The White House meeting next Monday between President Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu could be the most critical encounter for the two men since they took office.
Netanyahu is expected to argue that time is running out on efforts to discourage Iran from developing a nuclear weapon. Obama may say the Israelis can count on U.S. support, but that they should give sanctions and diplomacy time to work before turning to military action.
After years of relatively ineffective sanctions on Iran, the United States and Europe have finally settled on a series of measures that really do seem to be working.
The latest came in legislation co-authored by Democratic Sen. Bob Menendez of New Jersey. At first he wasn't sure the Obama administration was really committed to a tough sanctions regime, but now he sounds convinced.
"Letting countries throughout the world know that we were serious about the enforcements of these sanctions has already cost Iran in terms of its economy, the value of its currency," he says.
Giving Sanctions A Chance To Work
Cliff Kupchan, an Iran analyst at the Eurasia Group, highlights another way Iran is suffering: The uprising in Syria may mean President Bashar Assad, Iran's friend, is in serious trouble.
"Syria is the only large ally of Iran in the region," Kupchan says. "If Assad goes and even as Assad weakens, Iran's ability to project power, its prestige in the region and its connections to its main proxy, Hezbollah, will be weakened."
Hezbollah, with its weapons and militia in Lebanon, provides Iran a way to retaliate against Israel for any attack — but not if Iran loses the Syria link to Hezbollah.
Between these economic and political setbacks, Kupchan says, time is not on Iran's side. He imagines how the Obama administration may counter an Israeli argument that military action may be needed soon.
"Oil sanctions are in place. The Iranian economy is declining. We've got them in a hole. Let's not hit them now because it may not be necessary," he says, because Iran could yet back down.
Administration officials have gone out of their way in the last few days to emphasize that the United States is in fact prepared to take military action to stop Iran from building a bomb. Obama told The Atlantic magazine in an interview released Friday that Iran — and Israel — should understand that "as president of the United States, I don't bluff."
But at the same time, the White House says sanctions and diplomacy could work.
"We do have visibility into their programs, and Iran has not broken out and started to pursue a weapon," White House spokesman Jay Carney said this week. "So there is time and space to continue to pursue the policy that we have been pursuing since the president took office."
Iran, meanwhile, has always claimed that it's nuclear program is solely for peaceful, civilian purposes.
Disagreement On Timing
But will Netanyahu buy the White House argument? Mark Dubowitz, executive director of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, says the administration's case would be stronger if it had moved already against firms in violation of U.S. and European sanctions.
"I think at this point that the administration would have used the ample authority that this president has to send a high-profile message both to Tehran and to Jerusalem that this administration is serious about economic warfare," Dubowitz says.
Though he's a big believer in sanctions, Menendez, the New Jersey senator, says if they don't work, the United States should be prepared to join Israel in taking military action against Iran's nuclear sites. Along with the White House, he thinks there's still time to consider that option — though he recognizes Israel may have a different view.
"I think the only fundamental difference here is not whether or not we seek to prevent Iran from nuclear weapons," Menendez says. "It's the timing which we have. And of course America has the greatest military ability in the world and so therefore the time for us is somewhat different than some of our allies."
So the stage is set for a tense U.S.-Israeli conversation next Monday: President Obama may persuade Prime Minister Netanyahu to be patient — but only by promising that if the time for action does come, the United States will be at Israel's side.