Experts Believe Iran Conflict Is Less Likelyhttp://www.nytimes.com/2012/
WASHINGTON — After a winter of alarm over the possibility that a military conflict over the Iranian nuclear program might be imminent, American officials and outside analysts now believe that the chances of war in the near future have significantly decreased.
They cite a series of factors that, for now, argue against a conflict. The threat of tighter economic sanctions has prompted the Iranians to try more flexible tactics in their dealings with the United States and other powers, while the revival of direct negotiations has tempered the most inflammatory talk on all sides.
A growing divide in Israel between political leaders and military and intelligence officials over the wisdom of attacking Iran has begun to surface. And the White House appears determined to prevent any confrontation that could disrupt world oil markets in an election year.
“I do think the temperature has cooled,” an Obama administration official said this week.
At the same time, no one is discounting the possibility that the current optimism could fade. “While there isn’t an agreement between the U.S. and Israel on how much time, there is an agreement that there is some time to give diplomacy a chance,” said Dennis B. Ross, who previously handled Iran policy for the Obama administration.
“So I think right now you have a focus on the negotiations,” he added. “It doesn’t mean the threat of using force goes away, but it lies behind the diplomacy.”
The talks two weeks ago in Istanbul between Iran and the United States and other world powers were something of a turning point in the current American thinking about Iran. In the days leading up to the talks, there had been little optimism in Washington, but Iranian negotiators appeared more flexible and open to resolving the crisis than expected, even though no agreement was reached other than to talk again, in Baghdad next month. American officials believe the looming threat of tighter economic sanctions to take effect on July 1 convinced the Iranians to take the negotiations more seriously, and that in turn has reduced the threat of war.
“There is a combination of factors coming on line, including the talks and the sanctions, and so now I think people realize it has to be given time to play out,” one administration official said, who, like the other official, spoke without attribution in order to discuss sensitive matters. “We are in a period now where the combination of diplomacy and pressure is giving us a window.”
In a television appearance on Wednesday, Senator John Kerry, the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said, “I have confidence that there is a way forward.”
Senior Iranian leaders have sought to portray the Istanbul round of negotiations as successful, which might be a sign, American officials and outside analysts said, that the Iranian government is preparing the public for a deal with the West that could be portrayed as a win for Iran.
“I see that we are at the beginning of the end of what I call the ‘manufactured Iran file,’ ” the Iranian foreign minister, Ali Akbar Salehi, said after the talks. “At the Baghdad meeting, I see more progress,” he predicted.
IRNA, the Iranian state-controlled news service, reported last week that a leading Iranian cleric, Ayatollah Kazem Seddiqi, had made positive statements about the negotiations. The news service said that the cleric, in his Friday sermon to thousands of worshipers in Tehran, said that if the United States and other nations negotiating with Iran show “logical behavior in nuclear talks, the outcome will be good for all.”
According to IRNA, Ayatollah Seddiqi said the Istanbul meeting showed “the power and dignity of the Iranian nation and was the outcome of people’s resistance and following the supreme leader’s guidelines.”
At the same time in Israel, the conservative government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has been rocked by a series of public comments from current and former Israeli military and intelligence officials questioning the wisdom of attacking Iran.
The latest comments came from Yuval Diskin, the former chief of Shin Bet, Israel’s domestic security service, who on Friday said Mr. Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak should not be trusted to determine policy on Iran. He said the judgments of both men have been clouded by “messianic feelings.” Mr. Diskin, who was chief of Shin Bet until last year, said an attack against Iran might cause it to speed up its nuclear program.
Just days before, Israel’s army chief of staff suggested in an interview with the Israeli newspaper Haaretz that the Iranian nuclear threat was not quite as imminent as Mr. Netanyahu has portrayed it. In his comments, Lt. Gen. Benny Gantz suggested that he agreed with the intelligence assessments of the United States that Iran has not yet decided whether to build a nuclear bomb.
Iran “is going step by step to the place where it will be able to decide whether to manufacture a nuclear bomb. It hasn’t yet decided whether to go the extra mile,” General Gantz told Haaretz. He suggested that the crisis may not come to a head this year. But he said, “Clearly, the more the Iranians progress, the worse the situation is.”
Last month, Meir Dagan, the former chief of the Israeli spy agency Mossad, said he did not advocate a pre-emptive Israeli strike against Iran’s nuclear program anytime soon. In an interview with CBS’s “60 Minutes,” Mr. Dagan said the Iranian government was “a very rational one,” and that Iranian officials were “considering all the implications of their actions.”
Mr. Netanyahu is dealing with the criticisms at the same time as he faces, for domestic political reasons, the prospect of an election this year, rather than next.
The divide within the Israeli establishment is significant because Israel has been threatening to launch a unilateral strike against Iran’s nuclear facilities if the United States is unwilling to do so. Washington has feared that if Israel were to do so, the United States could get dragged into the fight, which could result in a widening war in the region.
The crisis atmosphere seemed most pronounced in March, when Mr. Netanyahu visited Washington. Mr. Obama, fearful of antagonizing American Jewish voters during an election year, tried to strike a balance, appearing supportive of Israel but still stopping short of endorsing military action anytime soon. He said at the time that he “had Israel’s back,” and strongly suggested that the United States would take military action to prevent Iran from ever acquiring a nuclear bomb.
Mr. Obama made it clear that he would not be willing to pursue a policy of “containment” on Iran, in which the United States would accept an Iranian nuclear weapon while seeking to prevent a further nuclear arms race in the Middle East.
Abandoning containment as a policy option was the result of an intense debate within the administration, and moved Washington a bit closer to the Israeli position, and it was considered by the White House to be the biggest reward they were willing to give Mr. Netanyahu during his visit. Yet Mr. Obama also made it clear that he believes now is the time to give diplomacy a chance.
But some analysts warned that the Iran crisis could heat up again if there was not much progress at the Baghdad talks. The Istanbul meetings were designed simply to determine whether Iran was serious about beginning a new round of negotiations, but in the Baghdad sessions, the United States and other countries are expected to demand that Iran begin to discuss the details of a possible deal. That would require that Iran show a willingness to compromise on its uranium enrichment program, perhaps by agreeing to halt its efforts to enrich at 20 percent, a level that is higher than is needed for civilian nuclear power.
Iran has said that its 20 percent enrichment effort is for use in a research reactor, but the United States and Israel suspect that it is actually an interim step in efforts to reach 90 percent enrichment, considered weapons-grade. If Iran does not engage in a substantive discussion of the details of its program in Baghdad, the crisis atmosphere may return.
“I think this could be a temporary lull,” said Paul R. Pillar, a former C.I.A. analyst on the Middle East. “My own expectation is that even after Baghdad, we will only see the most preliminary understandings, and we will hear again people saying we are giving up too much. And the lull right now could just be a lull between the diplomatic meetings.”