A difference of opinion on Iran threat

By Kevin Flower reporting from Jerusalem

As national security teams in Washington and Jerusalem busily prepare for the meeting between U.S. President Barack Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the pages of newspapers in Israel and the U.S. are full of analysis, reporting and predictions about what exactly the two will discuss.

Iran and its nuclear program, of course, are expected to top the agenda. All eyes will be on the post-meeting statement that the two leaders are expected to issue as well as the respective speeches each will deliver before the annual Washington gathering of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the pro-Israel lobbying group better known as AIPAC.

Israel and the United States believe Iran is working to develop a nuclear weapon program while the government in Tehran maintains its program is peaceful.

It's unlikely either leader will offer any definitive or public answers to some of the burning questions surrounding American and Israeli intentions on Iran, but every utterance will be closely scrutinized for clues to some of the following unknowns:

  • Is there any agreement on exactly how much longer sanctions on Iran should be left in place before a military option is pursued?
  • What are the American and Israeli red lines that will trigger military action and is there agreement on them?
  • Would Israel really attack Iran without prior notice to the United States?
  • Can Israel expect military support from the United States in the event of a surprise attack on Iran?

These are just a few of the complex issues the two leaders, not known for their warm and fuzzy relationship, will have to address.
Publicly, they will be looking to present a unified and public front against what each side sees as the dangers of Iran's nuclear program. They will do their best to downplay differences despite a flurry of recent reports that Israel wants to hear stronger language from the White House on Iran that makes military force a clear option should sanctions fail.

The meeting between Obama and Netanyahu will follow a months-long dialogue between the two countries that Israeli Deputy Prime Minister Dan Meridor has described as both an "intimate" and "intensive" conversation "about the purpose of stopping Iran from going nuclear."

As part of that conversation, Israel has received a veritable who's who of American military, intelligence and diplomatic officials coming to Jerusalem to offer reassuring words about the American commitment to the Jewish state.

Last week alone saw a visit by both the White house national security adviser, Thomas Donilon, and National Intelligence Director James Clapper. In January, Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey came calling.

But friendly and frank meetings aside, the two countries see the threat from Iran differently. As one former Israeli government official explained it, the United States regards the possibility of an Iranian nuclear weapon as a threat to American interests whereas Israel see it as a possible threat to its existence.

Reading the clock is another area where Israel and the United States appear to diverge. The Israeli government has been pushing for quick and decisive action against Iran while Washington has been suggesting a more deliberative path.

Recently, the Dempsey told CNN's Fareed Zakaria that "it's not prudent at this point to decide to attack Iran." But when asked about that comment this week at a Senate hearing, Dempsey said he was misunderstood.

"I didn't counsel Israel not to attack ... we had a conversation with them about time, the issue of time," he told the Senate hearing without further elaboration.

It's these differences in perspective that may be hard for the two countries to bridge.

"I need to remind myself that America is a sovereign country" Meridor said recently in a briefing with journalists. "Everybody has his own, every country has his own decision making process and everybody can takes its own decision"

And for Israelis, a decision to unilaterally attack Iran is not one that enjoys widespread support.

A new survey conducted by pollster Shibley Telhami and the Dahaf Institute in Israel indicates that only 19% of Israelis support a military strike against Iran's nuclear facilities without the assistance of the United States. With American help, that number jumped to 42% while 34% of Israelis believed their country should not attack Iran regardless.

The poll also found that 39% of Israelis believe even if their country does attack Iran without White House consent, America will still rally to help Israel diplomatically with another 27% saying the U.S. would help militarily.

But the Obama administration is not saying what it would do in such a scenario, choosing not to delve in such speculation.

"I do not expect that I or anyone else will engage in speculation about how we might react should something or the other happen in the future with regards to Iran's program," White House spokesman Jay Carney said on Wednesday. "I think you'll hear from us a very consistent message, and I fully expect that the president's conversations with Prime Minister Netanyahu will continue to be as detailed and candid as they always have been."