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Obama, Bibi, And A Nuclear Iran

Red Lines, Deadlines, And Headlines

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Obama, Bibi, And A Nuclear Iran

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu uses a bomb graphic to demonstrate his call for "red lines" against Iran's nuclear weapons program.

Photo by J. Carrier/United Nations
Updated September 28, 2012

To say that U.S. president Barack Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin "Bibi" Netanhayu disagree over handling a potential Iranian nuclear threat would be an understatement. At the 2012 United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) in New York City, Obama commented on Iran while Netanyahu made it the focal point of his speech.

Their responses are a mix of leadership style and politics.

What Does Bibi Want?

That's simple. He wants intervention in Iran's nuclear program. If the U.S. and the West won't do it, and soon, Netanyahu has hinted that Israel might do it alone.

The notion of a unilateral Israeli attack on Iran is, well, a notion. Going rogue in when geographically surrounded by Islamic states would do Israel no good, and it would force the U.S. to fight a battle not of its choosing. Better to let any intervention come directly from the U.S. alone or with NATO.

Netanyahu understands that. His argument is that the time for an effective attack is running out. He said that Iran is still suspected of enriching uranium for a potential weapon, a process which requires large centrifuge facilities. "Those Iranian plants are visible and they're still vulnerable," said Netanyahu.

But he noted that intelligence indicates Iran is building an underground, hardened site for completion of the work. He wants intervention before that occurs.

Netanyahu has repeatedly called for the U.S. and the West to set "red lines" -- that is, set milestones beyond which Iran cannot pass without triggering intervention. He maintains that time is running out, and he used a Boris Badenov-style bomb graphic on which he drew a red line near the top to illustrate his point.

What Does Obama Want?

That's also simple: Obama wants time. The president has demonstrated numerous times that he likes to work methodically. In foreign policy, he also wants to exhaust all avenues of diplomacy before moving on to warfare. When his Republican presidential opponent Mitt Romney challenged his foreign policy style, Obama remarked that Romney would rather "shoot first and aim later." He's also ever aware of the need to distance himself from his predecessor.

Obama told the UNGA two days before Netanyahu spoke that "America wants to resolve this issue through diplomacy, and we believe that there is still time and space to do so. But that time is not unlimited."

Obama added that, while the world is not opposed to Iran having peaceful nuclear energy, the country has not demonstrated that is its intent. "Make no mistake, a nuclear-armed Iran is not a challenge that can be contained," said Obama. "It would threaten the elimination of Israel, the security of Gulf nations, and the stability of the global economy. It risks triggering a nuclear-arms race in the region, and the unraveling of the non-proliferation treaty. That's why a coalition of countries is holding the Iranian government accountable. And that's why the United States will do what we must to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon."

But . . . What if?

Obama did not set any "red lines" in his speech, and even though he spoke two days after Obama, Netanyahu did not rail against the president as many expected. "I very much appreciate the President's position as does everyone in my country," said Netanyahu. "We share the goal of stopping Iran's nuclear weapons program."

Still, he said the U.S. has successfully used red lines in the past, such as in the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962. He also suggested that had someone set red lines for Germany in the 1930s, World War Two might have been avoided. (Actually, any territories Hitler took after the Munich Conference were red lines; he just ignored them.)

"Red lines don't lead to war; red lines prevent war," Netanyahu said, adding later that "faced with a clear red line, Iran will back down."

But a worrisome question underlies the notion of red lines. What if, like Hitler in 1939, Iran simply ignores any red line the U.S., Israel, and the West may set? If the U.S. doesn't follow up any Iranian nose-thumbing with a strike, it loses credibility. Thus, it had better be ready to strike well before it sets a red line.

Of course, the U.S. military can pull off a strike within hours of an order, and Iran knows that. But Obama keeps his options open. It's also close to election day and he doesn't need a military mishap -- always a possibility -- on his hands. Plus, reports that Netanyahu's cabinet is not unanimous behind Bibi's urgent plea for a red line mean this isn't just an Obama vs. Bibi policy standoff.

With many intangibles remaining, odds are Obama gets what he wants -- time.

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