On March 5, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will meet with President Barack Obama at the White House. The Iranian nuclear program will undoubtedly be the prime subject of the meeting, the outcome of which could decide for the Israeli leader whether to send Israel's air force to bomb Iran.
In a recent column, I discussed the time pressure weighing on Netanyahu and his military advisers, and why the sanctions effort organized by Obama and European leaders is not working fast enough for Israel. At next week's meeting, Netanyahu may ask that Obama publicly issue an ultimatum threatening U.S. military action unless Iran lays itself bare to international nuclear inspectors. Without such a dramatic escalation, Netanyahu and his colleagues may conclude that Israel will have to attack Iran alone, and soon.
Obama will be loath to commit the United States to such a drastic step to resolve a problem it sees as having much less urgency. With an Israeli strike imminent, Obama must select between two courses of action. First, he can attempt to forestall war by joining and reinforcing the Israeli military threat against Iran, in the hope that such a strong commitment will convince Iranian leaders to open their nuclear program to full inspections, or risk losing it to bombing. A March 1 Bloomberg article hinted at 11th-hour support from some officials inside the Obama administration for this course of action. And recent suggestions by unnamed Pentagon officials that Iran's Fordow mountain uranium enrichment site might not be impregnable after all, as previously suggested, could be a late-arriving signal of U.S. resolve.
However, such a late conversion to a hawkish stance would be a great gamble for Obama. Although the president has declared his opposition to an Iranian nuclear weapon and noted that he is considering "all options," he and administration officials have refrained from publicly committing to "red lines" that would convince Iran to open its program or reassure Israel that Iran will not become a nuclear threat. Opposition to a U.S. military strike on Iran seems to be the overwhelming majority view inside Washington, a view affirmed at a recent presentation by retired Adm. William Fallon -- former commander of both the Central and Pacific Commands -- and retired Marine Gen. James Cartwright, recently vice-chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Iranian leaders would thus likely view a sudden U.S. ultimatum as a bluff. And given the paramount importance of the nuclear program to the Iranian regime, it would likely be a bluff they see as worth calling.
For Obama, that leaves the alternative of accepting an Israeli strike on Iran and minimizing the consequences to the United States. Obama will want the Strait of Hormuz to remain open, for oil markets to remain calm, and for U.S. allies in the region to feel secure. He will attempt to accomplish this goal by having U.S. air and naval forces around the Persian Gulf make an ostentatious display, by sending reinforcements to the region, by calling on Saudi Arabia to increase its oil production, and by releasing crude oil from the U.S. Strategic Petroleum Reserve. Obama will also seek to avoid Iranian retaliation against the United States by disavowing the Israeli strike, but also threatening severe retaliation against Iran should it attempt terror attacks against U.S. targets.