Netanyahu and Obama
Netanyahu with US Defense Secretary Panetta
Monday's meeting between US President Barack Obama and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was prepared well. However, it was easy to notice, in the photo opportunity at the start of the meeting, that Obama is very tense, as is the guest from Israel. Some attributed it to the lack of affinity, and maybe even chronic hostility, between the two figures. However, it appears that this time the tension was related to substantive issues and stems from the great gaps regarding strategy and tactics on the Iranian nuke issue.
It was quite clear that Netanyahu has decided, on Defense Minister Ehud Barak's advice and with his assistance, to do everything in his power in order to reach understandings and agreements with Obama on concrete and practical steps and timetables. Netanyahu, as a former commando and Barak's subordinate, knows that success and failure hinge on the details. Hence, he aspired to reach detailed coordination with the US president and his associates on the strategic aims, midway objectives, and the way Israel and the US would act in case the steps adopted on the Iranian issue fail to elicit the desired results.
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Netanyahu knows that Obama needs him on a presidential election year and apparently attempted to leverage this fact to the maximum.
The US agrees with Israel that the sanctions gravely harm Iran but are not achieving their objective. Given the sanctions' gravity and pace, by the time they elicit results Iran would already possess the ability to produce a first nuclear device if not more, Israeli officials claim. Hence, Israel wants the sanctions to be tightened immediately and implemented quickly, much before July of this year.
However, the Americans are saying: "Wait a little. Note that the Iranians have already told the Europeans they are willing to sit at the negotiating table in order to come up with a solution to the problem." Netanyahu's position is different, especially in terms of the pre-conditions he suggested for entering talks with the Iranians. He demands that world powers present three demands to Iran right away:
One demand is immediate suspension of uranium enrichment in Iran's territory. The second demand is the transfer of some 5,600 kilograms (roughly 12,500 pounds) of low-grade enriched uranium out of Iran's territory. The third demand is a halt to the installation of centrifuges and the dismantlement of existing ones at the Fordo facility, located deep underground near Qom. Running this site in full capacity of 3,000 centrifuges is considered by Israel as a situation where it would be unable to effectively hinder Iran's nuclear program via an aerial strike.
Until now, the Americans claimed that this triple demand is impractical, and that the Iranians must not be pressed by being presented with the desired ultimate result of the talks as a precondition for starting negotiations. Obama believes the talks should be held while showing maximal consideration and goodwill in the aims of producing a positive atmosphere. This is apparently one of the first points of disagreement raised Monday in the talk between the two leaders at the Oval Office.
What' the red line?
Another issue raised in the meeting was the American reaction in case talks with the Iranians fail. In such case, the Americans would impose another set of paralyzing sanctions they would try to pass at the Security Council. Israel demands a full embargo on oil and oil products to Iran and from Iran, paralysis of trade and money transfers vis-à-vis Iranian banks, and heavy penalties on those who violate these boycotts.
The most difficult issue to resolve is what the media refers to as America's "red line." That is, the point where Israel and the US would agree that Iran's progress requires an Israeli or American military strike of any kind or a combination of the two. President Obama told AIPAC that the US won't tolerate a situation where Iran possesses nuclear weapons. However, Israel says defining the red line this way would in fact enable the Iranians to become a nuclear power. While Tehran won't possess a nuclear warhead or atomic bomb, it would be able to produce a nuclear device at any given moment.
Under such state of affairs, Iran's leadership would merely have to make a decision and then produce within six months at most a nuclear weapon. As opposed to uranium enrichment, the development of the actual weapon can be hidden relatively easily, and hence the Americans would not even know about it, just like they didn't know when Pakistan, India and North Korea turned into military powers in practice.
Hence, Israel demands that the American "red line" would be defined as "nuclear capability," that is, Iran's shift to producing 90% enriched uranium, or a large quantity of 20% enriched uranium. Netanyahu also made it clear to Obama that Israel's red line is a situation whereby the new, underground enrichment facility at Fordo will approach full capacity.
A no less complex issue is what would happen should Israel realize its sovereign right – recognized by Obama – to defend its citizens, by launching a strike in Iran. Hence, we can assume that on this front Netanyahu asked Obama and Defense Secretary Panetta several blunt questions, such as: Will the Israeli Air Force be allowed to use US electronic codes, which identify friendly jets in an airspace where the US exercises control or maintains a presence? Will the US take part in search and rescue operations for Israeli pilots forced to bail out?
In this context, Israel may also have some requests: For example, that the US sell or loan aircraft used for refueling jets in the air, or offer financial assistance that would allow Israel to accelerate the deployment of more Iron Dome anti-rocket defense systems or new armaments.
The US has much to give Israel in the framework of strategic coordination and understandings. Netanyahu also did not arrive at the meeting with empty hands. The Iranian issue is significant and vital to world peace, to regional stability and to Israel's ability to maintain normal life more or less. What remains now is to see what was achieved in the summit in practice. If the meeting failed, we shall know about it quite soon. Yet should it produce results acceptable to both sides, we'll only know once things start taking shape on the ground.