Experts Believe Iran Conflict Is Less Likely (NY) TIMES) By JAMES RISEN WASHINGTON 04/30/12)
NEW YORK TIMES
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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
“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
“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
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
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
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
Isabel Kershner contributed reporting from Jerusalem, and Artin
Afkhami from Boston. (Copyright 2012 The New York Times Company
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