Obama got out of Dodge and flew to India as Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu arrived with wife Sara and soldier son Yair, on leave from the Israeli military, to address the Jewish Federation's General Assembly in New Orleans and then to more plaudits in New York -- and a battery of media interviews.
Netanyahu had bigger diplomatic fish to fry than the moribund Mideast peace process. "Iran," he said, "must be made to fear a military strike against its nuclear program."
U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates, in the absence of the commander in chief, shot back: "I disagree that only a credible military threat can get Iran to take the actions that it needs to end its nuclear weapons program. We are prepared to do what is necessary but at this point we continue to believe that the political-economic approach we are taking is, in fact, having an impact on Iran."
Vice President Joe Biden, Gates and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton were more than a little miffed that Netanyahu was trying to force the pace of U.S. deployments -- chiefly air and naval -- that were designed to back a stiffer sanctions regime.
Also in Washington was a prominent Saudi Arabian who had been his country's intelligence chief for a quarter of a century -- until 2001.
Since then, Prince Turki Al-Faisal had also been the Saudi ambassador to both Britain and the United States. During the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, Turki worked closely with Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence agency and the CIA in organizing the mujahedeen guerrilla campaign that forced Moscow to withdraw.
Asked what he thought would be the consequences of an Israeli or U.S. attack on Iran's nuclear facilities, Turki responded, "Calamitous … cataclysmic, not just catastrophic."
Saudi Arabia is buying $60 billion worth of ultra modern U.S. weaponry, including 84 advanced F-15s, upgrades for 70 F-15s now in the Saudi Air Force, 200 Apache Black Hawk gunships, anti-air and anti-ship missiles and guided bombs.
It is the largest ever U.S. military sale abroad but it will take 20 years to complete and Saudi Arabia will still feel vulnerable for many years to come. Iran, on the other hand, has what Prince Turki understands better than most: formidable, asymmetrical retaliatory capabilities.
One Israeli or U.S. bomb on Iran and Tehran's Revolutionary Guards will have dozens of key targets up and down the western side of the Persian Gulf in their missile sights. They can mine and close the Hormuz Strait -- not for long but long enough to drive oil up to $300 or $400 a barrel.
"The Iranians have to be aware of the explosive nature of pursuing their present course of enrichment … and they have to come clean on whatever it is that remains as question marks to the world community," said the former Saudi spy chief as he made clear that "everybody recognizes that they have not lived up to the requirements" of the International Atomic Energy Agency.
Prince Turki was in Washington to revive the moribund 2002 Saudi peace plan when King Abdullah got 21 Arab nations to agree to the recognition of Israel in its pre-1967 War frontiers (with full diplomatic, economic and military relations) in return for a Palestinian state in the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem. This would also allow for a few minor border changes in Israel's favor in return for comparable land for Palestinians in the Negev desert.
But Israel would also have to repatriate some 300,000 Jews from the West Bank (except for those willing to live under Palestinian sovereignty), many of them Americans who have never lived in Israel proper, and some 200,000 from East Jerusalem, the future Palestinian capital.
It is abundantly clear Netanyahu wants no part of it. This week, Israel moved forward with plans to build 1,300 new apartments in East Jerusalem. It is obvious to most Israelis that if they abandoned the West Bank to Palestinian rule, Hamas hard-liners would soon be ruling the Palestinian roost -- with the Mediterranean Sea as their next frontier.
If one day, Netanyahu is compelled to walk things back to a genuine Palestinian state, there are other more pressing matters to deal with first. Reining in Iran is Netanyahu's top priority in the Middle East. If he switched all his attention to a genuine Palestinian settlement, his government would collapse as the super hawks fled the aviary.
Clearly, Iran's mullahs want to keep the diplomatic track moving. Sanctions, by all accounts, have made life difficult for the regime. And Tehran suddenly agreed to nuclear talks in Turkey with the five U.N. Security Council permanent members plus Germany.
It would be the first such meeting of the group -- the United States, Britain, France, Germany, China and Russia -- in more than a year.
Iran still wields powerful diplomatic levers in both Iraq and Afghanistan. In Iraq, where the 2003 U.S. invasion and subsequent occupation has cost U.S. taxpayers about $1 trillion, Iran has brokered a critical deal that leads to a pro-Iranian government. It would include Moqtada Sadr, a fanatical anti-American cleric who has been sheltering in Tehran.
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