By Elise Labott
There is a cartoon in the Israeli newspaper Yediot Aharonot that pretty well sums up the nail-biting showdown facing the United States and Israel when it comes to Iran's nuclear program.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, U.S. President Barack Obama and Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad are sitting at a table playing poker, sweating and looking at one another, with a nuclear weapon as a big pot in the middle.
Who is bluffing? Will Ahmadinejad go for the bomb? Will Netanyahu take out the Iranian nuclear program before that happens? Will Obama save the day? When it comes to high-stakes nuclear poker, everyone is trying to outsmart the other.
Israeli officials say a new U.S. intelligence assessment on Iran's nuclear program that Americans shared with them moves the two countries even closer to an understanding on the scope and pace of the development of the program.
The analysis, the officials say, shows the Iranians continue to make progress on all aspects of its nuclear program. While the international community has a great deal of knowledge of Iran's uranium enrichment, the sources said the new assessment shows further progress on the two other critical areas: efforts to miniaturize a nuclear warhead to fit on a missile, called "weaponization," and developing the delivery systems to launch a weapon, such as long-range missiles.
The sources said the information in the new analysis doesn't come as a big surprise in Israel because the two governments already have an extremely close relationship when it comes to intelligence sharing.
On Thursday White House Press Secretary Jay Carney would not discuss whether the president had received a new NIE (National Intelligence Estimates) and would only say President Obama "remains committed to preventing Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon."
But does this new intelligence assessment change the calculus about when military action would be required to take out the nuclear program before it is too late?
It doesn't seem so because the differences between their government and Washington are not about intelligence assessments, the Israeli officials say, but about policy.
The debate between the two countries centers around a decision by Iran to acquire a nuclear bomb versus its "breakout capacity" to do so, what Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak refers to as the "zone of immunity."
Israel worries that Iran's nuclear developments will progress past a point where the Israelis can stop Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon by themselves. And the Israelis feel they can't put their security in the hands of another country, even an ally as close as Washington, when it comes to what Israel considers an existential threat.
This month Defense Secretary Leon Panetta told CNN the United States had no intelligence to indicate a decision by Iran to go after the bomb. But Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu, Barak and others argue Iran can continue to develop the expertise and technology needed to make a bomb and gain this breakout capacity without having made an official "decision."
In this scenario Israel's greatest fear is Iran will have all of its ducks in a row and can quickly assemble a nuclear weapon after a decision is made. Panetta told CNN once Iran has made the decision to build a bomb, the United States believes it would take Iran "about a year" to complete the required work to finish it. Israel argues it could take as little as a few months.
With Iran's program continuing to progress, nuclear talks having failed to produce an agreement for Iran to curb its nuclear ambitions and sanctions that are slow to bite Iran enough to change its calculus, Israel is feeling a greater sense of urgency.
That concern is clearly felt in Washington as well, as evident by a wave of visits to Israel by several top U.S. officials over the past month, including Panetta, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, and National Security Adviser Tom Donolon in what has been dubbed by many Iran watchers as the "Please Don't Bomb Iran Tour" of summer 2012.
But those visits don't assure Netanyahu that when the time comes President Obama will, in his own words "have Israel's back." Indeed, with an American election approaching, Israeli officials don't view the Obama administration as seriously considering any action in the next few months.
No one is showing his hand in this high stakes game of nuclear poker, but as one Israeli official summed it up, "the mood is not good."