In 2009, after his first White House meeting with Benjamin Netanyahu, Barack Obama told the press he hoped to begin a “serious process of engagement” with Iran within months, and would give Iran “what I believe will be a persuasive argument, that there should be a different course to be taken.” Iran turned out to be uninterested in his argument, much less a serious process of engagement.
On Monday, Obama hopes to make a persuasive argument to continue a course that has now failed for more than three years – a “two track” process of engagement (which has yet to occur) and sanctions (which bite but do not deter). Sanctions failed in North Korea (which produced nuclear weapons notwithstanding), Cuba (where they are going on 50 years), and Iraq (where Saddam profited from them). They may benefit China (who will use them to get better terms from Iran for oil purchases) and Russia (who will benefit, as the largest oil producer in the world, from higher oil prices). They will likely not stop Iran.
Diplomacy is unlikely to succeed without the “triple track” process recommended by the Bipartisan Policy Center earlier this month, which adds a third track to the first two: “credible, visible preparations for military action on the part of the United States or Israel.” But not only has the Obama administration failed to adopt a third track; it has gone out of its way to reject it. It says all options are on the table, but has studiously avoided any commitment to actually use the ultimate one. It publicly lectures Israel against using it itself.
It has been clear for a long time – well before Benjamin Netanyahu became prime minister – that Israel will not stand by as Iran becomes capable of producing sufficient material for a nuclear weapon, much less actually construct one. In Statecraft, his book published in 2007, the year before he became one of Obama’s principal foreign policy advisers, Dennis Ross wrote as follows:
As one leading Israeli defense official said to me, “We think the Iranians intend to use nuclear weapons against us, and we won’t wait for that to happen.” The Israeli impulse toward preemption is likely to be on a hair trigger should its leaders come to believe that Iran is on the verge of producing fissile material by itself. That, alone, argues for preventing Iran’s acquisition of such a capability. [Emphasis added]
The current argument by U.S. intelligence officials that there is no “hard” evidence Iran has made a “final” decision to build a bomb is beside the point. Israel focuses on capability, and its red line is set before Iran actually starts building a bomb. It is unlikely to allow Iran to complete an underground facility that can produce fissile material unobserved and effectively safe from attack, any more than it allowed Iraq and Syria to finish their facilities.
In Monday’s meeting, Netanyahu will likely seek to have the U.S. add the third track and set a deadline for force — as the last best chance for diplomacy to succeed and the assurance that, if it does not, the final option on the table to prevent a nuclear-armed Iran will in fact be taken.