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On the Brink: Israel to grill Obama over possible military strike on Iran

Iran presidency via EPA, file

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad (center) inspects the Natanz nuclear plant in central Iran in March 2007. The U.S. and Israel fear Iran wants to build a nuclear bomb, a claim Tehran denies.

The leaders of the United States and Israel are about to have some serious face time -- five-and-a-half hours culminating in a late-night dinner on Wednesday. Three key issues will dominate the agenda: Iran, Syria and the Palestinians. In the first part of our "On the Brink" series, NBC News correspondent Martin Fletcher -- who has been covering the region for three decades -- gives his take on a problem of global significance: the prospect of Iran getting nuclear weapons and military action to stop that happening.

News analysis

Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will have one key question for President Barack Obama when they meet Wednesday: If push comes to shove, will America attack Iran to stop the Iranians from developing a nuclear bomb?

Obama has a question of his own, just as critical. Will Israel promise not to attack Iran without American approval?

Ahead of the U.S. president's trip, Israel’s President Shimon Peres described Iran as “the greatest threat to peace in the world.”

Lucas Jackson / Reuters, file

Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu points to a red line he has drawn on a graphic of a bomb used to represent Iran's nuclear program as he addresses the United Nations General Assembly in September last year.

He made the remark in a March 12 speech to the European Parliament in Strasburg, but he likely had Washington in mind.

On paper there is little light between the U.S. and Israeli positions. Obama and Netanyahu both say they will not permit Iran to obtain nuclear weapons. They both hope sanctions and political pressure will do the job. Both say all options are open, including military.

So how come neither trusts the other?

Israeli analysts point to North Korea, which has also been subject to international sanctions and American warnings against pursuing a nuclear weapons program.

Yet today, North Korea not only has a nuclear weapon but has threatened to use it to attack America.

So the Israeli analysts ask, what good are American promises on Iran?

On the other hand, can Israel really go it alone?

The reality is that Israel’s so-called red line -- the point at which it must attack for the strike to be effective -- is much closer than America’s because the U.S. has many more, and more powerful, bunker-busting bombs that can hit Iranian nuclear installations like Fordow.

Also in this series: Syria chaos looms large over Obama's Israel trip

The shared U.S.-Israeli assessment appears to be that the Iranians will have enough weapons-grade uranium for an atom bomb by mid-2013. So what to do?

Most analysts in Israel agree on two things. First, Israel must act. No country can ignore threats to obliterate it, especially a country born from the Holocaust. Second, Israel cannot destroy Iran’s nuclear program alone. At best, it can delay it. Yet that is what Israel’s policy has been for a decade.

Israel is already fighting a secret war against Iran, reportedly assassinating Iranian nuclear scientists, planting computer viruses in the heart of Iranian scientific complexes, destroying centrifuges by taking over their operating programs and making them spin themselves to destruction, and booby-trapping key items that Iran imports from foreign countries.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu voices concern over the progress of Iran's nuclear program while addressing the American Israel Public Affairs Committee.

So why up the stakes by launching an air attack, with all the risks of downed pilots being captured, civilian casualties, and massive reprisals?

This would at best buy a few years' time, while giving Iran the excuse it needs -- in the light of open Israeli aggression -- to publicly declare its need for a defensive nuclear option.

Israel’s considerations go beyond an actual attack. The question is, will Iran’s response be so severe that Israel would regret attacking it for evermore? That’s certainly what Iran wants Israel to think.

But Iran’s threats to rain down thousands of rockets a day on Israel appear increasingly hollow.

Syrian support for Iran is now far from guaranteed. And economic sanctions mean Iran is less able to finance and supply its allies in the war against Israel -- Hezbollah in south Lebanon and Hamas in Gaza.

Israeli military analysts are increasingly sanguine about the threat. They believe Iran’s response will be severe, but nothing like it would have been before the revolt against President Bashar Assad in Syria, which weakened him and Hezbollah.

As for Washington, there is certainly no stomach for another war just as it is winding down troop levels in Afghanistan.

It’s the last thing America needs as it tries to cut down on spending and reduce its $16 trillion national debt.

Yet Obama appears committed to doing whatever it takes to stop the Iranians from getting a nuke.

Foreign Policy magazine reported last October that America and Israel were considering a joint air attack that could last days, or maybe just hours. But then what?

The best hope for a peaceful solution would be regime change in Iran, or a change of heart by the present fundamentalist Muslim leaders.

Neither seems likely.

On Monday, Martin Fletcher looks at what is possibly an even more urgent threat to Israel: the civil war in Syria.

Martin Fletcher is the author of “Walking Israel," "The List" and "Breaking News."

President Obama makes his first trip to Israel where he will meet with Israeli President Shimon Peres and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu as well as Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. NBC's Peter Alexander reports.

Related:

Obama: Iran more than a year away from nuclear weapon

Netanyahu says nuclear talks buy Iran time to build the bomb

Analysis: Israel airstrike may foreshadow Iran attack