Next month, U.S. President Barack Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will hold a key meeting over the Iranian nuclear challenge that will test their sometimes rocky relationship. After a weekend visit by National Security Advisor Tom Donilon to Israel, the White House announced this week that Obama will host Netanyahu in Washington on March 5. This will be an opportunity for the two leaders to synchronize their positions on Iran. Whether they can reach some common ground -- now or in the near future -- could be a decisive factor in Israel's decision-making on whether to strike Iran sometime this year.
International pressure on the Islamic Republic has never been higher. In addition to the new, crippling U.S. sanctions enacted on Dec. 31 and Feb. 6, the European Union recently pledged to halt the importation of Iranian oil by July 1. Iran's economy is reeling.
For their part, Iranian leaders have struck an increasingly aggressive note. They have threatened a preemptive strike against their foes, and warned that they could close the Strait of Hormuz, through which roughly 20 percent of the world's traded oil flows daily. In another recent act of defiance, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad announced on Feb. 15 that a "new generation" of Iranian centrifuges had just been activated at the Natanz nuclear site. And this week, IAEA inspectors charged with monitoring Iran's nuclear program were denied access to a military facility, returning to Vienna after what they termed "disappointing" talks with their Iranian interlocutors.
Despite its saber-rattling, Iran is feeling the heat of international sanctions. Over the past month, the Iranian rial has been devalued by 50 percent. Iran has also indicated that it may even be willing to resume diplomacy, which it has scorned since the last round of negotiations in 2009 and 2010.
With the media rife with speculation about a possible Israeli military strike against Iran's nuclear facilities by this summer, tensions between the two countries have risen to an all-time high. Iran is blaming Israel for the recent assassinations of its nuclear scientists, and Israel is accusing Iran of masterminding the Feb. 13 terror attack against Israeli diplomats in New Delhi, as well as attempted attacks in Tbilisi and Bangkok.
It is no secret that Netanyahu and Obama have never been close, but now is the time for the two leaders to find common ground over the Iranian nuclear issue.
There has already been some progress in getting top U.S. and Israeli officials to speak about Iran in similar terms. Last week in the Knesset, Netanyahu said it is critical that the world -- not just Israel -- identify "red lines" when dealing with the Iranian nuclear program. In a CBS appearance last month, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta declared that Iran's development of a nuclear weapon, as well as closure of the Strait of Hormuz, are "red lines" for the United States.
However, the United States and Israel clearly differ in where their red lines lie. The United States has put the focus on Iran actually gaining a nuclear weapon, while Israel -- more vulnerable to Iranian missiles due to its geographic proximity -- views the threshold as the Iranian regime's acquisition of enough low-enriched uranium to build a bomb, pending a political decision to convert it to weapons-grade fuel.
The other set of differences between the United States and Israel has to do with how long they are willing to wait before judging the international sanctions of Iran to be a success or failure. On the one hand, this is the first time that the United States and the EU have imposed the type of "crippling" sanctions that Israel has long called for. But on the other, recent statements by Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak signal that Israel believes its window for military action is rapidly closing. As a result, Israeli officials fear they might not have the time to wait and see whether the sanctions halt Iran's nuclear program peacefully.