The growing rift between the Obama administration and Israel, coupled with the administration's failure to rein in Tehran's nuclear program, has increased the chances that the Israelis will eventually launch an attack on Iran, experts said.
"U.S.-Israeli relations are at their lowest point since ... the early '80s," said Ilan Berman, vice president of the American Foreign Policy Council. "It has a lot to do with the fact that Israel thinks this administration is not serious about preventing a nuclear Iran. What is Israel going to do? I'm not certain one way or another. But from the rhetoric, there will come a determining point."
Berman said Israel "could wait and see if sanctions would work, [but] if Israel feels threatened it would strike first before allowing a nuclear Iran."
"If I had to put down odds, I think I would [bet on] the latter," he added.
A U.S. intelligence official who spoke to this reporter on condition of anonymity said, "Israel will not allow a nuclear Iran to rise. And the U.S. should not either."
Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has frequently promised to destroy Israel, something American officials tend to see as an empty boast aimed at his Islamic extremist power base, but which Israel takes much more seriously.
The Obama administration's diplomatic efforts aimed at forcing Iran to give up its aspirations to produce nuclear weapons have recently become entangled in global economic realities. China, which uses lots of Iranian oil and sees little advantage in helping the U.S. in the Middle East, has muddied international efforts to toughen sanctions.
The sanctions that have been imposed have proved ineffective, experts said.
This has created distress in Israel, especially in light of worsening relations with the United States. That split was demonstrated earlier this month when Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu decided not to attend the 47-nation nuclear security summit.
Patrick Clawson, deputy director for research at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said that despite Iran's determination for nuclear warheads, "it has encountered significant technical problems that might be slowing it down at least enough to buy the U.S. and Israel some more time."
Clawson said efforts by Israel and Western countries to slow Iranian attempts to collect what it needs to become a nuclear nation have delayed their program by several months.
But that is delaying the inevitable, experts said. And, when Iran is armed with nuclear weapons, many analysts believe Tel Aviv will be less inclined than at any time in decades to defer to Washington on what action to take. Clawson said Israel "will certainly make its decision on its own" as to whether it will use force against Iran.
Assessments vary as to when Iran will be able to produce nuclear weapons and launch those weapons at its enemies. An unclassified report issued by the Defense Department and first published by Reuters earlier this month said, "With sufficient foreign assistance, Iran could probably develop and test an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) capable of reaching the United States by 2015."
In February the International Atomic Energy Agency acknowledged Iran's determination to develop a nuclear weapon as rapidly as possible. It was a change from past assessments that stated Iran was still not close to developing a fully capable nuclear weapon.
The IAEA findings gave the U.S. all the evidence it needed to pursue strong sanctions against Iran, Israel believed. But the response from the Obama administration was seen as "futile," in the words of one analyst.
Iran has been using every means at its disposal in an attempt to acquire enriched uranium to boost its nuclear program, the assessment said. Iranian officials have publicly denied those claims, saying that its plans to enrich uranium to 20 percent levels would be used for the treatment of cancer patients.
Berman warned that the Obama administration's policy to view the Iranian nuclear issue "as more of a management problem than a global crisis has created serious discontent between Jerusalem and Washington."
He said, "Remember, Israel is not separated from Iran by a large ocean so they can't say, 'Hey maybe Iran is bluffing when they say they want to annihilate us.' The Israelis have no other choice but to take what Iran says seriously regardless of what anyone else is saying."