Obama says he opposes Iranian ‘nuclear weapon,’ silent on ‘nuclear capability’

Neil Munro White House Correspondent
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President Barack Obama says he opposes Iranian possession of a nuclear weapon, but his deputies suggest he may accept Iranian “nuclear capability.”

That distinction will likely be discussed in private talks Monday morning between Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

On March 1, White House spokesman Jay Carney was asked if the White House opposes Iranian “nuclear capability” or just Iranian acquisition of a “nuclear weapon.”

“We’re talking about precise language here,” Carney responded. “Our policy is to do everything we can to prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon,” he said while staying silent on whether Obama would accept Iranian nuclear capability. Roughly speaking, a nuclear weapon is the combination of a tested nuclear bomb and a delivery system, such as an aircraft or missile.

But “nuclear capability” is the possession of unassembled components of a nuclear bomb — the fissile material, a workable design and the skills to combine them.

For example, the United States, Russia, China, France and the United Kingdom have many nuclear weapons for aircraft and missiles. In contrast, Japan is widely considered to be capable of assembling several nuclear weapons over a short period of time because it has the nuclear material and the expertise to do so.

Obama’s distinction between weapons and capability is creating a diplomatic rift with Israel, in whose eyes Iranian nuclear capability is almost as dangerous as an Iranian nuclear weapon.

That’s because even a crude nuclear “capability” might be enough to deter Israel or the United States from attacking Iran’s nuclear facilities while Iran’s anti-Semitic theocratic dictatorship rushes to deploy reliable nuclear weapons that could strike Israel.

That final rush is described as a “breakout,” in diplomatic jargon.

Israel’s government is worried they may not be able to deter attacks by Iran, whose radical leaders have repeatedly said Israel is a “cancer” that should be “wiped off the map.”

Obama has repeatedly said he opposes an Iranian nuclear weapon.

“No Israeli government can tolerate a nuclear weapon in the hands of a regime that denies the Holocaust, threatens to wipe Israel off the map and sponsors terrorist groups committed to Israel’s destruction,” Obama said in a March 4 speech to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee’s annual policy conference in Washington.

“There are risks that an Iranian nuclear weapon could fall into the hands of a terrorist organization … [and] others in the region would feel compelled to get their own nuclear weapon, triggering an arms race in one of the world’s most volatile regions,” he said.

But Carney and Obama’s other deputies have repeatedly emphasized that the White House opposes Iran’s possession of nuclear weapons, rather than an Iranian nuclear capability.

The day after Carney made his comment about precise language, he was again asked about the distinction.

“I think we have made clear that we are determined to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons,” he said March 2.

“There is a staged process here … we know there is time and space to continue to pursue a diplomatic path with sanctions and diplomatic pressure is because we have visibility into Iran’s nuclear program … and we know that they have not made that breakout move towards acquiring nuclear weapons,” he said.

Obama’s stance against an Iranian weapon, and his simultaneous silence about an Iranian capability, potentially reflect his domestic political calculations.

If Israel or the United States tries to attack Iran’s nuclear-development facilities, it would likely boost gas prices above their high levels, further damaging Obama’s reelection chances.

Gas prices are a top political concern for the White House, and Obama has given two speeches in the last two weeks to tout his controversial energy policies.

Obama and his deputies have also repeatedly urged Israel not to strike Iran. Instead, White House officials say Israel should wait to see if current economic sanctions on Iran stop its government from developing nuclear weapons.

“Now is the time to let our increased pressure sink in and to sustain the broad international coalition we have built. Now is the time to heed the timeless advice from Teddy Roosevelt: Speak softly; carry a big stick,” President Obama said Sunday.

To dissuade Israel from striking Iran soon, Obama has also repeated his opposition to an Iranian nuclear weapon, though not Iranian nuclear capability.

Similarly, he has not explicitly promised to strike Iran’s nuclear facilities if sanctions fail to stop Iran’s nuclear program, though he has said that all options — including a military option — remain on the table to prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon.

Obama’s statements opposing an Iranian nuclear weapon also may help burnish his weak poll numbers among the Jewish community. Those numbers are well below his 78 percent support in 2008. For example, a July 2011 poll showed his support among Jews at only 43 percent.

“If you want to know where my heart lies, look no further than what I have done — to stand up for Israel; to secure both of our countries and to see that the rough waters of our time lead to a peaceful and prosperous shore,” Obama said at the AIPAC meeting on Sunday.

The poll numbers matter because the Jewish vote could tip the balance in swing-states, such as Florida and Pennsylvania. The numbers also matter because political donations from the American-Jewish community to Obama in 2012 could be in danger of falling far below their 2008 levels.

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