Obama, Ehud Barak
U.S. President Barack Obama meets with Ehud Barak in different times. Photo by Pete Souza / Courtesy of the White House
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The two meetings this week between the chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Martin Dempsey and Israel Defense Forces Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Benny Gantz have been scheduled for some time. But the immediate context cannot be ignored: growing tension over the Iranian nuclear program and what appears to be renewed (and increased) American concerns that Israel might attack Iran's nuclear sites.

Dempsey and Gantz are expected meet first at mid-week in Brussels during the annual conference of NATO chiefs of staff, an event to which the Israeli chief of staff is always invited. Two days later Dempsey will arrive in Israel.

Although Washington has ratcheted up pressure on Iran of late with a combination of more aggressive statements, an initiative to increase international sanctions and what appears to be an approaching clash over Iran's threat to close the Strait of Hormuz, Jerusalem is not satisfied. Israel is not impressed by Iran's deep economic crisis, which is increasing pressure on the regime as it prepares for parliamentary elections in March.

At the heart of the argument between Jerusalem and Washington are questions about timetables and red lines.

The start of uranium enrichment at the underground site near the city of Qom has raised the level of anxiety in Israel. In an interview with CNN two months ago, Defense Minister Ehud Barak said that less than a year remained to stop Iran's nuclear plans. Barak thus presented Israel's red line: From the moment most of the uranium is being enriched at a protected site, Iran will be in "immune space," and the option of a military attack (at least by Israel) is off the table.

The American red line, however, is more distant - at the point were Iran has progressed in the development of a nuclear warhead rather than making do with nuclear capability. That line has not yet been crossed.

Do Barak and Netanyahu really intend to attack on their own, or is Israel only trying to prod the West into more decisive action? That is the million-dollar question.

It has been discussed intermittently for the past three years and it seems that Washington does not have a satisfactory answer to it. What is clear is that speculation about it in the American media - this time, surprisingly, without contributory Israeli chatter - raises the heat in Tehran as well. Apparently the risk of an imminent clash, first of all between American and Iranian ships in the Persian Gulf, is growing.

Hezbollah is contributing to this already tense situation. Over the weekend a Hezbollah terror strike against an Israeli target was averted in Bangkok, Thailand. This is the second such incident, following a warning of an attack by the same group on Israeli tourists in Bulgaria. Hezbollah is serving these days as the long arm of Iran, operated directly by the branch of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards known as Al Quds.

The context is not only the approaching anniversary of the assassination of Imad Mughniyeh, but also the killings of Iranian nuclear scientists in Tehran. Hezbollah Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah pledged yesterday that the killings would not stop the Iranian nuclear project.

Iran and Hezbollah are now also focusing their efforts on saving Syrian President Bashar Assad. Al Quds commander Gen. Kassem Suleimani recently visited Syria to help quash the revolt against the regime. Nasrallah knows that if Damascus falls, the demand to disarm Hezbollah - which he derided yesterday - will come up again more forcefully.