The talks held in Israel this week by senior Obama administration officials, which focused to a large extent on blocking Iran's nuclear program, indicate that the Americans - influenced by the Iranian regime's conduct toward the post-election unrest that began in early June - are for the first time showing more understanding for Israel's view of events. The United States is more skeptical than before about the likelihood that a diplomatic dialogue, or even harsh sanctions should that option fail, will dissuade the Iranians from their goal.
On the other hand, it seems that American opposition to an Israeli attack on Iran still stands. Yet the administration's talk of a "defensive umbrella" over Israel if Iran does acquire the bomb does not satisfy Benjamin Netanyahu's government.
The talks on the matter opened just after a joint American-Israeli exercise at Nevada's Nellis Air Force Base. It was dubbed Red Flag, and included training on the in-flight refueling of Israeli jets by American airplanes.
The Iranian issue dominated this week's visits by U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates and National Security Adviser James Jones. At first, the Americans had hoped to open a dialogue with Iran in September and conduct a review of this policy toward the end of the year. However, Iran has so far refused to even agree on beginning a dialogue, which might accelerate the schedule: The reassessment will be conducted earlier than planned, and thus sanctions might also be able to commence sooner. The U.S. is well aware that Iran is progressing, and that by mid-2010, it may pass another critical milestone, that of being able to detonate a nuclear device for the first time.
The backdrop to the talks is the acute internal crisis in Iran. U.S. President Barack Obama hesitated for weeks before uttering his first condemnation of the violent suppression of the post-election protests. The Iranians reacted with wild rants against the American president. As noted this week by Michael Singh, a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, America's message on this matter is still unfocused and confused. A senior American official comments on the Iranian nuclear threat and a possible preemptive Israeli strike almost every week, but all those statements provide no clear line on either Israel or Iran.
Though it seems the red light on an Israeli attack still stands, the recurrent warnings by Israel's prime and defense ministers about all options being on the table actually serve American interests: They allow Obama to wave the Israeli stick at the Iranians as part of his effort to get the Iranians to agree to a dialogue, and possibly even to concessions.
Israeli officials believe the humiliations that the Obama administration has sustained from North Korea are influencing its approach to Iran. If Tehran follows Pyongyang in challenging the U.S. by openly detonating a nuclear device next year, the American reaction could be a lot harsher.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton spoke last week about an American "defensive umbrella" for Israel and the Gulf states, but some commentators interpreted her statement as meaning that the U.S. had become reconciled to an Iranian nuclear bomb - the opposite of what she probably meant. In talks between Israelis and Americans, other options have also come up, such as an American nuclear submarine keeping its missiles permanently trained on Iran if it declares it is heading for the bomb.
Meanwhile, with no direct connection to the American-Israeli talks, the American Air Force published a feature about the joint Nevada exercise on its web site. It reported the participation of a squadron of F-16i ("Storm") jets, the new model that will bear the brunt of long-range target attacks should the need arise. Red Flag is a routine exercise that the U.S. conducts with other friendly air forces as well, simulating joint fights against a common enemy.
Does this exercise portend the future? Not necessarily. John Bolton, the hawkish former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, wrote this week that Secretary Gates' mission was to convince Israel not to attack Iran, but that Israel will have to make up its own mind very soon. Bolton said he would not be surprised if Israel attacks Iran before the end of the year. It is an enormous burden on Israel, he wrote, but "absent Israeli action, prepare for a nuclear Iran."
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