Iranian soldier - Reuters - 20012012
An Iranian soldier during a drill near the Strait of Hormuz. Photo by Reuters
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The international media have adopted an all-encompassing script regarding the Persian Gulf: Israel is determined to bomb Iran, and the U.S. is doing everything in its power to restrain the Netanyahu government. Every report about new developments in the gulf, from a war of words over the Strait of Hormuz to magnetic bombs in central Tehran, is wedged into this pre-determined narrative of an impending military confrontation.

Speculation has heightened over the last two weeks, as reports continue to emerge from Israel, Iran and the U.S. First came the killing of the Iranian nuclear scientist, and then the Wall Street Journal reported that U.S. President Barack Obama tried to calm down Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu; then came the decision to defer a joint Israeli-American military exercise for a few months, along with the news of the visit to Israel of the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Martin Dempsey, who arrived yesterday.

Defense Minister Ehud Barak was drafted on Wednesday to allay anxieties. In an Army Radio interview, Barak declared: "We haven't reached a decision to undertake [an attack on Iran]. We haven't set a date for reaching a decision. Everything is in the distance. I don't think we should deal with this as though it were going to happen tomorrow." Even the Kadima primaries, scheduled for March 27, "will happen before this," Barak added, a nod to the opposition party, which set its primary date just a few hours before. "I don't think that the chairman of the Joint Chiefs is coming to pressure Israel. All of the handling of our relations with the United States comes out a little distorted in the media."

A few hours after Barak's interview, a top State Department official in Washington gathered Israeli journalists for an unusual briefing. Her message: International sanctions led by the Obama administration against Iran are working. They have already caused real damage to the Iranian economy, and they will be stiffened during the coming year, she said. Concurrently, the U.S. is working to enlarge oil reserves around the world, and to pressure large oil-consuming nations, such as India and China, into curtailing their oil imports from Tehran.

Taken together with Gen. Dempsey's first visit, undertaken just four months after he assumed his post, along with the stream of top officials who have arrived here since the summer, it is hard not to conclude that the Americans are worried.

Cause for anxiety

The official American stance of total opposition to an Israeli attack on Iran has not changed, certainly not under present circumstances. U.S. tactics, however, have changed. In a San Francisco forum two months ago, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta explained why an Israeli attack, which would be also be viewed as an American strike, would be a bad idea. Panetta referred to concerns about rises in oil prices, which would hurt the pockets of American consumers during a presidential election year.

He also estimated that the bombing of Iranian nuclear sites would not delay the nuclear project by more than a year or two.

Panetta assumed that his comments were off the record. After they were leaked, Washington changed its orientation, from one of implicitly rebuking Jerusalem to one of embracing Israel's leadership. Now the Americans are talking about fulfilling a joint objective while working shoulder-to-shoulder; once again, they are hinting about a military option, and speaking effusively about the success of the sanctions.

The Americans' ultimate objective seems to remain constant: They want to stop Israel from attacking during the coming months. The U.S. respects Israel's sovereignty, and its right to self-defense, as Barak stridently notes; yet the string of warnings issued by former Mossad chief Meir Dagan about intentions harbored by Netanyahu and Barak surely sent alarm bells ringing in Washington.

It can be assumed that the Americans have other information and intelligence sources that have given them reasons to worry.

Barak told Army Radio that Obama is providing "unprecedented support" to Israel, and is assisting its defense more than his predecessors. He hinted that the U.S. president is also "prepared for other options."

All parts of the defense minister's analysis are correct, yet the deep loathing that Netanyahu incurred in the Obama administration by deploying stalling tactics for three years on the Palestinian track cannot be discounted.

The Obama White House appears to suspect that Israeli willingness to launch an attack this year does not stem only from the Iranians' progress in installation of centrifuges in the underground facility near Qom. There is also a feeling that Netanyahu and Barak reason that the U.S. president will not risk losing the Jewish vote in an election year by precipitating a diplomatic fracas with Israel's leadership.

Springtime strike

The passage of time is also having an effect on the chances of an attack. Western analysts believe that winter clouds above Iran mean that an effective strike against the country's nuclear facilities could not be undertaken at least until March. The fear of an Israeli attack on Iran, which saturated international media until the end of autumn, is making its way back to the headlines as spring gets a little closer. The level of agreement between Israel and Western states regarding Iran's intentions and the pace of its nuclear program's advance is wider than it has been in the past.

Israeli officials regarded last November's report by the International Atomic Energy Agency as confirmation of their assumption that Iran is active on the military track in an effort to attain nuclear strike capability.

Based on this shared assessment, Israel continues to send aggressive signals. Netanyahu's appearance at the Israel Defense Forces' General Staff forum, flanked by senior officers, should be seen as one such signal.

The threat of a strike is supposed to serve two purposes: In theory, it ups the ante, provoking more substantive international action against Iran (because unless measures are taken, those crazy Israelis will attack ), and it improves the IDF's operational readiness. The problem is that prolonged preparations for an action in Iran pull the Israel Air Force in all sorts of directions, and they come at the expense of IDF preparation for other possible scenarios.

The final decision is in Netanyahu's hands, and is subject to a cabinet vote. Yet Barak exerts considerable influence on the prime minister.

