For Netanyahu and Obama, Difference Over Iran Widened Into Chasm

years of bitter disagreements
about how to deal with the
Iranian nuclear threat,
President Obama and Prime
Minister Benjamin
Netanyahu of Israel kept
running into one central
problem: The two leaders
never described their
ultimate goal in quite the
same way.
Mr. Obama has repeated a
seemingly simple vow: On his
watch, the United States
would do whatever it took to
“prevent Iran from obtaining
a nuclear weapon.” Mr.
Netanyahu has used a
different set of stock phrases.
Iran had to be stopped from
getting the “capability” to
manufacture a weapon, he
said, and Israel could never
tolerate an Iran that was a
“threshold nuclear state.”
That semantic difference has
now widened into a strategic
chasm that threatens to
imperil the American-Israeli
relationship for years to
come, and to upend the most
audacious diplomatic gamble
by an American leader since
President Richard M. Nixon’s
opening to China.
For years, Mr. Obama and
Mr. Netanyahu avoided
direct discussion of the
philosophic and practical
differences between an Iran
on the verge of having the
ultimate weapon and an Iran
that actually possesses one.
But it lies at the heart of the
argument that Mr.
Netanyahu is pressing before
a joint session of Congress on
Tuesday morning.
“It’s a distinction with a huge
difference,” said Robert
Einhorn, who helped
formulate the
administration’s Iran
strategy at the State
Department and enforced the
sanctions that helped force
Tehran into the difficult
negotiations that followed. “It
defines two different
approaches to dealing with
Iran that today may be
In short, Israel would
eliminate Iran’s nuclear
capability, and the United
States would permit a limited
The emotions surrounding
Mr. Netanyahu’s decision to
do an end run around the
White House and appear
before Congress at the
invitation of the Republican
leadership has obscured
what the two countries’
approaches would look like.
Mr. Netanyahu has simplicity
and recent history on his
side. Mr. Obama has
practicality on his, along with
a compelling case that his
Israeli counterpart has yet to
come up with a better
approach that would not
most likely lead to military
The essence of Mr.
Netanyahu’s case is that the
only way to make sure Iran
never gets a bomb is for it to
dismantle all of its nuclear
facilities — from the uranium
enrichment plants at Natanz
and Fordo to the heavy-water
plutonium reactor at Arak,
along with the mines that
produce uranium ore and the
laboratories where Iranian
scientists are believed to
have worked on bomb
designs. It is a maximalist
position based on a belief
that Iran’s long history of
nuclear deception means that
any facilities left in place
would eventually be put to
“We’ve seen this kind of
agreement before — between
the U.S. and North Korea,”
Yuval Steinitz, the Israeli
minister for intelligence, said
on a visit to Washington late
last year. He was referring to
a deal of the George W. Bush
administration requiring
North Korea to “disable” its
main nuclear facilities, and to
the dramatic implosion in
2008 of the cooling tower at
one of its main nuclear
reactors. Seven years later,
the North Koreans have
rebuilt and are back in
business — and by some
estimates, they are poised to
build bombs faster than ever.
The problem with the
dismantle-it-all approach is
that the Iranians have made
clear that it is a deal they
would never sign. For all the
suspicions swirling around
Iran’s program, the country
is a signatory to the Nuclear
Nonproliferation Treaty — a
treaty that Israel, India and
Pakistan never signed. (North
Korea pulled out.) Iran
argues that signatories have
a “right to enrich,” something
the Obama administration
obliquely acknowledged at
the start of the current
negotiations, nearly two
years ago.
So Mr. Obama’s strategy has
been one of buying time.
That sounds like a concession,
but it has worked well with
Iran for two decades. No
nation has spent more years
seemingly trying to build a
weapon but failing to get
there. American intelligence
agencies say that is because
Iran’s supreme leader,
Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, has
never made the “political
decision” to build a bomb.
