Israel, U.S. play diplomatic chicken over Iran

U.S. Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta (R) shakes hands with Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak before a meeting at the Israeli Defense Ministry in Tel Aviv, Aug. 1, 2012.
President Obama meets Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, March, 5, 2012, at the White House. AP

(CBS News) LONDON - There is a dangerous game of diplomatic chicken going on between Washington, Jerusalem and Tehran - and it's all being played out around the U.S. presidential election.

For Israel, it's a question of leverage. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's government feels it can exert more influence on U.S. policy now, before November, than it will after the election - particularly if President Obama is re-elected. By contrast, just about the last thing the Obama administration wants in the run-up to the vote is to become involved in another foreign conflict.

A variation on the leverage argument suggests Israel thinks it can get more support out of Washington now because there will be some pressure on Mr. Obama to match the support for Israel already expressed by Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney.

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Washington is arguing for more time to let stricter sanctions against Iran bite. Israel on the other hand has repeatedly said it sees no evidence that sanctions have had any constraining effect on Iran's nuclear program.

One theory also making the rounds in Israel is that a unilateral Israeli attack on Iran might serve to force the U.S. into action. Washington, this theory goes, would have to come in to support Israel for two reasons: The Israeli military does not have the capacity to sustain the repeated attacks necessary if the action is to have any lasting effect on the Iranian nuclear program. (In fact, the lasting effect of any attack is very much in doubt, given how deeply fortified the Iranian nuclear research facilities are.) And reason two; the inevitable Iranian retaliatory attacks on Israeli population centers would pressure the United States to enter the conflict on behalf of its ally.

An Israeli cabinet minister is now quoted as saying a war with Iran would last one month and result in 500 Israeli casualties. The source of his calculations is unclear, but the effort to put a lid - real or imaginary - on the consequences of any Israeli action is another sign of the nervousness the government senses among Israeli citizens.

Netanyahu's argument is that a nuclear-capable Iran is more dangerous to Israel in the long term than a conflict would be now.

U.S. Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta says he does not think Israel has made a decision yet on whether to attack. That may be diplomatic code for - "don't do it."

  • Mark Phillips

    Mark Phillips is CBS News senior foreign correspondent, based in London.