The threat of a military attack on Iran's nuclear facilities this year appears to have substantially subsided over the past several weeks as a result of several developments, including the biting criticisms of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak voiced recently by former top national security officials.
The possibility of war seems significantly more remote than it did during the winter months, when tensions reached an all-time high. The New York Times even recently ran a front-page feature entitled “Experts Believe Iran Conflict is Less Likely.”
Judging by actual bets placed on the online trading exchange Intrade, experts believe the chances that the United States or Israel will actually launch air strikes against Iran before the end of the year have fallen by more than half since the high reached in mid-February—from just over 60 percent to about 28 percent as of early May.
That's still a substantial percentage—about twice what it was before the latest round of Israeli saber-rattling began in November.
It's difficult to find any close observer who believes that war clouds could not suddenly reappear, particularly if the next meeting of the so-called P5+1 (the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council plus Germany) with Iran scheduled for May 23 in Baghdad should break down or be delayed.
For its part, the Barack Obama administration has shown little inclination to reduce pressure—and the threat of military action—on Tehran.
Not only has it moved more minesweepers and F-15 fighter jets into the Gulf region, but the air force also announced recently that it has deployed an undisclosed number of advanced F-22 stealth fighter-bombers to the area, specifically to the United Arab Emirates (UAE), according to the industry publication Aviation Week.
Diplomatic Inroads and Changing Politics
Despite those moves, fears of a U.S. or Israeli attack on Iran this year have clearly receded, especially since all sides left the April P5+1 meeting in Istanbul seemingly satisfied with the seriousness of the exchanges and guardedly optimistic that a diplomatic solution could yet be achieved.
The meeting's success was made possible by readiness on both sides to make concessions on key issues: on Tehran's part, by stating explicitly that it could halt its enrichment of uranium to 20 percent, transfer its stockpile of 20-percent enriched uranium out of the country, and accept greater scrutiny by international weapons inspectors under the right circumstances; on Washington's, by stating more clearly than ever that it could accept Iran's continued uranium enrichment of up to 5 percent under the right circumstances.
Whether the "right circumstances" can be accommodated by all sides, of course, will determine the ultimate success or failure of the negotiations.
Meanwhile, however, the U.S. and Israeli hawks who have been most disdainful of the diplomatic route—and most insistent that only military action can dispose of the alleged threat posed by Iran's nuclear program—have found themselves increasingly on the defensive since tensions reached a peak in early March.
It was then that Obama declared at the annual convention of the influential American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) that "the loose talk of war" by Republican presidential candidates like Mitt Romney, Rick Santorum, and Newt Gingrich was dangerous and counterproductive.
At the time, AIPAC was pressing Congress for quick passage of both a new round of unilateral sanctions against Iran and a Senate resolution that would define Tehran's development of a "nuclear-weapons capability" as the U.S. "red line" for taking military action, rather than the administration's trigger, which has been Iran’s development of an actual nuclear weapon.
"Once the president put the argument about the 'loose talk of war,' the momentum shifted quite dramatically," said Jamal Abdi, policy director of the National Iranian American Council (NIAC). He noted that Democrats who had previously bowed to AIPAC's hawkish line have since become more deferential to the White House.
One token of the change was a recent anti-war ad run by former Nebraska Sen. Bob Kerrey, a cheerleader for the Iraq invasion 10 years ago who is now running to reclaim his old seat. In it, he warned that a war against Iran would make "Iraq and Afghanistan look like a cakewalk."
"It's a much different debate now," Abdi told Inter Press Service. "It's now 'diplomacy versus war,' not 'war now or later.'" While sanctions legislation is still pending, he said, "There doesn't seem to be much of a push to get it done, at least before the Baghdad meeting anyway. Congress is in a kind of 'wait-and-see' mode."
Ironically, the hawks have also been set back by the intensifying appeals by neoconservatives for Washington to intervene militarily in Syria.
Not only has that debate diverted time and energy that many of the fiercest hawks would otherwise devote to Iran. It has also exposed divides, similar to those that surfaced last year over the intervention in Libya, between interventionists on one hand and realists and libertarians on the other within the Republican Party.
"Talking about war with Iran at the same time that you want us to get involved in a civil war in Syria is not a popular message this year," according to one congressional staffer who cited recent public opinion polls suggesting that Republicans have become almost as war-weary as Democrats. "Given Iraq, Afghanistan, and Libya, it's a bit much."
Similarly, the unprecedented public criticism of Netanyahu and Barak by former senior Israeli national security officials has given new ammunition to those who favor diplomacy.
In recent weeks, the former head of Israel's Mossad spy agency, Meir Dagan, reiterated his long-held views that an Israeli attack on Iran would be "stupid" on the most-watched U.S. public affairs television program, 60 Minutes.
His successor and current Mossad head, Tamir Pardo, subsequently publicly questioned whether an Iranian nuclear weapon would pose an "existential" threat to Israel, as repeatedly alleged by Netanyahu.
Additionally, the head of the Israel Defense Forces, Lt. Gen. Benny Gantz, asserted that Iranian leaders, contrary to Netanyahu's views, were "very rational" and were likely to stop short of developing a nuclear weapon.
But perhaps the most damaging attack to date came when Yuval Diskin, the previous chief of Israel's domestic intelligence agency, denounced both Netanyahu and Barak as acting out of "messianic feelings," predicting that an Israeli attack would likely accelerate Tehran's nuclear program.
"I saw them up close, they are not messiahs," he said. "My main problem on this issue is that I don't have confidence in the current leadership of the State of Israel—[they] could lead Israel into something of the order of magnitude of a war with Iran or a regional war."
Diskin's remarks, which were defended by former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Gantz's predecessor, retired Gen. Gabi Ashkenazi, at a rancorous conference in New York, will almost certainly give pause to Netanyahu—who, despite his messianism, is also famously risk-averse, according to former Israeli peace negotiator Daniel Levy.
"He knows that if anything goes wrong [in an attack on Iran], there are very well-respected non-political Israeli figures who will be there to ferociously attack him," Levy said, adding that Netanyahu will likely call an election for September or October in the coming weeks.
"That makes the relative unlikelihood of a strike in 2012 even less likely," he told IPS.