President Obama ensured himself an even warmer welcome in Israel next week by ratcheting up his rhetoric about the Iranian nuclear threat in an interview. Speaking with Israel’s Channel 2 television network, Obama did something he had never done before in more than four years of promises and threats about Iran: he gave a precise time frame about how long he thinks the West has before Tehran could realize its nuclear ambition.
The president said that U.S. intelligence believes Iran requires “over a year or so to actually develop a nuclear weapon.” That is a bit more optimistic than the red lines warnings issued by Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu, which first said the danger zone would be this spring and then revised the estimate to later this year. But it does make it clear that he doesn’t believe negotiations have unlimited time to succeed and, combined with the accompanying warning that the U.S. didn’t want to “cut it that close” and that all options including force remained on the table, constituted the sort of explicit warning that Tehran had never previously received.
But the question hanging over this statement, as well as the good will trip to the Jewish state that seems designed to reassure the Israelis, is whether the Iranians are buying it.
President Obama has been promising that Iran would not get a bomb on his watch since before he was elected president. Over the course of the last four years his rhetoric on this point was consistent. But it has been undermined by a series of feckless diplomatic initiatives that seems to have convinced the ayatollahs Obama’s bark was worse than his bite. Years wasted on engagement and assembling an international coalition that could only agree on weak sanctions did more than give Tehran more time to get closer to its nuclear goal. They also emboldened the Iranians to hang tough in negotiations and to believe that the West would never make good on threats to use force to stop them.
Obama can blame no one but himself for reinforcing that Iranian conviction in recent months. He did it first by choosing a new defense secretary in Chuck Hagel who has been an opponent of the use of force against Iran. He compounded that blunder by going along with a series of concessions offered to Iran at the latest edition of the P5+1 talks, which raised the possibility that it could hold onto the nuclear program that he has vowed to shut down while eliminating some sanctions. The Iranians didn’t bite in no small measure because a decade of negotiations with the West have persuaded them that the longer they hold out the more likely they are to get their bomb.
The president’s apologists may see these two trends—tough talk about the subject aimed primarily at an Israeli audience and olive branches lobbed at the Iranians in the talks—as compatible, but they are actually working against each other. He may think that reassuring the Israelis that he has their back may win him extra time to talk to the Iranians. It is probably true that every such statement makes it more unlikely that Israel would consider acting against Iran on its own. But though the president has often acted as if his main problem was keeping the Israelis in line, what he has done is paint himself into a very uncomfortable corner.
The latest reassurance that he will act and act decisively if necessary is good news if only because it makes it that much more difficult for the administration to wiggle their way out of the president’s commitment to spike Iran’s nuclear program when push comes to shove. By establishing a timeline, Obama has taken one more step toward action that ought to get the attention of the ayatollahs and convince them they must give in. But it is unclear whether this increased resolve comes too late to alter the Iranian perception that they have all the time they need to go nuclear before the West wakes up and realizes this grave threat to their security as well as to Israel’s is imminent.