But that is only part of the
answer. The United States
and its allies have done their
part to slow Iran’s efforts,
blocking the shipment of
needed technology, imposing
sanctions on the country’s oil
exports, slipping faulty parts
into its supply chain and
attacking the country’s
nuclear facilities with one of
the most sophisticated
cyberweapons ever
Mr. Obama’s approach is
based in part on a bet that
time remains on America’s
side. Eventually, the
administration’s thinking
goes, the clerical government
in Iran will fall or be eased
from power, and a more
progressive leadership will
determine that Iran does not
need a weapon. But the
implicit gamble of the accord
now under discussion is that
the long-awaited change will
occur within 15 years, when
the deal would expire and
Iran would be free to build
180,000 advanced centrifuges
the supreme leader spoke
about last summer.If Iran had that many
machines to enrich uranium
— a big if — it would have the
capacity to make a bomb’s
worth of uranium every week
or so.
Even a far smaller number of
centrifuges worries the
Israelis and many of their
gulf neighbors. Three years
ago, the Obama
administration was talking
about letting Iran keep a few
hundred machines spinning
in a “pilot” plant, essentially a
face-saving capacity. Then
the figure rose to 1,500
centrifuges. Now, 4,000 to
6,500 are under
“The Iranians give up no
capability in their
possession,” Maj. Gen. Yaakov
Amidror, a former Israeli
national security adviser,
wrote over the weekend,
“they only postpone their
intention to fulfill those
The critique stings Secretary
of State John Kerry, who is
negotiating the accord in
Switzerland, but he will not
discuss it, citing the
confidentiality of the talks.
But that secrecy is costing
him support every day, in
Congress and from his allies
in the Persian Gulf.
“I just saw him, and he
wouldn’t offer up any
details,” said one senior
official from a gulf nation
who spoke on the condition of
anonymity because his
conversations at the State
Department were private.
“What am I supposed to
conclude from that?”
In fact, there is a case to be
made that the number of
spinning centrifuges is only
one factor in how long it
would take Iran to get to a
bomb. If Iran ships enough of
its fuel out of the country, in
a deal with Russia that has
largely been struck, officials
say, there would be precious
little nuclear fuel to enrich.
If the remaining centrifuges
are connected to one another
in ways that can produce only
reactor-grade uranium, it
would essentially limit Iran’s
options — as long as
inspectors were present
every few days or weeks, so
that they could raise the
alarm if the machines were
reconfigured to make bomb
But those arguments require
some knowledge of the
physics of enriching uranium,
and they will be hashed out
in an environment where
politics, not engineering, will
dominate the debate. Mr.
Kerry says he is ready for
that. “We’re not about to
jump into something we don’t
believe can get the job done,”
he said while traveling in
Europe on Monday.
But then he turned to what
may be his most effective
argument: Mr. Netanyahu
has yet to come up with a
plan that does not ultimately
lead to a decision to take
military action to wipe out
Iran’s facilities.
“You can’t bomb knowledge
into oblivion unless you kill
everybody,” Mr. Kerry said.
“You can’t bomb it away.
People have a knowledge
The key, he said, was
“intrusive inspections” and
“all the insights necessary to
be able to know to a certainty
that the program is, in fact,
And there lies the problem
for the White House. It is easy
to make verification
measures sound tough, but it
is hard to enforce them.
Dennis B. Ross, who worked
for Mr. Obama from 2009 to
2011 and focused on the issue
of Iran, wrote recently that
the deal must have
“anywhere, anytime access to
all declared and undeclared
As part of Mr. Obama’s
selling of the agreement, Mr.
Ross argued, he should
specifically describe how the
United States would respond
to any race for the bomb,
including the use of military
For his part, Mr. Obama says
the use of force is implicit in
a promise he made two years
ago that “we’ve got Israel’s
Mr. Netanyahu once
pretended to welcome those
words. His speech on Tuesday
is testament to the fact that,
rightly or wrongly, he no
longer believes them.