The Gulf Between Washington and Jerusalem Over Iran

William Galston, who attended the Saban Forum this past weekend (along with Goldblog), on how the Iranian threat is perceived in the two capitals:

By far the gravest issue, though, was how to proceed in the face of a looming Iranian nuclear threat. I came away from the two days with a dark and disturbing conclusion: There is a gulf between Israel and the United States that could have momentous consequences in 2012. When American officials declare that all options are on the table, most Israelis do not believe them. They have concluded, rather, that when the crunch comes (and everyone thinks it will), the United States will shy away from military force and reconfigure its policy to live with a nuclear-armed Iran. This is an outcome that no Israeli government can tolerate. For Israel, the Palestinian issue is an identity question: What kind of country will Israel be and what kind of life will Israelis lead? But the Iranian issue is an existential question: Will Israel and Israelis survive?

I have to say that I'm beginning to have doubts about the Obama Administration approach to this issue. I have fewer doubts about President Obama himself: I think he understands the potentially catastrophic consequences of an Iran with nuclear weapons. But I think there are people around him who are convincing themselves that either 1) a nuclear Iran is containable; or 2) the sanctions regime currently in place will be sufficient to stop Iran.

Of course, Obama Administration officials know things we don't, including and especially the effectiveness of sabotage programs meant to cripple the Iranian nuclear program. But I'm beginning to question the seriousness of some of the players in this drama: If Iran's nuclear program is actually unacceptable, then why the hesitancy to sanction Iran's Central Bank? I know the reason, of course: Such sanctions might lead to a spike in gasoline prices. But either you think Iran's nuclear program is the most serious foreign policy challenge facing America, or you don't. As for containment, well, as numerous people mentioned to me at the Saban forum (and mentioned in forum sessions as well) the chance of an accidental nuclear confrontation in a highly-combustible Middle East is very high. Imagine the following scenario: Hezbollah launches a serious attack on Israel's north. Israel begins to retaliate. Iran, coming to the defense of its Lebanese proxy, makes a not-so-subtle threat: If you invade Lebanon, we will respond, without saying how. At the same time, Israeli intelligence learns that Iran is mating nuclear warheads to their fissile cores. Do you think Israel is going to wait to pre-empt a possible Iranian nuclear attack?

Unfortunately, this sort of devastating escalation is within the realm of possiblity. For this reason alone, it is worth trying to stop the Iranian nuclear program through more strigent sanctions.