Netanyahu currently enjoys considerable strength in the domestic political arena, and sometimes his popularity translates into acts of hubris. A number of factors - the realization of the Shalit prisoner-exchange deal, Netanyahu's rise in popularity, and the apparent lack of serious political rivals in Likud, or in other parties - have political analysts wondering how the prime minister will comport himself. Will Netanyahu be goaded into trying an attack on Iran, or, conversely, will his political ascendancy lead him to think that he should not endanger his popularity?

The Barak riddle

At least two retired IDF major generals, both of whom worked closely with Netanyahu in the past, believe that despite his deep ideological commitment (the prime minister talks about an Iranian bomb as though it poses a threat of a second holocaust of the Jewish people ), Netanyahu will not take the risk of launching a strike against Iran in the absence of consent of, and coordination with, the Obama administration.

The defense minister, on the other hand, remains an enigma wrapped within a riddle. Only total cynics believe that his intensive involvement of the Iranian issue is motivated by a desire to rise to the top of Likud's list. As Barak ages (next month he will turn 70 ), interviews with him, particularly in the electronic media, become more interesting. His interview on Army Radio was particularly revealing, as was an interview he did with CNN in November where he declared that less than a year remained to stop the Iranian nuclear program from reaching its objective.

That interview was an attempt to spell out Israel's ultimate red lines for Iran. When a significant amount of enriched uranium reaches the fortified facility at Qom, Israel will lose any possible first strike capability and may have to take the military option off the table altogether.

Since it has more sophisticated military wherewithal, the window of opportunity for an American strike against Iran would last a few months beyond this "red line" point for Israel.

In other words, Barak has been hinting that the West in general, and the U.S. in particular, has chosen the wrong focus by directing attention to the question of when exactly Iran might move from the development of nuclear capability to a specific campaign to attain nuclear weaponization (particularly by arming missiles with nuclear warheads ). Once enough materials have reached heavily fortified underground sites, Iran's nuclear program might be shielded in a way that allows it to choose whatever time it wants to accelerate a nuclear weapons effort.

Israeli intelligence officials believe that Iran has yet to reach a final decision regarding an attempt to assemble a nuclear bomb. The Americans concur with this analysis. Moving ahead with an effort to make a bomb entails a cost - by demonstratively blocking any IAEA monitoring efforts, Iran would have to endure yet stiffer sanctions.

Mixed on sanctions

The issue of sanctions seems vital. Iran is indicating that the sanctions cause vast economic damage, since the country's currency has devalued by 60 percent against the dollar in recent months. The European Union is prepared to engage in a full embargo on oil imports from Iran, starting this July. Russia claims that such international actions will mainly harm Iran's citizenry, and that their main intention is to topple the regime in Tehran, rather than to forestall its nuclear program.

Israel has been sending mixed signals regarding the efficacy of sanctions. In an interview with an Australian newspaper last week, Netanyahu praised the sanctions; yet on Monday, he cast doubt about their utility during a briefing given to the Knesset's Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, and on his trip to Holland on Wednesday he called for tougher sanctions.

Barak told Army Radio that "there's no doubt that we're seeing effects from the sanctions," but he doubted that these effects would be powerful enough to persuade Iran's leaders to forgo the nuclear weapon option.

The sanctions will influence developments Iran's parliamentary elections, which are scheduled for March. International pressure is expected to strengthen the regime's opponents.

Will the sequence of events lead to an attempt to manipulate the election's results, as many claim the regime did after balloting in the 2009 presidential race?

The "Green Revolution" in Iran that summer foreshadowed the coming of the Arab Spring last year. A sequel involving accusations of election fraud could ignite fires of domestic unrest, and the dissent this time could be reinforced by residents of neighboring states.

Faced with such domestic turmoil as well as with the international sanctions, Iran's leadership is signaling willingness to undertake a review about the aims of its nuclear effort. Such signals about a reassessment are surely a mere stalling tactic; but they nevertheless reflect anxieties in Tehran.

While eyes around the world are watching out for an Israeli attack on Iranian nuclear sites, another possible theater of conflict is the Strait of Hormuz, where the Iranians are renewing threats that they might disrupt the supply of oil from the Gulf states, in response to the sanctions. July 2012 is the date scheduled for the opening of a new pipeline that would bypass the strait and supply 1.5 million barrels of oil a day.

Until this pipeline comes online, Iran has the power to hold hostage about 20 percent of the world's oil supply. Britain and the U.S. are currently deploying unusually large naval presences around the Gulf. A third U.S. aircraft carrier is scheduled to reach the Persian Gulf area in another two weeks.

This has yet to reach a level of tension on a par with the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis, yet temperatures are definitely rising. A miscalculation, particularly by Iran, could cause an eruption of violence, even one that seems to be against Tehran's objective interests.

This could be the background to the Americans' somewhat surprising disavowal regarding the killing of the nuclear scientist last week, and also to the decision to defer a joint drill involving missile defense systems, from April to the end of the year. The real game is now being played in the sanctions arena, and it would be wrong to downplay the damage sanctions cause to the Iranian regime's stability.

Active efforts to derail the nuclear project, such as the liquidation of scientists, are likely to be held in abeyance. As far as the Obama administration is concerned, should violence erupt in the near future, it should come as the result of coordinated international action, and not as a result of what Iran might be able to portray as acts of military aggression against it. This being Washington's agenda, it is asking Israel's boat not to enter the path charted by its aircraft carrier.