Only a handful of people in the world really know what Israel is going to do about Iran. Whether it is planning to attack alone, whether it is waiting for the US, or whether all the talk is just a bluff.

Also, only a handful of people really know what the Americans are telling the Israelis behind closed doors.

And the handful of people who really do know – the prime minister, the defense minister, the chief of staff; the US president, defense secretary and chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff – are not talking.

Neither are either countries’ national security advisers.

There may be some in outer circles who are talking, but they are at a distance from the core, and are not in the private sessions.

They also do not really know.

Which means there is very little real information out there.

Yet Iran is a huge issue, and people want to know whether, when and how Israel is going to attack. So in lieu of any real information, we are all left with two devices – speculation, or parsing public statements to death, treating them like Talmudic passages, comparing statements, analyzing words, independently reaching conclusions.

Over the past few months – in learned and long pieces in such reputable publications as The Atlantic, The New York Times, and Yediot Aharonot – there have been innumerable articles based on leaks and half-leaks and connecting the dots saying that Israel will attack by April; no, wait, a 50-50 chance for an attack by the end of 2012; no, hold on, the US will attack in another year and a half.

Enter US Defense Secretary Leon Panetta.

In a warm, smiling, handshake pumping photo-op before his meeting with Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu on Wednesday, the two men – not speaking extemporaneously but rather reading from carefully prepared statements – gave us a real-time glimpse at the differences in the two countries’ approaches to Iran.

And it all has to do with one word: capability.

Listen to what the two men said: “Today we’ll have the opportunity to discuss the many challenges facing our region and no challenge is greater than stopping Iran’s pursuit of a nuclear weapons capability,” Netanyahu said, welcoming his guest.

This is a line we think we have heard a million times before.

And, indeed, we have. But pay attention to the word capability.

There is a need, Netanyahu said, to keep Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons capability.

Now listen to Panetta, when it is his turn to speak: “I want to reassert again the position of the United States that with regards to Iran, we will not allow Iran to develop a nuclear weapon, period,” he said in an unequivocal statement that sounded like a read-my-lips-moment. “We will not allow them to develop a nuclear weapon, and we will exert all options in the effort to ensure that that does not happen.”

The US won’t allow Tehran to get a nuclear weapon. But Panetta did not say anything about keeping the Iranians from gaining nuclear weapons capability.

And that is a world of difference.

In Netanyahu’s view, Tehran must be kept from accumulating all the different components needed for a nuclear weapon, meaning it cannot have the sufficient quantities of enriched uranium, triggers and missiles. It must be stopped before it has all the technical pieces in place and just needs to make the decision to put them together.

In Panetta’s view, Iran cannot get a weapon. Apparently meaning, if his words are parsed, that the US has no intention of preventing the Iranians from achieving the capabilities, only from actually putting all the capabilities they accumulate into a nuclear bomb.

In layman’s terms, that means that in America’s view it may be okay if the Iranians have a missile in one room, and all the enriched uranium for a bomb in another, as long as they do not make the decision to put it all together in the same room and emerge with a nuclear-tipped missile. Israel’s view is that Iran must be stopped before it has sufficient uranium in any one room.

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This difference – between keeping Iran from nuclear capability and keeping Tehran from a nuclear weapon – has huge operational ramifications affecting the decision when military action might need to be taken.

Those who believe the Iranians must be stopped before they have achieved nuclear capabilities must take action well before those who say they must be stopped only before they start putting together everything they have in their different “rooms.”

That key difference in approach came out clearly in Netanyahu and Panetta’s smiling public comments on Wednesday. But how the two sides deal with that difference, and what it means operationally, remains very much in the realm of speculation.

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