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US & Israel on Iran: A Strategic Gap

by Shmuel Rosner

December 23, 2013 | 8:05 am

National Security Advisor Susan Rice
Photo by Reuters

It's not exactly clear to me what National Security Advisor Susan Rice means when she says that the US will have ways to re-impose sanctions on Iran if the Islamic Republic is caught making bombs after signing a deal which is supposed to freeze its nuclear program. The devil in this case is in the details: What type of actions will prompt the triggers to work? Will they work? Will they be effective when Iran is caught "making bombs" (as the news report says)?

And if triggers are needed, what's wrong with the Senate taking action, and why does the President intend to veto a sanctions bill? A Wall Street Journal editorial was correct to argue that "The Senate bill would also help to keep Mr. Obama's negotiators focused on the merits, as opposed to the short-term atmospherics of a supposed diplomatic triumph. The text of the Senate bill says a successful negotiation must dismantle Iran's nuclear facilities, include compliance with existing U.N. Security Council resolutions (which include limits on ballistic missiles) and allow around the clock inspections at all suspect facilities. The interim accord required none of this". And if the case against Senate sanctions is that they interfere with the good "atmospherics" of the talks – one could argue that a government demand for "triggers" – Rice's term – would be as damaging to atmospherics as Senate-imposed triggers.

Last week, I argued (New York Times) that the US and Israel don't have just "tactical" differences on Iran, but rather "strategic" disagreements, and the Rice interview didn't do much to change my mind. Here's some of what I wrote (full article here):

Of course, the United States and Israel would rather Iran not have nuclear weapons, but that’s a preference, not a strategy — much like wishing for world peace or the end to hunger.Obama has acknowledged as much: “If we could create an option in which Iran eliminated every single nut and bolt of their nuclear program … I would take it,” he has said. But “that particular option is not available.” And so Obama’s strategic goal is something less than eliminating every single nut and bolt.Netanyahu’s strategic goal may also be something less than the complete dismantling of Iran’s program, but not much less. And that’s not just a tactical difference with Washington; it’s a strategic gap. The United States may be able to accept seeing Iran become a so-called nuclear threshold state. Israel cannot.

Are you still in doubt? Take a look at the Rice "60 Minutes" interview, where she is asked about Iran as a threshold state:

Lesley Stahl: You say we're not willing to allow them to have a nuclear bomb. But what about what they call-- leaving them to be a nuclear threshold power, which means that they can be a power that has the capacity to develop a bomb in several months.

Susan Rice: We do not want Iran to be not only to have a bomb, but be in a position to race towards a bomb undetected.

Note the language (it is rarely incidental): The US does not "want" Iran to be able to race towards a bomb "undetected". But this still leaves an option for Iran to be a threshold state. That's not what America "wants", but would it not be willing to live with such a result? I think it would.

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