Amid mounting tensions over whether Israel will carry out a military strike against Iran’s nuclear program, the United States and Israel remain at odds over a fundamental question: whether Iran’s crucial nuclear facilities are
about to become impregnable.
Israel’s defense minister, Ehud Barak, coined the phrase “zone of immunity” to define the circumstances under which Israel would judge it could no longer hold off from an attack because Iran’s effort to produce a bomb would be
invulnerable to any strike. But judging when that moment will arrive has set off an intense debate with the Obama administration, whose officials counter that there are other ways to make Iran vulnerable.
Senior Israeli officials, including the foreign minister and leader of the Mossad, have travelled to Washington in recent weeks to make the case that this point is fast approaching. American officials have made reciprocal visits
to Jerusalem, arguing that Israel and the West have more time and should allow sanctions and covert actions to deter Iran’s plans.
The Americans have also used the discussions to test their belief, based on a series of public statements by Israeli officials, that an Israeli strike against Iran could come as early as spring, according to an official familiar
with the discussions.
President Obama tried to defuse arguments for military action in a telephone call last month with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel, the substance of which was confirmed by an Obama administration official who spoke only
on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to describe the conversation. While the two men have had an often contentious relationship over Middle East diplomacy, American officials emerged from that exchange persuaded that Mr. Netanyahu was
willing to give economic sanctions and other steps time to work.
The difference of opinion over Iran’s nuclear “immunity” is critical because it plays into not just the timing — or bluffing — about a possible military strike, but the calculations about how deeply and quickly sanctions against
Iran must bite. If the Israeli argument is right, the question of how fast the Iranians can assemble a weapon becomes less important than whether there is any way to stop them.