A Goal for Obama in Israel: Finding Some Overlap on Iran

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WASHINGTON -- If President Obama's most obvious goal on his trip to Israel this week is to forge a connection with the Israeli people, his challenge behind closed doors is to persuade Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that he can rely on the United States to take care of Iran.

This time, some analysts said, he may have better odds of success than he has had in the past.

Public disagreements between Mr. Obama and Mr. Netanyahu over how to deal with Iran have waned in recent months. This comes from a combination of the president's repeated warnings to Tehran; Iran's strategy of not crossing Israel's red lines while continuing to build its nuclear program; and changes in Israel's political landscape, which have weakened Mr. Netanyahu and made a unilateral military strike less likely.

"What Netanyahu wants to be persuaded of is that the chances Obama will take care of the problem, combined with his assessment of the decay of the Iranian economy, justifies Israel standing down this year," said Cliff Kupchan, an Iran expert at the Eurasia Group, a political risk consulting firm, who just returned from a visit to Israel.

What Mr. Obama can offer, he predicted, "will be enough for a weakened Israeli prime minister."

To be sure, Mr. Obama and Mr. Netanyahu still view the timeline for the Iranian nuclear threat very differently. In an interview last week with an Israeli television station, Mr. Obama said it would take Iran "over a year or so" to develop a nuclear weapon. Mr. Netanyahu, in a speech before the United Nations last fall, said Iran could cross a critical threshold in its capacity to build a weapon by this spring or summer.

Mr. Obama's statement to Israeli television was not part of an orchestrated strategy, according to a senior administration official. But it represented a rare instance of the president declaring a time frame, based on American intelligence, for when Iran could go nuclear.

On Wednesday, the two leaders will have a chance to hash out these differences in a lengthy meeting, as well as over dinner that night.

"This will be a very important conversation," said Dennis B. Ross, who oversaw Iran and Middle East policy in the Obama administration until 2011. "For the Israelis, the big issue is, 'do we discuss the point at which prevention with Iran may no longer work?' "

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.

But analysts said it also underscores for Mr. Netanyahu how swiftly Iran could generate more medium-enriched uranium, particularly given a new generation of centrifuges that the Iranian government is installing in its Natanz nuclear facility.

Mr. Obama is expected to emphasize the pressure that sanctions have imposed on the Iranian economy, as well as the progress in negotiations between the major powers and Iran. Mr. Netanyahu, analysts said, is impressed by the coalition assembled by the United States, but believes that Washington should be demanding more of Iran.

Instead, in the wake of the most recent round of talks in Kazakhstan, some Israelis are concerned that the West might be preparing to cut a deal with Iran that would allow it to keep a stockpile of less-enriched uranium, which it could later purify to nuclear-grade.

"They clearly agree on the objective," said David Makovsky, a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. "The question is, what is the best policy to ensure that objective? There are still fundamental divides that have not been bridged."

The two leaders, however, are highly unlikely to air their differences. Mr. Netanyahu, having just cobbled together a new government, wants a successful visit to bolster his political standing. Mr. Obama, seeking to build his credibility with the Israeli public, does not want a dispute over Iran to detract from his first trip to Israel as president.

Some analysts believe that Mr. Obama now holds the upper hand, in part because doubts about the wisdom of a unilateral strike have grown in Israel since last year, when it was widely discussed.

Iran has made enough progress reinforcing its Fordo nuclear facility that it is no longer clear whether Israeli warplanes could destroy it.

"There has been a dramatic change in the policy views of most Israeli elites since last fall," Mr. Kupchan said. "There is a fresh sense that there's not as much they can do militarily."

The politics in Israel, moreover, have changed. Ehud Barak, the defense minister who was a leading hawk on Iran, has left Mr. Netanyahu's cabinet. The prime minister's new cabinet, though not necessarily composed of doves, will need to be briefed before the ministers are likely to vote in favor of unilateral action, analysts said.

"For Netanyahu, extending for several more rounds this hysterical walking-up-to-the-edge-of-war was going to be difficult," said Daniel Levy, director of the Middle East and North Africa program at the European Council on Foreign Relations in London. "This government is totally untested on Iran."

Mr. Netanyahu, he said, will probably give Mr. Obama several months to seek a diplomatic solution, secure in the knowledge that the president has ruled out a containment policy and that the American Congress will be unlikely to allow him to relax the sanctions.

For his part, Mr. Obama is signaling his determination to keep up the pressure on Iran. In a New Year's message to the Iranian people, the president said the Iranian government had failed to persuade the world that its nuclear program was peaceful.

"That's why the world is united in its resolve to address this issue and why Iran is now so isolated," Mr. Obama said in the video message. "The people of Iran have paid a high and unnecessary price because of your leaders' unwillingness to address this issue."

Mr. Obama's language, a senior administration official said, was meant to signify "our heightened concerns about their program, and the fact we are in a window of intensive diplomacy."

While Mr. Obama's statement to the Israeli television station underscored his longer timeline relative to Mr. Netanyahu, analysts noted that he followed it up immediately with, "Obviously, we don't want to cut it too close." To some, that was evidence that Mr. Obama will not wait until Iran is within one or two turns of the screwdriver from a bomb.

world

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.


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