Can Obama-Netanyahu rift over Iran be put on hold for the election?

Netanyahu, a day after saying the US had no 'moral right' to stop an Israeli attack on Iranian nuclear sites, sought to defuse the spat with Obama. But it's destined to linger through the election and potentially for long after.

Kevin Lamarque/Reuters/File
President Barack Obama (r.) meets Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the United Nations in New York in September 2011. Israel and The White House seek to defuse tension between the two leaders.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel appeared Wednesday to try to dial down the very public discord between himself and President Obama on addressing Iran’s nuclear program, saying that sometimes even “the best of friends” disagree.

But the modest olive branch is unlikely to close the gap between the two leaders over when and how to threaten Iran with military action to stop it from acquiring a nuclear weapon. It’s a gap with what may be America’s most politically sensitive ally that will dog Mr. Obama through the presidential campaign – and will color the two leaders’ relations should Obama win reelection.

Obama and Mr. Netanyahu spoke by phone for an hour Tuesday night, hours after the Israeli premier said the US has no “moral right” to stop Israel from attacking Iran’s nuclear sites if the US is unwilling to set clear “red lines” of its own for Iran. Netanyahu has been pressing the US both privately and publicly to set such “red lines,” which, once crossed by Iran, would trigger US military action.

The UN nuclear watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), recently reported that Iran has stockpiled enough low-and medium-grade uranium to provide – if further purified to highly enriched uranium – enough fuel for up to six nuclear weapons.

But it is not so much the IAEA findings, which come as no surprise to Netanyahu, as the approaching US election that has spurred the Israeli leader to ramp up pressure on Obama to commit to action on Iran, some Israel experts say. Netanyahu believes Israel’s leverage with the US is highest now, with Obama in a tight race with former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, while he sees that leverage decreasing once the election is over, they say.

The issue of “red lines” encapsulates the friction between the two governments over how to address Iran’s advancing nuclear program, which a number of Western countries believe is aimed at delivering a nuclear weapon, but which the Iranian government says is intended for purely peaceful purposes.

The Obama administration believes it has more time – at least a year – to try to pressure Iran into verifiably limiting its uranium enrichment program before it could cross a nuclear point of no return. The Israeli government says the current dual approach of toughened economic sanctions and big-power diplomacy is not working, and that only the setting of clear “red lines” by the US on specifics – like how much stockpiled enriched uranium would trigger a US military attack – will cause the Iranians to take notice and modify their behavior.

Another concern for Netanyahu is that the further Iran advances, the less capable the Israeli military alone will be at inflicting serious setbacks on its nuclear program.

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton appeared to offer the administration’s position on “red lines” last week when she said the US was “not setting deadlines” for the sanctions and diplomatic efforts by the US and five other world powers to resolve the crisis with Iran.

The White House said in a statement after Tuesday night’s phone call that the two leaders “reaffirmed that they are united in their determination to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon, and agreed to continue their close consultations going forward.”

But those “close consultations” won’t include the meeting Netanyahu had wanted to hold with Obama when the two will be in New York later this month for the UN General Assembly. The White House said the New York meeting was not possible because of scheduling conflicts, and denied press reports that Netanyahu requested a Washington meeting after a New York meeting was deemed impossible.

It’s true Obama is in the middle of a tough campaign, and is already scheduled to meet new Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi in Washington before the Sept. 24 General Assembly opening meeting. But it is also true that Netanyahu was expressing his intention to use a New York meeting with Obama to try to win a commitment on US “red lines.”

Obama’s poor reception of public pressure from Netanyahu in the past suggests the US president probably opted to avoid having the Israeli leader try to paint him into a corner in such a glaring setting as the UN. But Obama also wants very much to put off any Israeli military action on Iran. In addition to destabilizing the region and vastly complicating US relations with the Muslim and Arab world for years to come, such action in the short term would also very likely send US gas prices skyrocketing and inject a degree of uncertainly into a presidential campaign in which Obama has enjoyed generally high marks on foreign policy.

With two “friends who disagree” also disagreeing on whether or not to leave action against Iran out of the US presidential campaign, the next eight weeks may yet include more tension in US-Israeli relations. Less surprising, should Obama win reelection, is the prospect of disagreements extending into next year.

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