Set your clocks and start your engines.
We’re counting down for a conflict in the Middle East. It’s not clear how it will start, or what will happen once it does. But it’s likely to begin in that narrow window of time between three countdown clocks sitting on Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu’s desk.
The first clock counts the "zone of diplomacy" -- how much more time Israel feels it must give President Obama to halt Iran’s nuclear programs with sanctions and diplomacy. Netanyahu has concluded that three years of sanctions and diplomatic outreach to Iran have failed; that the only thing Iran has done since Obama extended the hand of friendship is accelerate its nuclear weapons program.
Obama wants to give a new round of sanctions and diplomacy more time. The sooner Netanyahu launches his jets, the better things look for his country militarily, but the worse they look diplomatically.
And here's the truth: whatever happens once the dust settles, Israel needs America.
The second clock counts Iran’s "zone of immunity" -- that is how much time is left before Iran moves its nuclear program deep underground where it is no longer vulnerable to an Israeli attack.
The more capable US weapons systems could attack Iran’s nuclear sites even after Iran moves underground, but Israel can’t bet its very existence on Obama’s willingness to use them.
The third clock counts down to the American election -- let's call it the "campaign zone." No presidential candidate can abandon Israel and expect to win in November. On the other hand, no president wants to seek re-election with another war in the Middle East and high gasoline prices at the pump as his calling card.
Israel knows that in the second term of an Obama presidency these factors are reversed. His pledge to have Israel's back may not hold past November.
Those three clocks should all near the final count down by this summer, leaving Netanyahu to ponder whether he should put the fate of Israel’s future in Obama’s hands.
He has already made it clear that when it comes to decision time, he won’t wait for Obama to save him. His statement this week that, “My supreme responsibility as prime minister of Israel is to ensure that Israel remains the master of its fate,” made clear that if it comes down to the crunch, Netanyahu won’t hesitate to go it alone.
But Netanyahu also made it clear that while Israel might feel compelled to go it alone, Iran would retaliate against the United States as well as Israel. He told Obama at the White House Monday, “You are the big Satan and we are the little Satan....We are you and you are us.”
Israel is not the only country setting the agenda in the Middle East, however. The United States and Iran may not initiate events, but they will respond to them.
And all three countries have different objectives. Israel’s position is straightforward. A nuclear Iran is an existential threat to the State of Israel. In other words, if Iran gets nukes, Israel’s days are numbered. It wants to stop a nuclear Iran at all costs.
The Iranian regime’s objectives are two-fold and mutually reinforcing: to become a nuclear weapons state AND even more importantly, to control the world’s energy flow.
Iran envisions an empire stretching from the Persian Gulf to the Mediterranean Sea, giving them control of the vital choke point of nearly a third of the world’s oil. Nuclear weapons might allow Iran to hold Israel and the Middle East hostage, but control over a vital piece of the world’s oil supply gives them leverage over the entire planet. Iran doesn’t want a war, especially one that draws in the overwhelming military power of the United States.
America’s objectives are more complicated. A nuclear Iran isn’t an existential threat for the United States the way it is for Israel, at least not for several years until Iran has Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles capable of reaching us.
We’re more concerned about proliferation of nuclear weapons in the region as other Middle East nations race to get their own. That means the next war in the Middle East – and for three thousand years there has always been another war in the Middle East – could well go nuclear.
As a country the immediate concern for the United States is to keep the oil flowing and domestic gasoline prices low. A conflict or even a prolonged crisis in the region could send prices through the roof.
For President Obama personally, the countdown is a test of his worldview and outreach to the Muslim world; hence his continued insistence on sanctions and diplomacy even in the face of three years of failure. But he’s a practical politician facing a tough reelection campaign. He is unlikely to initiate military action against Iran, despite what he says, but wouldn’t risk abandoning Israel once war breaks out and alienating key voters in the swing states, especially Florida.
He also knows that Americans are war weary, and that any conflict in the Middle East will rattle the world’s oil markets. High gasoline prices and long lines at the pump are the last thing he wants come November, especially since he has opposed ramped up development of the US oil and natural gas industries.
A second term Obama is an unconstrained Obama. His commitment to Israel could waver, especially if the price is economic reversals and a prolonged military commitment.
Israel, the United States and Iran are locked in a dance of destiny, and time is the dancing master. When the clocks finish counting down and the music finally stops is anyone’s guess.
Kathleen Troia "K.T." McFarland is a Fox News National Security Analyst and host of FoxNews.com's DefCon 3. She is a Distinguished Adviser to the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies and served in national security posts in the Nixon, Ford and Reagan administrations. She wrote Secretary of Defense Weinberger’s November 1984 "Principles of War Speech" which laid out the Weinberger Doctrine. Be sure to watch "K.T." every Wednesday at 2 p.m. ET on FoxNews.com's "DefCon3"-- already one of the Web's most watched national security programs.