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Obama's Dilemma: How will He Deal with Israel Over What the U.S. Will Do to Stop Iran Getting a Nuclear Bomb?

At present, foreign policy is not playing a part in the campaign. But with a looming crisis coming with Iran over the state of its nuclear capabilities, it will not be on the back burner for long. Soon, both President Obama and the Republican candidates for the nomination will have to make clear specifically how they would handle events. There is simply no escaping that formidable task.

In the important dispatch that is the cover of Newsweek International this week (but not the American edition of the magazine, whose editors evidently think it is too serious and will not sell copies), reporters Daniel Klaidman, Eli Lake, and Dan Ephron discuss the various impediments that might interfere with Barack Obama dealing meaningfully with the mullahs' program to give Iran a nuclear weapon. The major problem remains differences on the issue with Israel, for whom an Iranian bomb is a real existential threat, not one that can easily be overlooked on the belief that if Iran gets the bomb, it will adhere to the doctrine of mutually assured destruction, as did the Soviet Union during the Cold War.

As the Newsweek team reports, as recently as January 12 Obama called Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to inform him that the U.S. wants the time and space for sanctions to take effect, and most importantly, to convey that the U.S. “doesn’t want Israel to start a war -- not yet, anyway.” Obama, they write, has three goals he must constantly juggle: to keep nuclear weapons out of Iran, to prevent the oil-economy from collapsing, and to manage Israel, which they consider a “wild card.”

The problem is that the various goals interfere with each other. The Israelis have tried to discern what would happen if Israel does strike Iran. They do not know what the U.S. will do if Israel’s leaders decide they must launch a strike against Iran. Nor does Israel know just how much the Obama administration really is committed to preventing a nuclear Iran.

The heart of the issue is a difference over when each power thinks Iran will attain nuclear capability. The authors write that a Pentagon source informed them that some of Israel’s activities -- such as suspected assassination of Iranian nuclear scientists -- interfered with the opportunity for a diplomatic solution the Obama administration prefers. After last year’s AIPAC meeting, they reveal, previous close cooperation between Israeli and U.S. intelligence and military officials ended and discussion between them over “planning, analysis and training cycles for a possible attack on Iran” also came to an end.

Now, a year later, Israeli officials believe that the Obama administration has changed, enough so that they see a “positive evolution” by the president on the question of what to do about Iran. They think that Obama is now ready “to attack if worse comes to worst,” and that the U.S and Iran face a “growing risk of a big conflict.”