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Obama can’t be bluffing on Iran

Students Estella's school for bakery pastry making work an image depicting U.S. President Barack Obammade out chocolate GivShmuel central Israel

Students of Estella's school for bakery and pastry making, work on an image depicting U.S. President Barack Obama made out of chocolate in Givat Shmuel, central Israel, Monday, March 18, 2013. Obama’s trip to Jerusalem and the West Bank will take place March 20-22, and it is the U.S. leader’s first trip to the region as president, and his first overseas trip since being reelected. (AP Photo/Ariel Schalit) ORG XMIT: ASC102

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Updated: April 20, 2013 6:19AM

Much is being made about the symbolism of President Barack Obama’s trip to Israel, such as his viewing of the Dead Sea Scrolls being seen as an affirmation of more than three millennia of Jewish life in the Holy Land. Little is being made of the significance of another aspect of his visit: It comes on the 10th anniversary of the March 20, 2003, invasion of Iraq.

The context is the possibility of an Israeli military strike against Iran’s nuclear program. As in Iraq, justification for attacking Iran would be intelligence asserting that it was developing weapons of mass destruction.

Today we know that the intelligence about Iraq was wrong. But in the months leading up to the war, little dissent was heard from the virtually unanimous conclusion of Western intelligence agencies that Saddam Hussein had chemical and biological weapons and was developing nuclear arms. That view was endorsed by such Democratic luminaries as then Sen. John Kerry, now secretary of state; Hilliary Clinton, then a senator and Obama’s first secretary of state; 2000 Democratic presidential nominee and former vice president Al Gore, and the late Sen. Edward Kennedy.

One who did in those days challenge President George W. Bush’s “rash” decision to go to war in Iraq was then Illinois State Sen. Barack Obama. He has that history to argue he has credibility in any public debate over what to do about Iran’s nuclear program.

As was the case with Iraq a decade ago, the conclusion of Western intelligence agencies today is that Iran is pursuing an atomic bomb despite Tehran’s protest that its nuclear program is for peaceful purposes. For example, less than two weeks ago French President Francois Hollande said “we have no doubt that if Iran continues to develop nuclear weapons, the international community, not Israel, will bear the responsibility to stop it. Iran is not just a danger to Israel but a danger to the Gulf Region, to Europe and to the whole world.”

In an interview with Israeli television last week, Obama said Iran is “over a year or so” away from developing a nuclear weapon. That is a different timetable than the one Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu spoke of in a U.N. speech last September when he said Iran would pass the point of no return on uranium enrichment this spring or summer. However, the head of Israel’s military intelligence recently said the Iranian nuclear program is moving ahead slower than Tehran had planned. And Netanyahu has just formed a new government following elections that focused on domestic economic and social issues more than national security.

In arguing to give sanctions and negotiations more time, Obama will no doubt note that Americans are weary of war. And he will repeat his statement that he has taken nothing off the table to stop Iran from acquiring the world’s most dangerous weapon.

Nothing has changed the essential position that a nuclear-armed Iran would be an existential threat to Israel. Yet, a couple of polls have shown that the Israeli public opposes a solo Israeli military strike without U.S. approval. Hollande is right that the “international community” bears responsibility to stop a nuclear-armed Iran. Obama’s visit is intended to rebuild his relations with the majority of Israelis distrustful of him and to convince them he isn’t bluffing in his “prevention, not containment” strategy. For all the reasons Hollande cited and the persistent concerns that Obama is in fact bluffing, it’s vital that the president persuade the Islamist fanatics ruling Iran of that as well.

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