U.S. President Barack Obama visits Israel next week at the onset of spring - the “red line” previously drawn by his host, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, to trigger an attack on Iran’s nuclear sites.
But an Israeli-Iranian war, Washington’s nightmare as it tries to scale back defence commitments abroad and avoid a draining Gulf oil crisis, does not appear trip-wire imminent.
Officials and analysts say Iran has warded off the Israeli threat by calibrating its mid-level uranium enrichment so that it does not accrue enough fuel for a potential first bomb - the threshold Netanyahu warned about in a United Nations speech in September.
He was presenting a worst-case extrapolation from U.N. nuclear inspector reports. The most recent of those, however, found a slowdown in the stockpiling of the 20 percent fissile uranium that Iran, in the face of mounting Western suspicions, says is part of an entirely peaceful programme.
Netanyahu has not publicly revised the spring-to-summer 2013 dating for his “red line”. But several Israeli officials privately acknowledged it had been deferred, maybe indefinitely.
“The red line was never a deadline,” one told Reuters.
The chief U.S. military officer, General Martin Dempsey, has questioned Israel’s ability to deliver lasting damage to Iran’s distant, defended facilities. Netanyahu, meanwhile, has made little secret of preferring that Washington take the lead in any war.
Yet while mobilising Gulf forces and saying it was open to military force as a last resort, the Obama administration has resisted Israeli calls to present Tehran with a clear ultimatum.
CLOCKS AND KILOS
Interviewed by Israel’s top-rated television news programme on Thursday, Obama voiced cautious hope that negotiations, re-launched last month between the United States, five other world powers and Iran, could still curb its disputed nuclear drive.
“There’s a window - not an infinite period of time - but a window of time where we can resolve this diplomatically, and that it is in all of our interests,” he told Channel Two TV.
The U.S. “red line” was Iran reaching the verge of acquiring a nuclear bomb, Obama said, adding: “That would take over a year or so … But obviously we don’t want to cut it too close.”
Confidence in Obama is not unanimous among Netanyahu’s circle. While one Israeli official, speaking to Reuters on condition of anonymity, said “American presidents don’t bluff” and that therefore Obama should be trusted, another worried U.S. planners might miss an Iranian dash to nuclear arms capability.
A Feb. 21 U.N. report said Iran had 167 kg (367 pounds) of mid-level enriched uranium, in gas form, after converting some of the stockpile to solid reactor fuel. Experts say it would need 240 kg to 250 kg of the gaseous material for a bomb, though the fuel would have to be further enriched to 90 percent purity.
Yet Iran has also been expanding centrifuges at an underground site so that it could rapidly ramp up mid-level enrichment if it wanted to, diplomats say.