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Monday, December 10, 2018

When U.S. President Barack Obama dispatches his negotiators to Baghdad next week to join talks with Iran over the future of its nuclear program, he’ll be most concerned about the reaction of one man: Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak.

Obama believes that Barak, and not Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, is the Israeli leader agitating most vociferously for a military strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities, a strike the Obama administration thinks would be grossly premature and quite possibly catastrophic. (Your humble columnist concurs with this assessment.)

If Barak sees these talks as productive — especially in light of evidence that the U.S. and its allies are doing a credible job of keeping Iran from crossing the nuclear threshold — then Obama will have successfully pushed off an Israeli strike, at least until after the U.S. presidential election in November.

Barak has made clear that he seeks one thing above all in the nuclear talks: for Iran to shut down its formerly secret nuclear enrichment facility at Fordo, near the city of Qom. Obama has made Barak’s preoccupation with Fordo his own.

It’s not hard to see why both men see Fordo as a crucial component of Iran’s nuclear program. Once Iran moves its enrichment program to Fordo — which is built inside a mountain and has hardened defenses against nearly all conventional munitions — it will probably have entered a “zone of immunity,” in which Israel would no longer be able to cripple its centrifuges. (The Israelis, like the Obama administration and many international experts, don’t doubt that Iran would seek to build a nuclear weapon if political and technical conditions allowed for it.)

For Barak, keeping Iran outside the zone of immunity is paramount. If Iran moves its nuclear program beyond the reach of the Israeli air force, Netanyahu and Barak believe they will have outsourced the security of their nation to the U.S., which has more advanced weaponry. But in Barak’s estimation, the U.S. has gone 0-2 in preventing the proliferation of nuclear weapons to hostile, unstable countries. Pakistan and North Korea both built and tested nuclear weapons over U.S. objections. Barak has pointed out that Israel is 2-0 in the same arena, having destroyed nuclear facilities in both Iraq and Syria from the air.