JERUSALEM (AP) — President Barack Obama's decision to open a dialogue with Iran's new president appears to have robbed Israel of a key asset in its campaign to prevent the Islamic Republic from developing a nuclear weapon: the threat of unilaterally attacking Iranian nuclear facilities.
Despite some tough rhetoric in a speech to the U.N. by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, it will be all but impossible for Israel to take military action once negotiations between Iran and world powers resume.
As a result, Israel could find itself sidelined in the international debate over how to handle the suspect Iranian nuclear program over the coming months and reliant on the United States at a time when American credibility in the region is in question.
For years, Netanyahu has warned that Iran is steadily marching toward the development of nuclear weapons, an assessment widely shared by the West. While welcoming international sanctions and diplomacy to engage Iran, Netanyahu has repeatedly said these efforts must be backed by a "credible" military threat. Iran says its nuclear program is solely for peaceful purposes.
Addressing the U.N. General Assembly on Tuesday, Netanyahu repeated his mantra that Israel is prepared to act alone if it determines diplomacy has failed. "Israel will never acquiesce to nuclear arms in the hands of a rogue regime that repeatedly promises to wipe us off the map. Against such a threat, Israel will have no choice but to defend itself," he said. "I want there to be no confusion on this point. Israel will not allow Iran to get nuclear weapons. If Israel is forced to stand alone, Israel will stand alone."
Israel considers a nuclear-armed Iran a threat to its very survival, given repeated Iranian assertions that the Jewish state should not exist. Israel has a long list of other grievances against Iran, citing its support for hostile Arab militant groups, its development of long-range missiles and alleged Iranian involvement in attacks on Israeli targets around the world.
Yet behind Netanyahu's rhetoric, his options appear to be limited as a consequence of Iranian President Hassan Rouhani's outreach to the West. At the U.N. last week, Rouhani delivered a conciliatory speech in which he said Iran has no intention of building a nuclear weapon and declared his readiness for new negotiations with world powers.
Capping off the visit, Rouhani and Obama held a 15-minute phone call as the Iranian leader was traveling to the airport. It was the first conversation between the nations' leaders in 34 years and raised hopes that a breakthrough on the nuclear issue could portend even deeper ties between the U.S. and Iran.
Netanyahu has greeted Rouhani's outreach with deep skepticism, expressing fears that Iran will use upcoming nuclear talks as a ploy to get the world to ease painful economic sanctions while secretly pressing forward with its nuclear program. In his address Tuesday, Netanyahu urged the world to step up the pressure on Iran until its nuclear weapons program is dismantled.
In Israel, Netanyahu enjoys wide public support for his hard-line approach toward Iran. On Wednesday, Israeli politicians and newspaper columnists generally praised his U.N. speech. But many expressed doubt that Netanyahu could change the West's optimism about Rouhani.
"The great question is whether we still have today the ability to act alone, or whether we have missed the boat, and along the way lost the world too, which wants to pursue a different path and connect with the new and misleading wind that is blowing from the direction of Iran," columnist Shalom Yerushalmi wrote in the Maariv daily.
At a White House meeting on Monday, Obama reassured the visiting Israeli leader that the U.S. will never allow Iran to produce a nuclear weapon. Such words may provide little comfort in Israel, where many are questioning Obama's willingness to take military action following his recent handling of the Syrian chemical weapons crisis. After threatening to attack Syria over its apparent use of chemical weapons against civilians, Obama backed down in exchange for pledges to dismantle Syria's chemical arsenal. Netanyahu has greeted the Russia-brokered deal on the Syrian chemical weapons with only lukewarm support.
Danny Yatom, a former director of Israel's Mossad intelligence service, said the about-face tarnished U.S. credibility in the region. "I think in the eyes of the Syrians and the Iranians, and the rivals of the United States, it was a signal of weakness, and credibility was deteriorated," he said.
Now, as Iran and world powers move toward talks, Israel will likely be forced to watch from a distance for fear of being considered a spoiler. The U.S. has pledged to keep Israel updated on progress. "There is no way that Israel could strike while the U.S. and Iran are engaging. That would be a disaster," said Reuven Pedatzur, a prominent Israeli military affairs analyst. "Israel would only consider an attack if intelligence pointed to Iran being just a few weeks from having an actual bomb."
Many analysts have long questioned whether Israel could realistically attack Iran's nuclear facilities. Such a mission would be extremely complicated, requiring long-distance flights and the refueling of warplanes above potentially hostile airspace. Iran also possesses sophisticated anti-aircraft systems, and its nuclear facilities are scattered throughout the country, in some places deep below ground, raising questions over how much damage Israel could inflict.
Yet Israel has a long history of daring air raids over enemy airspace. In 1981, Israeli warplanes destroyed an Iraqi nuclear reactor, and in 2007, Israel is believed to have attacked a nascent nuclear reactor being built in neighboring Syria. More recently, Israel is believed to have bombed arms shipments in Sudan and Syria.
Amos Yadlin, a former Israeli military intelligence chief and one of the pilots in the 1981 Iraqi bombing, wrote in a policy paper this week that Netanyahu faces a tough mission as he seeks to maintain the pressure on Iran without being seen as "the obstacle" to an agreement. Preserving the military option will be key, he said.
"It is important to understand, influence, and if possible reach a conclusion on what America's policy will be if the negotiations fail or the agreement is violated in the future, and how effective levers of influence on Iran — sanctions and a credible military option — can be preserved, as only they are capable of changing the Iranian behavior," Yadlin wrote.
Yatom, the ex-Mossad chief, concurred that it would be extremely difficult for Israel to attack while negotiations are ongoing. But he said Israel's capability to strike remains intact, and there should be little risk of Iran progressing toward weapons capability as long as the talks proceed quickly.
"It is vital that the negotiations start as soon as possible, and we will see immediately if the Iranians mean business or they continue to drag their feet," Yatom said. "I don't think the world is that stupid to negotiate for years and at the same time will allow the Iranians to proceed with a nuclear program."