready to continue on the current course of slow diplomacy, waiting out a possible deal or, less preferably, an Iranian move that would drive him to strike militarily. He was not above issuing the "credible threat" the Israeli leadership demanded of him. For the moment, at least, they were sated. But how long can it last?
The speech in Jerusalem yesterday was Obama sticking to his guns, so to speak. "I do believe that all of us have an interest in solving this peacefully," he told an auditorium full of Israeli university students, yielding momentarily to a tepid but rising applause. "A strong and principled diplomacy"—he paused a second time to soak up the emboldened clapping, and started again, only to be halted by louder cheering after declaring: "A strong and principled diplomacy is the best way to ensure that the Iranian government forsakes nuclear weapons." But the highest crescendos of applause at Obama's Iran remarks came when he said Iran was "not a danger that can be contained." This time, he spoke through the applause: "And as president, I've said all options are on the table for achieving our objectives. America will do what we must to prevent a nuclear-armed Iran." Then he stopped for more approbation, having before a foreign public just issued the threat of an American war, thinly veiled in its well worn euphemism, against a third nation.
"I think that in order to convince the Iranians and the Israelis that there's another way than an Israeli strike or an Iranian weapon, they have to say what they're saying," Dov Zakheim, a former American Department of Defense official, said of the U.S. position. In order to find this third way, he told me on the sidelines of an Israeli security conference last week, more pressure would be needed. "But other than that, you convince them that you're nutty enough to strike." He added that "circumstances can change"—the Iranians might walk down from the ledge, allowing the de facto containment policy already in effect to continue. I asked him if U.S. strikes could cause a significant delay in Iran's nuclear program. "Yes," he replied assuredly. Five years? "Mr. Obama only cares about three and a half," he said with a wry smile.
That will hardly be enough time for Benjamin Netanyahu, who, for his part, marks Iran perpetually at the top of his priority list. "We had an opportunity today to begin discussing the wide range of issues that are critical to both our countries," Netanyahu said at a press conference Wednesday with Obama. "And foremost among these is Iran’s relentless pursuit of nuclear weapons." He went on to agree with the timeline Obama gave earlier this week for an Iranian breakout, noting that the clock starts with an Iranian decision: "If Iran decides to go for a nuclear weapon—that is, to actually manufacture the weapon—then it probably—then it would take them about a year. I think that's correct." That doesn't, however, affect the gap that remains in the two nuclear armed powers' red lines for Iran: Obama speaks about Iran's actual construction of a weapon as a red line, whereas Netanyahu still places his at Iran attaining a certain level of stockpiled medium-enriched uranium, which is a short step away from weapons grade.
Netanyahu has been eager to take credit for Iran's hedging of its stockpiles. This week, the New York Times's David Sanger reported: "For Mr. Netanyahu, Iran’s recent decision to divert some of its medium-enriched uranium to make fuel rods for a research reactor, making it difficult to convert the uranium into nuclear fuel, represents a vindication of the red line he laid down at the United Nations: that Iran could not possess enough nuclear fuel to produce a single weapon." Sanger is too credulous of Netanyahu: the information about Iran's re-processing of nuclear fuel actually came out in an August report by the U.N.'s nuclear watchdog, a month before Netanyahu's address. (Not so "relentless," after all.) What has actually mattered are the American red lines. These haven't been stated in bright lights but, rather than focusing on a medium-enrichment, would utilize intelligence to watch Iran for signs that an order to produce a weapon has been handed down (it hasn't); that fissile material is being spun to weapons-grade (it hasn't); or that Iran is making significant progress toward a delivery vehicle (it hasn't). Obama would almost certainly rather wait out these potential steps for three and a half years than launch a military strike and hope the delay to Iran's nuclear progress holds that long before new strikes are needed.
And Obama's higher threshold for war meshes with the time he believes remains for a deal. Hints from Tehran suggest possible flexibly in dealing with world powers over its the disputed nuclear program. But these Iranian balloons pop just as frequently as they're launched. A recalcitrant negotiator—driven by the whims of the Supreme Leader and pressure from powerful hardliners—Iran is a fickle player in the three dimensional chess game it plays with the U.S. and Israel. For the moment, if it ever was a serious possibility, an Israeli strike has been averted. But Iran may yet frolic around in this gap between the U.S. and Israeli positions. Provocations could as easily come in Netanyahu's timeline—by this Spring or Summer—as Obama's. Would Netanyahu take action if his red line gets crossed? Doubtful: with his political position weakened in elections and a tenuous coalition to deal with, Bibi's unlikely to take those kinds of chances. That would leave a tense few months between Washington and Tel Aviv as the Americans listen and wait on Iran's next move. If they take the leap, well, Obama has indeed made clear what he'll do, no matter his passing mentions of "inevitable costs" and "unintended consequences" in Jerusalem on Thursday.