Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu is bubbling over with frustration at U.S. policy toward Iran. While President Obama has continued to reiterate his pledge not to allow Iran to obtain a nuclear weapon, this concern was shown once again to be an empty boast by Secretary of State Clinton’s statement on Sunday that the United States was not “setting any deadlines” to make Iran stop enriching uranium. That was reinforced on Monday when State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said, “It is not useful to be parsing it, to be setting deadlines one way or the other, red lines.” Far from responding to Israeli requests for a firm statement of an intent to set some red lines beyond which Tehran dare not cross, Washington has sent a clear signal to Iran that the U.S. was content to sit back and watch events as they unfolded.

The subtext to this exchange is that the hints coming out of Jerusalem about a unilateral Israeli attack on Iran to forestall the nuclear threat may very well turn out to have been a bluff. The United States remains firmly focused on preventing any such attempt to resolve this problem and the Israeli PM knows that he would be risking a confrontation with his country’s main ally should it decide to strike on its own. Netanyahu is a cautious man and those who have been predicting all along that he would back down if President Obama remained obdurate may be right. If true, this would be a tactical triumph for the president but there shouldn’t be any doubt as to its ultimate meaning. In the absence of the sort of deadline that Clinton dismissed, time may soon run out on any chance for the West to stop Iran.

The most recent report of the International Atomic Energy Agency should have been enough to concentrate the minds of the president and secretary of state. The IAEA report underlined the fears being expressed in Israel about Iran moving inevitably into a zone of “immunity” beyond which attacks on their nuclear facilities might be futile. It stated that Iran had doubled the number of its centrifuges enriching the uranium needed for a bomb and is now housing them in a secure underground bunker. Yet the news left Clinton unmoved even though her boss and his re-election campaign continued to issue boilerplate statements about his promise to prevent an Iranian bomb.

Under the circumstances, Netanyahu’s outburst is entirely understandable:

 “The world tells Israel ‘wait, there’s still time.’ And I say, ‘Wait for what? Wait until when?’ Those in the international community who refuse to put red lines before Iran don’t have a moral right to place a red light before Israel.”

The United States may not have a moral right to prevent Israel from defending itself but it can make it difficult and expensive for it do so. The question for Netanyahu is whether he is sure that waiting another few months will render any attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities — even a theoretical assault by the far more powerful U.S. forces in the region — too little and too late.

The idea that Israel must have a green light from the United States before it attacks Iran is not backed up by history. The Jewish state has pre-empted threats throughout its history and rarely has it gotten permission in advance from the United States for doing so. Netanyahu knows the costs of inaction could be incalculable. But an Iran attack against a hardened diversified target that is so widely anticipated and against a powerful country with terrorist auxiliaries is not analogous to previous strikes on Syria or even the one on the nuclear reactor at Osirak, Iraq.

Moreover, Netanyahu also knows that an attack on Iran, especially one that takes place during an American presidential campaign, will be viewed as a transparent tactic aimed at forcing Washington’s hands and might not play well even among some supporters of Israel. Given the fact that there is at least a 50-50 chance that Barack Obama will be re-elected, the prime minister may reason that alienating a re-elected American incumbent in this manner is not an acceptable risk. What we don’t know is whether Netanyahu is sufficiently alarmed about the time frame of the Iranian program that he will be willing to hazard such a confrontation in order to save his country.

But no matter what Netanyahu’s calculations may turn out to be, there should be no mistaking the fact that by digging in and refusing to offer red lines or deadlines to the regime in Tehran, the United States is making a conscious decision to accept an Iranian nuke. Though President Obama has vowed he opposes containment of Iran, his continued reliance on failed diplomacy and belated and loosely enforced sanctions is a guarantee that containment may be America’s policy destination in a second term.

If so, it will not just be a betrayal of every promise President Obama has made on the issue since he was elected. It will be an act of moral cowardice that will, at the very least, ensure a less stable and more violent Middle East in his second term.

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