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Red lines

For Iran watchers, the week or so leading up to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's visit to Washington has been a busy one.

First, on Friday, the latest International Atomic Energy Agency safeguards report came out on Iran's nuclear program, conveniently giving fodder for all sides of the bomb-Iran debate. The IAEA report, as an analysis by the Institute for Science and International Security describes, shows that Iran is expanding its uranium enrichment program, including in its deeply buried Fordow plant, but having trouble with next-generation  centrifuge technology that could make its breakout to a nuclear weapon much faster. (See also the New York Times, which concludes, "The report is likely to inflame the debate over whether Iran is nearing what Israel’s defense minister, Ehud Barak, calls entering a 'zone of immunity.'")

Also on Friday, the Times reported that U.S. intelligence agencies have not changed their view that "there is no hard evidence that Iran has decided to build a nuclear bomb." The Los Angeles Times ran a similar story a day earlier. (In his Friday sermon, Iran's supreme leader seemed to confirm this assessment, calling nuclear weapons a "sin.")

Then, on Monday, both the Wall Street Journal and the Associated Press reported on the tense negotiations between Israel and the United States over what to do about all this. The Israelis are apparently "fuming" that Gen. Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, publicly warned against an Israeli strike on Iran's facilities. Last week's visit to Israel by National Security Advisor Tom Donilon reportedly did not go well precisely for this reason. ("We made it clear to Donilon that all those statements and briefings only served the Iranians," one Israeli official told Haaretz, a comment sure to infuriate the White House.)

The Israelis do not plan to tell their American counterparts if they do decide to attack Iran, the AP's Kimberly Dozier reported, a move a U.S. intelligence official interpreted for her as Israel wanting to give the United States plausible deniability in the event of a strike. But another way to look at it is as one more sign that Israel and the United States simply do not trust one another.

The key issue under discussion is what the appropriate "red lines" are -- Iranian actions that would trigger a military response by Israel or the United States. For Israel, the bar is lower, but nebulous: Defense Minister Ehud Barak talks about Iran soon entering a "zone of immunity" that will make an attack impossible. For the United States, the big no-no is weaponization. The Israelis believe that waiting until Iran decides to build a weapon is too late, but it's not clear they have the capability to take out Iran's nuclear sites (read: Ferdow) on their own.

The Journal suggests that Obama is coming Netanyahu's way on this, but a story in today's Los Angeles Times says the opposite. Clearly there's a policy fight going on behind the scenes, and the president's recent claims that he and Bibi are on the same page can't be taken seriously. Haaretz reports tonight that "Netanyahu wants Obama to state unequivocally that the United States is preparing for a military operation in the event that Iran crosses certain 'red lines,'" and that the distrust between the two men only seems to be deepening. Each leader feels the other is meddling in his country's domestic politics -- Obama by seeking to turn Israeli public opinion against a strike (example), and Netanyahu by working with Republicans to attack the president as soft on Iran.

The million-dollar question is whether all this drama is really about establishing a credible threat to get the Iranians to capitulate (while terrifying European and Asian countries into boycotting Iranian oil), or whether Israel is indeed serious about attacking if the sanctions don't work, and is earnestly seeking U.S. buy-in.

I have some sympathy for the view that, by publicly warning against strikes, the Obama administration is undercutting Israel's deterrent. Bluster aside, Iran has shown a tendency to back down when frightened, as in 2003 when it is thought to have shuttered its nuclear weapons program, and more recently when it toned down its tough talk about blocking the Strait of Hormuz.

But threats have consequences, too. U.S. officials haven't clearly articulated why they believe all this war talk is unhelpful, but I suspect two reasons. One is the rising cost of gasoline, perhaps the issue that terrifies the political side of the White House most heading into November. Tensions over Iran are already adding about $10 per barrel to the price of oil, some analysts say, threatening to choke off America's nascent economic recovery and make Obama a one-term president.

But the more serious issue is that if you make such a threat, you actually may need to carry it out someday. Is that something Barack Obama, a man who has staked his presidency on winding down the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and wants above all to do "nation-building at home," is prepared to do? He's already committed to preventing Iran from getting the bomb, taking containment off the table. He's shown little inclination for taking the big political risk of putting some sort of "grand bargain" on the table. But if sanctions don't bring Iran around -- and there's no sign yet that they will -- and sabotage and asking nicely don't do the job, what then?

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