Iran nuclear program: Obama makes case for diplomacy ahead of trip to Israel

But on Israeli TV, President Obama also pledged that the US will take no options off the table for stopping Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon. Israel has argued the threat is more urgent.

Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP/File
President Obama meets with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, March 2012. Obama's assertion to Israeli television that Iran would need 'over a year or so' to build a nuclear bomb was meant as a signal for diplomacy ahead of trip to Israel.

President Obama’s assertion to Israeli television that Iran is at least a year away from being able to produce a nuclear weapon was meant as a signal: that this should be a year of diplomacy to try to halt Iran’s nuclear progress, not the year of military confrontation.

Coming less than a week before Mr. Obama departs for his first trip as president to Israel, the comments Thursday set the stage for an airing of the two timelines for any eventual military action against Iran’s nuclear installations that separate the White House from Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Obama told Israel’s Channel 2 TV that Iran would need “over a year or so” to build a nuclear bomb. At the same time, he pledged as he has in the past that the United States will take no options off the table for stopping Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon.

That time frame contrasts markedly with that of Mr. Netanyahu's. The Israeli leader captured the world’s attention last September when he stood before the United Nations General Assembly, drew a thick red line across a drawing of a bomb, and warned that Israel believed Iran was on course to cross that nuclear line this spring or early summer.

The presentation fired up speculation that Israel would not wait much beyond mid-2013 to launch military strikes against Iran’s nuclear sites.

Obama’s new comments are aimed at convincing two audiences – one being Netanyahu and other hawkish Israeli officials, the other being the Israeli public – that 2013 can safely be a year of constraining Iran through ever-tougher sanctions and diplomacy to try to resolve the nuclear crisis peacefully, some regional experts say.

“2013 is not going to be the year of [military] confrontation with Iran,” says Aaron David Miller, a Middle East expert who has served under numerous Democratic and Republican administrations. Obama will use his trip to make clear to Netanyahu that “he needs time and space on Iran,” Mr. Miller says, even as he presents the view to Israelis that there is still time to go the diplomatic route.

Obama will skip the traditional address to the Israeli Knesset and instead plans to give one of his hallmark public speeches at the Jerusalem convention center. Obama has asked that the audience include a wide spectrum of the Israeli population and that young Israelis in particular be well represented.

Obama and Netanyahu, other experts say, are unlikely to get their clocks for military action against Iran in sync – even in what are scheduled to be more than five hours of talks – because the two leaders set their clocks with two very different specifications for a military-action trigger.

Obama continues to vow that the US will not allow Iran to obtain a “nuclear weapon,” even as Netanyahu speaks of stopping Iran before it obtains a “nuclear weapons capability,” says Haim Malka, deputy director of the Middle East Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington.

Setting the red line at a “nuclear weapon” is very different from vowing to stop Iran from reaching a “nuclear weapons capability,” Mr. Malka says.

Netanyahu’s bomb chart at the UN aimed to show that Iran was nearing the point – through its stockpiling of uranium enriched to 20 percent purity – where it could quickly further purify that stockpile into the highly enriched uranium needed to fuel a nuclear weapon.

But Obama’s estimate of "a year or so” to get a bomb refers to the time it would take Iran, upon deciding to build a bomb, to put all the components together and deliver a weapon. Obama has been careful never to speak of stopping Iran short of a "nuclear weapons capability,” although some Republican members of Congress have adopted Netanyahu’s terminology for defining the “red line” with Iran.

Obama’s insistence that diplomacy has more time reflects the estimate of US intelligence that Iran, despite stockpiling the worrisome 20 percent uranium, has not decided to build a nuclear weapon. But in his Channel 2 interview, the president suggested that Iran has also not decided to cooperate with the international community on a diplomatic resolution to the nuclear standoff.

“There is ... not an infinite period of time, but a window of time where we can resolve this diplomatically,” Obama said, adding that the Iranians “are not yet at the point, I think, where they have made a fundamental decision to get right with the international community.”

Obama will have a very tough time convincing Netanyahu that efforts can focus on diplomacy, says Malka of CSIS.

But Mr. Miller, who is vice president for new initiatives at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, says it is also important to keep an eye on the new Israeli government Netanyahu has labored to put together after what for him were disappointing elections in January. Miller sees a coalition focused on domestic economic and social issues and not on such external concerns as making peace with the Palestinians or launching a war with Iran.

“This is not a warmaking coalition,” he says, “and it is not a peacemaking coalition.”

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