In the capitals of two staunch allies last week, top intelligence officials spoke about the nuclear threat from Tehran. Differences were clear.
Iran has crossed the technological threshold,” the chief of Israeli military intelligence, Amos Yadlin, told the cabinet in Jerusalem last Sunday, in words that were immediately leaked to the press. Now, he added, “its reaching military nuclear capabilities is a matter of adapting its strategy to the target of manufacturing a nuclear bomb.”
Days later in Washington, Adm. Dennis Blair, the new director of national intelligence, appeared before a Congressional committee and agreed that “there is potential for an Iran-Israeli confrontation or crisis” over reports of Iranian nuclear progress. But he said the Israelis “take more of a worst-case approach to these things.”
Both men were reacting to, and interpreting, the United Nations’ confirmation last month that Iran after a quarter-century of effort had collected enough atomic material, in dilute form, to produce a bomb.
Israel and the United States have worried for years about what they would do at such a moment. Now that it has arrived, the passing of the milestone has forced into the open longstanding differences between the two allies about how urgently to treat the threat. As Admiral Blair implied, the nuclear-threat clock ticks a lot faster in Jerusalem than in Washington.
Where this new dynamic leads is unclear. But the Israelis have seized on the Iranian milestone to redouble pressure on the United States for a tougher stance against Iran, and to remind the new president that their patience has a limit. In fact, Israeli officials have quietly been delivering the message that the diplomacy Mr. Obama wants to start with Iran should begin promptly — and be over quickly. “By late spring or early summer,” one senior Israeli intelligence official said the other day, echoing a message delivered in Israel to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Otherwise, they argue, the Iranians will drag talks on endlessly while speeding ahead on bomb work.
The Obama team, by contrast, is taking its time to craft a new diplomatic approach to Tehran, putting the veteran Middle East diplomat Dennis Ross at the head of a team to set up what Mr. Obama last year called a strategy of “bigger carrots and bigger sticks.” Real discussions may not begin until after Iran’s elections in June.
Iran’s president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, at Natanz.