Speaking Sunday to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the powerful pro-Israel lobby, President Obama issued a stern warning to Iran regarding its ability to deploy nuclear weapons.
“When it comes to preventing Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon, I will take no options off the table, and I mean what I say," Obama said.
"That includes all elements of American power," he said. "A political effort aimed at isolating Iran; a diplomatic effort to sustain our coalition and ensure that the Iranian program is monitored; an economic effort to impose crippling sanctions; and, yes, a military effort to be prepared for any contingency."
There has been growing concern that Israel will attack Iran’s nuclear facility before its regional adversary has the final capability to launch nuclear missiles at the Jewish state, and that it could happen sooner rather than later.
US assurances that Israel’s powerful ally would use its military to protect Israel involve an important element of timing. With its greater military might, the US could wait longer than could Israel before launching a preemptive strike against Iran.
But there comes a point when Israel loses the ability to act militarily, former Middle East envoy Dennis Ross told the Monitor’s Howard LaFranchi. The “zone of immunity” at which point Iran’s progress toward developing a nuclear weapon is beyond military setback “arrives earlier for them than for us,” Ross said.
That’s a key reason for Obama’s recent rhetoric regarding Iran. In his speech to AIPAC, he reminded listeners of Theodore Roosevelt’s “talk softly but carry a big stick,” his essential point in an interview with The Atlantic last week.
"I think that the Israeli government recognizes that, as president of the United States, I don't bluff,” Obama told The Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg. "I also don't, as a matter of sound policy, go around advertising exactly what our intentions are. But I think both the Iranian and the Israeli governments recognize that when the United States says it is unacceptable for Iran to have a nuclear weapon, we mean what we say.”
Still, tensions exist between Israel and the United States over Iran – regarding Iran’s nuclear intentions and plans and also over the necessary response. These will be key points of discussion when Obama meets Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the White House Monday.
"At a time when there is not a lot of sympathy for Iran and its only real ally, [Syria,] is on the ropes, do we want a distraction in which suddenly Iran can portray itself as a victim?" Obama told Goldberg in his 45-minute interview with The Atlantic. "It is important for us to see if we can solve this thing permanently, as opposed to temporarily, and the only way historically that a country has ultimately decided not to get nuclear weapons without constant military intervention has been when they themselves take [nuclear weapons] off the table. That's what happened in Libya, that's what happened in South Africa."
Not surprisingly, the issue is being prominently played in the presidential election.
Both the Jewish vote and the rising price of gasoline tied to issues in the Middle East are on the minds of those running Obama’s re-election campaign. And three of the four Republican contenders (all except Ron Paul, who opposes most US engagement abroad) are jockeying for position as the most pro-Israel.
Mitt Romney, Rick Santorum, and Newt Gingrich all are scheduled to address AIPAC on Tuesday – the day when ten states hold primary elections or caucus meetings as part of Super Tuesday.
Santorum said recently that the Obama administration is “throwing Israel under the bus.”
On CNN’s State of the Union Sunday, Gingrich questioned Obama’s commitment to Israel. “I mean, we're being played for fools,” he said. “You have every evidence that this administration is desperately trying to get the Israelis not to preempt, and, frankly, an Israeli prime minister faced with the threat of nuclear arms in Iran is going to preempt.”
Acknowledging the campaign context in which Iran’s nuclear threat and Israel’s security is being debated, Obama told AIPAC, “During this political season, when you hear some question my administration’s support for Israel, remember that it’s not backed up by the facts.”
“There should not be a shred of doubt by now: when the chips are down, I have Israel’s back,” he said.