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Questions for Obama: Is Israel bluffing? Is Iran bluffing?

Commentary: Overriding issues for the president in his visit with Netanyahu.
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United States President Barack Obama and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas (R) give a joint press conference in the West Bank city of Ramallah on March 21, 2013. Obama arrived in the West Bank to a more prickly welcome from Palestinian leaders than the warm embrace he won in Israel the day before. (Ahmad Gharabli/AFP/Getty Images)

OWLS HEAD, Maine — While the Republicans consider how to reinvent themselves to become more popular with blacks, Hispanics, Asians and gays — think Pope Francis trying to reinvent Catholicism to attract Jews and Unitarians — President Barack Obama is on his first presidential visit to Israel in order, according to The New York Times, "to win the hearts of the Israeli people."

Well and good. But realistically, if the Israelis don't like Obama, what are their options?

One hopes, quite apart from the public charm offensive, that the real magic Obama works is with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu — and his newly appointed, hardline minister of defense — on how to deal with Iran.

As Obama and Netanyahu hash out the problems Iran presents for both countries, the president and his advisers have two equally complex issues to work through: Is Iran bluffing? Is Israel bluffing?

Understanding what Iran's leadership has in mind on the nuclear front is worth however many billions we pay our intelligence agencies. The overriding question is, do they really intend to build a nuclear weapon? But of course that's just for openers. Depending on what Obama's intelligence gurus advise, there are at least three different tracks for which contingency plans might be considered:

- Perhaps the Iranians haven't decided themselves what they ultimately intend to do, but they certainly don't want to foreclose any options at this point.

- Or perhaps Iran's current intention is not to produce a nuclear weapon, but rather to develop the technical capability — assuring the necessary amounts of enriched uranium are available — to assemble a bomb in a relatively short period of time if, at some point in the future, they decide to proceed.

- Or perhaps, they are sufficiently paranoid that they have already concluded they need a nuclear weapon.

From Iran's perspective, they have been ostracized by the United States since the Shah was overthrown — and US diplomats were taken hostage — over 30 years ago.

But that's just half of their problems: they are a Shia country in a Muslim sea dominated by Sunnis. They are Persians in a Middle East that's predominantly Arab. Over the past two years, they have watched as Syria, their key ally in the Arab world, has collapsed into a civil war whose final outcome, though unpredictable, will surely involve a Sunni-led government and quite conceivably an extremist anti-Shia one. And the demise of Damascus as an ally will weaken Hezbollah, Iran's anti-Israel proxy and the dominant power in today's Lebanon. If Iran was feeling insecure in the past, it is surely even more so now.

So what might the United States consider as the most strategically productive response to each of the above possibilities?

If the Iranians haven't worked out their endgame, then our actions should be designed to encourage them to conclude they do not want to proceed down the nuclear path. More carrots, less sticks.

If their plan is to move toward a nuclear capability but not an actual bomb, the US would first have to decide whether that's acceptable. If so, a negotiation must produce an agreement for United Nations/International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspectors to be permitted free reign so that any movement by Iran toward actually assembling a bomb would be clearly visible well in advance. In the meantime, continued sanctions would be appropriate so long as Iran refuses to agree to such inspections.

On the other hand, if the Iranian regime feels so threatened strategically by the mixture of current sanctions, the loss of its Syrian ally, and the weakening of Hezbollah as a potential weapon against Israel, would more forthcoming proposals from the West — the opposite of tough talk and threats — reduce the regime's paranoia and persuade it to reverse its decision?

What's our best approach: carrots, sticks, a mixture? It all depends on how we read Iran's intentions.

And Israel? Prime Minister Netanyahu has stated publicly, and repeatedly, that Israel's red line would be crossed if Iran obtains the capacity to produce a bomb, even if it doesn't actually take the ultimate step. That's a red line that Obama has not endorsed. But is Netanyahu bluffing? How in fact would Israel react were the US and its current negotiating partners — Russia, China, England, France, and Germany, the P5+1 as it's termed — headed toward a deal with Iran in which Iranian nuclear development is frozen but not rolled back?

If Israel's red line is earlier than the US', how much earlier? From a technical point, so long as inspectors were able to monitor all of Iran's nuclear sites, thus assuring that there would be at least several months' warning before Iran could assemble a weapon, would that be sufficient for Israel? And how would the concern over its credibility play out for Israel, were negotiations to drag on and Iran approach and then appear to cross Israel's self-imposed red lines?

Would Israel actually initiate an attack without prior US approval? And if so, how would the US react?

Three years ago, President Obama challenged Prime Minister Netanyahu over Israeli settlements in the West Bank, and, as one commentator expressed it, in the sumo match that followed, Netanyahu threw Obama out of the ring.

Israel clearly retains enormous support in the US, especially in Congress, as Netanyahu's tumultuous welcome a year ago showed. But while US public opinion is decidedly in favor of keeping Iran from developing a nuclear weapon, the US public is dead set against another pre-emptive war in the Middle East.

If Obama and our negotiating partners offer to reduce and gradually eliminate sanctions in exchange for Iran's agreeing to forego further efforts to obtain a nuclear weapon and to accept full IAEA supervision of its nuclear sites, would Iran accept it? How would Congress react?

If Obama tells Netanyahu in their meetings this week in Israel that the US would accept a deal with Iran in which it would not be permitted to build a nuclear weapon but its ultimate capacity to do so would remain, would Netanyahu accept it? Would he tell Obama that is unacceptable? Would Obama call his bluff? Would Netanyahu be bluffing?

The White House has been downplaying Obama's trip to Israel in terms of any impact it might have on the resumption of Israeli-Palestinian peace talks aimed at a two-state solution. And rightly so: The two-state option is dead.

But how Netanyahu confronts Obama on Iran, and how Obama reacts: that, at this stage, cannot be downplayed.

Mac Deford is retired after a career as a foreign service officer, an international banker, and a museum director. He lives at Owls Head, Maine, and still travels frequently to the Middle East.

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