What Needs to Come Out of the Obama-Netanyahu Meeting

Sometime last year, Benjamin Netanyahu asked a high-ranking person at the White House if Barack Obama had decided whether he would use force to stop Iran's nuclear weapons program.  The person responded by asking, "Have you?"

The response reflected the White House official's view that a leader does not decide to use force until absolutely required, and decides based on the circumstances at that time -- so that Netanyahu's question was premature.  But perhaps Netanyahu was asking a different question: "I have an existential decision to make, and my decision may depend on whether Obama will commit not only to keeping all options on the table, but also to using the ultimate one if necessary -- can you assure me he will?"

If that was what Netanyahu was asking, the response cannot have been satisfactory, since Netanyahu does not have the luxury of putting off his decision indefinitely, or waiting to find out whether Obama's public words turn out to be merely rhetoric.  In order to answer the question that was asked of him, Netanyahu needed Obama to answer first.

In his State of the Union address last month, Obama used words that -- according to a highly reliable source -- were crafted in the Oval Office with his advisers.  He said America is "determined to prevent" Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons -- an assertion stronger than declaring Iranian nuclear weapons "unacceptable."  North Korea's nuclear weapons were "unacceptable" -- and they are presumably still "unacceptable" now that North Korea has them.  The words "determined to prevent" were intended to imply action -- not just a declaration of unacceptability.

But even stronger presidential language was used in the case of North Korea, whose nuclear weapons were not going to be "tolerated," but ended up being tolerated nonetheless.  The utility of public rhetoric is limited when the same rhetoric turned out to be just rhetoric in the past.  So Netanyahu will undoubtedly be asking his question again when he meets with Obama on March 5, and he may need not only a commitment, but assurance that the commitment will be formally communicated to Iran.

But there is another question -- one as important as whether the U.S. is committed to using force if necessary.  The question is, when will such force be used?  What is the U.S. red line?

The key part of Obama's statement in his SOTU address was not the words "determined to prevent," but the words that followed in the same sentence.  Those words reflected a strategic position that was not reassuring, particularly in light of the experience with North Korea.  The full sentence in the SOTU was this:

Let there be no doubt: America is determined to prevent Iran from getting a nuclear weapon, and I will take no options off the table to achieve that goal.  [Emphasis added.]

The reference to "getting a nuclear weapon" is different from preventing Iran from achieving nuclear weapons capability.  A nation can become nuclear weapons-capable before actually "getting" a nuclear weapon.  Once the technical hurdle of capability is overcome, producing a nuclear weapon requires only a later political decision -- one that can be made at any time, may not be immediately detectable, and may not effectively be deterred once made.

Look at what happened in North Korea: James Clapper, the director of National Intelligence, told the Senate a year ago that "we do not know whether [North Korea] has produced nuclear weapons, but we assess it has the capability to do so."  Last month, however, Clapper told the Senate flatly, "North Korea has produced nuclear weapons."  In the space of a year, U.S. intelligence went from "not knowing" whether North Korea had produced nuclear weapons to knowing that it had.  Intelligence may not be clear until after the fact, when it is too late.

The problem with Obama's formulation of what he is "determined to prevent" goes back to his first White House meeting with Netanyahu on May 18, 2009.  Obama was asked in the joint press conference after that meeting whether he had a deadline for his engagement with Iran, and he responded:

You know, I don't want to set an artificial deadline. ... [But] we're not going to have talks forever. We're not going to create a situation in which talks become an excuse for inaction while Iran proceeds with developing a nuclear -- and deploying a nuclear weapon.  [Emphasis added.]

Obama seemed to stop himself from saying "developing" a nuclear weapon and substituted "deploying a nuclear weapon."  Putting the red line at "deploying" or "getting" a nuclear weapon puts the trigger for action at a place that effectively allows Iran to become nuclear weapons-capable -- as long as it defers actual production until it is ready to finish the process with a decision that may not be discoverable until after the fact, nor deterrable after it is discovered

Georgetown Professor Colin H. Kahl, who served as deputy assistant secretary of defense for the Middle East in the Obama administration until last year, argues in The Hill against a "near-term preventive strike" by Israel and extends his argument in the March/April issue of Foreign Affairs.  He thinks that Israel should allow time for sanctions to work.  But time is exactly what Iran wants -- to move steadily toward nuclear weapons capability while it engages in "talks," without an "artificial deadline," moving its program beyond Israel's ability to strike and into a second Obama term.

It has been almost three years since Obama announced that we were not going to have talks forever -- and the talks have yet even to start.  Kahl acknowledges that Iran is "clearly positioning itself to develop a nuclear weapons capability," but he is comforted that:    

James Clapper, the Director of National Intelligence, told the Senate on January 31 that there is no hard evidence that Khamenei has yet made the final decision to translate those capabilities into a bomb. Assuming Iran does not have covert enrichment sites, Khamanei is unlikely to dash for a bomb soon because doing so would require Iran to use the declared facilities at Natanz or Qom to produce weapons grade uranium. Because any such move would be detected by the IAEA, Iran is unlikely to go for broke until they can dramatically reduce their timeline or build a weapon at new covert facilities. [Emphasis added.]

The devil is in the adjectives.  Iran is clearly seeking nuclear weapons capability, but don't worry: there is no "hard" evidence of a "final" decision to build a bomb, which would be "unlikely" because the IAEA would allegedly find out.  But removing the adjectives, one is left with the fact that there is obvious evidence of a decision to build a bomb, and extensive efforts to insure that IAEA cannot monitor the progress.

Not to put too fine a point on it: the Clapper testimony on which Kahl relies is the same testimony in which Clapper told the Senate that we now know, after the fact, that North Korea has produced nuclear weapons. Moreover, the IAEA has repeatedly been denied access to known Iranian facilities, much less the covert facilities Kahl "assumes" Iran does not currently have and will not build if given more time. 

Kahl concludes that military action should remain an option -- "indeed, the credible background threat of force is important for diplomacy" -- but warns against being rushed to war by "false choices" pushed by "war advocates."  One need not be a "war advocate," however, to recognize the false comfort of adjectival analysis, and the danger of assumptions that assume the problem away.  One need only be a "credible background threat of force advocate."

It will be critical for Obama and Netanyahu to emerge from their March 5 meeting with a realistic red line and a deadline for action.  Right now there is neither.  The possibility of a near-term preventive strike by Israel will increase if Obama cannot answer directly the question Netanyahu asked last year, as well as the follow-up one.

Rick Richman's articles have appeared in American Thinker, Commentary Magazine, the Jewish Press, the New York Sun, and PJ Media.

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