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Israel and US to meet amid rising tension over Iran

Israeli and American officials disagree on how to handle Iran's nuclear intentions.

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Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks during a bilateral meeting with US President Barack Obama on Sept. 21, 2011 at the United Nations in New York City. (Mandeal Ngan/AFP/Getty Images)

JERUSALEM — Today, both Israeli President Shimon Peres and Defense Minister Ehud Barak head to Washington for separate but urgent meetings, a day after Iran beat Israel at an indisputably benign competition, the Oscars in which the Iranian film, The Separation, beat Israel's Footnote for best Foreign Film.

The matter was at the root of wry commentary accompanying a flurry of visits not seen in years.

In the past few weeks, US Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Martin Dempsey and National Security Advisor Tom Donilon have all held high level meetings in Jerusalem. Barak is scheduled to meet with Panetta and with Vice President Joe Biden. Peres will meet with President Barack Obama, as will Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who will fly to Washington for a much anticipated meeting on March 5.

The subject at hand is nuclear Iran — not the movie version, and not even the proxy war version, which has seen the assassination of Iranian nuclear scientists, the attempted assassinations of Israeli diplomats, and genial computer viruses attack Iranian nuclear installations, making centrifuges spiral out of control, as in Hollywood’s imagination.

From GlobalPost in Tehran: Nationalism is stirring in Iran

On the eve of the Israelis’ Washington visits, there is a divergence of opinion between the United States and Israel regarding the utility of the recently hardened sanctions on Iran, and a growing apprehension on both sides about what the other may be prepared to accept from the Islamic Republic’s leadership.

Eytan Gilboa, an expert on US-Israel bilateral relations who holds posts at Bar Ilan University and at the University of Southern California, said the situation is stark and in some ways unprecedented.

“The Obama administration has little trust in Netanyahu and vice versa. The new sanctions that have been imposed have produced economic hardship in Tehran, but this does not mean they are working. To work, they have to change the Iranian government’s policy toward nuclear development, and this has not yet happened.”

“The UN Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has just announced that Iran has substantially increased enrichment, which seems to contradict American statements that have appeared in all the media suggesting that Iran has not yet made the decision whether to develop nuclear weapons.”

Two points of dispute stand out in creating what Senator John McCain, also on a visit to Israel last week, called the “daylight” between the two countries regarding Iran’s nuclear plan.

The first is the question of what constitutes unacceptable progress toward the manufacture of an armed nuclear device, or, in Barak’s words, Iran’s entry into a “zone of immunity.” The other is the extent of uranium enrichment at a nuclear site near the holy city of Qum, which was highlighted by the IAEA report.

More from GlobalPost: Has the war with Iran already begun?

The United States and Israel agree that the secret underground structure is better protected from a possible military strike than other known Iranian facilities. But from that point of agreement, different conclusions are drawn.

Israeli analysts believe Iran is moving fast toward a nuclear military option, and taking advantage of the pressure of sanctions and the time granted by European offers to negotiate in order to assemble all the parts necessary to build a bomb. The United States, which is in the midst of an election year, meanwhile, thinks sanctions may yet bring Iran — “if it is behaving as a rational actor,” in Gilboa’s words — to negotiate.

“The process is preparing everything for the building of bombs, with the aim of creating all the parts and then needing only a very short period of time to assemble a weapon. So it is just playing with words if we say that we don’t know whether they have made a decision. If you produce all the parts, it is obvious that means you intend to produce a bomb,” Gilboa said.

“I think that what Obama wants from Netanyahu next week is a commitment not to strike Iran at least until the American election, to give heavier sanctions a chance and not to surprise the United States.”

More from GlobalPost: Top 10 ways US tries to subvert Iran

Gilboa does not believe Israel would attack Iranian nuclear installations without