President Obama told Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the Israeli public Wednesday that the United States will not let Iran obtain a nuclear weapon, and the two leaders appeared to move closer on the issue than in the past.
Some experts, however, say changes in Iran's nuclear program may soon make it too late for anyone to stop it.
The subject of Iran came up at a joint news conference with Netanyahu in Jerusalem, where Obama is on the first day of a three-day trip to the region. Obama said he hoped that Iran would choose to accept offers of peaceful resolution to the matter.
"We prefer to resolve this diplomatically and there is still time to do so," he said, but added that if diplomacy fails "all options are on the table."
Obama's latest comments about Iran's nuclear progress show that the gap may be closing between the American and Israeli leaders over when Iran's nuclear program is judged to be too much of a threat, says Mark Dubowitz, an expert on Iran sanctions and executive director of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a Washington think tank.
"Right now, we think it will take a little bit over a year for Iran to possess a nuclear weapon, but obviously we don't want to cut it too close," Obama told Israel's TV Channel 2 on March 13. "What we're going to be doing is to continue to engage internationally with Iran, understanding we've had the toughest sanctions ever. If we can resolve this diplomatically, that's a more lasting solution, but if not I continue to keep all options on the table."
Obama's description of Iran's nuclear progress left out any doubt on Iran's nuclear ambitions, which were mentioned in a threat assessment delivered a day earlier by James Clapper, the U.S. director of National Intelligence.
Clapper had said that while Iran has "the scientific, technical and industrial capacity to eventually produce nuclear weapons," whether that decision has been made is not clear. "The central issue is its political will to do so," Clapper said.
The U.S. intelligence community assessment is that Iran could not produce enough weapons-grade material for a bomb "before this activity is discovered," Clapper said.
Obama's apparent agreement that Iran is pursuing a bomb might be significant, because it could signal that his thinking about Iran has now moved closer to Netanyahu's thinking, Dubowitz says.
Netanyahu told delegates at the United Nations in September that Iran must be stopped before it reaches a stockpile of enough medium grade uranium that would allow it to produce enough higher grade uranium for a bomb before Western intelligence agencies would know about it.
The difference is whether the United States joins Israel by focusing on when Iran obtains the ability to make nuclear weapons, or continues to base the threat on whether Iran decides to make the nuclear weapon, Dubowitz says. Israel says Iran should be stopped, militarily perhaps, before it reaches the first step.
Obama has not commented overtly on that memorable "red line" of Netanyahu's.
If Obama sticks to language he used in the Channel 2 interview, "that's a signal the Americans and Israelis have come together," Dubowitz says. "If he continues to focus on the political decision, that shows a difference between the two leaders."
The issue could become crucial as Iran resumes long-stalled negotiations over its nuclear program with the United States, United Kingdom, France, Russia, China and Germany. Iran wants a deal that allows them to keep a nuclear program it says is for research and medical purposes, and that recognizes Iran's right to enrich under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.
Some experts saw promise in the latest round of talks, which ended Feb. 27 in Almaty, Kazakhstan. In those talks, the six nations offered to partially lift sanctions on Iran's economy by allowing it to trade in gold and precious metals if Iran suspends enrichment of medium-enriched uranium and safeguards that stockpile.
Iran's chief nuclear negotiator, Saeed Jalili, responded positively, which was "a step toward compromise by the Iranians," who had earlier insisted that oil and banking sanctions be lifted immediately, says Michael Adler, an Iran expert at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, a think tank in Washington.
Dubowitz, however, says advanced equipment that Iran is installing at its nuclear facilities could make such an agreement obsolete. Iran is in the process of installing thousands of new, more efficient centrifuges that the multinational offer does not address, Dubowitz says.
"At some point, they'll have so many centrifuges spinning they'll be able to achieve undetectable breakout more quickly," he says. "The question is, can you fashion a deal with Iran that puts strict limits on its centrifuges?"
The Iranians have created the perception that their stockpile is so valuable to them that they won't give it up without extracting a major concession from the international community, such as lifting sanctions, he says.
But the stockpile isn't that important because they're building the capacity to enrich uranium to any level in a short amount of time, Dubowitz says.
They'll soon have so many centrifuges that they can produce enough weapons-grade uranium in a week or two, between visits by United Nations inspectors, he says.
"They're now closer and closer to that breakout capacity where they can produce enough weapons grade uranium without our being able to stop them."