Benjamin Netanyahu may finally have overplayed his hand. Amid a new round of verbal assaults the Israeli leader demanding the Obama Administration heed his instruction to set Iran red lines and deadlines that would trigger U.S. military action, the President put his foot down. Although the White House explained it as a scheduling conflict, the Israeli media were more forthright: Obama, they said, has declined to meet with Netanyahu later this month when the Israeli leader comes to New York for the UN General Assembly. Netanyahu would instead meet with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. But the implication was clear: Obama has called Netanyahu's bluff.
The Israeli leader on Tuesday fired a broadside at Obama, warning that "Those in the international community who refuse to put a red line before Iran don't have the moral right to place a red light before Israel." That followed Washington's rebuff of the Israeli leader's demand that the U.S. issue red lines and deadlines to Iran. But Netanyahu's threat to go to war alone if Washington doesn't do things his way is starting to ring a little hollow. All of Israel's key Western allies have delivered stern warnings against a unilateral military strike, which is also opposed by Israel's military and security chiefs as well as by a majority of Israel's public. The Israeli military lacks the capacity to do more than briefly delay Iran's progress, and US generals have warned that a strike would push the Iranians to actually build a bomb which they're not currently doing. Israeli leaders have warned that bombing would require follow up to prevent Iran reconstituting its program a task beyond Israel's capabilities, particularly amid the likely collapse of sanctions.
So Netanyahu may have lost his leverage, with Washington no longer taking seriously his threat to start a war. "We're not setting [Iran] deadlines," Clinton said last Monday. "We're watching very carefully about what they do, because it's always been more about their actions. We're convinced that we have more time to focus on these sanctions, to do everything we can to bring Iran to a good faith negotiation." That infuriated the Israeli leader, who claimed that "that diplomacy and sanctions have not worked."
Sanctions have certainly not stopped Iran continuing uranium enrichment in violation of U.N. Security Council resolutions, but nor is it racing for a bomb. The US and its allies believe that Iran hasn't decided to build a bomb, despite accumulating nuclear infrastructure that would give it the capability to do so. (Its goal may be, in fact, to acquire the means to build a bomb without actually doing so, as Japan has done.) Defense Secretary Leon Panetta affirmed, Tuesday, that if Iran decided to build a nuclear bomb, the U.S. would still have at least a year in which to take military action to stop that which is exactly where Obama has drawn his red line.
"If Iran knows that there is no red line, if Iran knows that there is no deadline, what will it do?" Netanyahu said Tuesday. "Exactly what it's doing. It's continuing, without any interference, towards obtaining nuclear weapons capability and there, nuclear bombs."
But Netanyahu's red line is not Obama's. The Israelis want to prevent Iran having the means to build a bomb — a capacity it arguably already has, but isn't using for that purpose.That's why Israel insists that the only acceptable diplomatic outcome is the shipping out of Iran's entire enrichment infrastructure and stockpile of fissile material. Prospects for such an outcome remains remote, even if Iran were willing to negotiate limits to its nuclear work.
The Obama Administration hasn't outlined its own view of an acceptable diplomatic outcome, avoiding the question of whether it shares the Israeli view that Iran can't be allowed to enrich uranium as part of a peaceful energy program. The diplomatic stalemate has meant it hasn't had to do so. So as things stand, Iran can conceivably continue doing what it's currently doing without tripping a U.S. red line, incrementally expanding its nuclear capability, but being careful to avoid steps that could be construed as moving to build weapons. It's the fact that Iran's current incremental expansion of its capabilities will bring ever-tighter sanctions but not a U.S. military strike, that Netanyahu has tried – apparently in vain – to reverse.
Rattling his saber all summer has left the Israeli leader increasingly isolated, both at home and abroad. Even his erstwhile wingman, Defense Minister Ehud Barak, has now reportedly backed off pushing for a strike. Israelis see their relationship with the U.S. as their most important strategic asset, and it's widely recognized now that Netanyahu's theatrics have damaged that asset. If Obama wins reelection in November, as currently seems likely, Netanyahu's political position at home will likely suffer.