Israeli strike on Iran far off or by years end

Israel, the United States and Iran have all gone deep into mixed-signals territory.

Conversations with Israeli officials, including Defense Minister Ehud Barak, left one prominent journalist convinced that Israel will strike Iran by year’s end. Yet two weeks ago, Barak had said that any possible Israeli attack on Iran is “far off.”

Leon Panetta, the U.S. defense secretary, said in December that any military strike would only set Iran’s nuclear program back a couple years — a remark that some Israelis read as conveying a sense of resignation to the idea that if Iran really wants a nuclear weapon, eventually it will be able to get one. But this week in a television interview he vowed that the U.S. would take “whatever steps are necessary” to stop Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon.

Ali Akbar Salehi photo/jta/creative commons/parmida rahimi

Meanwhile, Iran is responding to international sanctions with a mix of threats to shut down the Strait of Hormuz and efforts to placate Western concerns about its nuclear program by allowing in inspectors and calling for new talks.

Inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency arrived in Tehran on Jan. 29, and Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi offered the next day to extend the team’s three-day visit, expressing optimism their findings would help ease regional and international tensions, according to Iranian media.

Salehi, attending an African summit in Ethiopia, said he was “optimistic about the results of the visit” without offering more details.

Still, two questions remain: Will Israel strike Iran? And will the sanctions cause Iran to bend?

The first question was the subject of a much-discussed Sunday New York Times Magazine cover story by Ronen Bergman, one of Israel’s best-connected security journalists. It featured rare and extensive on-the-record interviews with top Israeli officials, most prominently Barak.

Ehud Barak

Recent moves by the Iranians have underscored the significance of the second question.

Last week, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said that Iran was ready to sit down for talks to discuss its nuclear program. And then came the U.N. inspectors.

The team was scheduled to visit an Iranian nuclear facility near the religious city of Qom. President Barack Obama’s revelation in 2009 of the until-then secret underground facility helped the United States make the case to the world community for intensified sanctions, leading to the recent international squeeze on Iran’s economy and energy sector.

The inspectors’ visit was the first since an IAEA report in November concluded that Iran was engaged in activities that could have no other discernible purpose but weaponization, particularly in the area of enhanced uranium enrichment capabilities.

Iran continues to insist that its nuclear program has strictly civilian purposes.

Iran is also sending mixed messages to the United States. In addition to its threat to shut the Strait of Hormuz in response to mounting sanctions, Iran’s army chief warned a U.S. aircraft carrier not to return to the Persian Gulf. But other Iranian officials later seemed to backtrack, calling the entry of another U.S. carrier into the gulf a routine event. Also this month, Iran test-fired cruise missiles that could be used against U.S. ships.

Israel’s plans also have been the subject of speculation.

In his New York Times Magazine article, Bergman concluded that an Israeli strike before year’s end was all but inevitable.

“I have come to believe that Israel will indeed strike Iran in 2012,” he wrote. “Perhaps in the small and ever-diminishing window that is left, the United States will choose to intervene after all, but here, from the Israeli perspective, there is not much hope for that.”

A number of Iran experts questioned his conclusions, noting that his article included a wealth of Israelis warning against such a strike, and even referred to Barak’s Jan. 18 statement that any decision to strike was “very far off.”

U.S. officials, including Panetta, have tried in recent weeks to emphasize their commitment to stopping Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons. In an interview broadcast Jan. 29, Panetta told “60 Minutes” that the United States would take “whatever steps are necessary” to prevent Iran from developing a nuclear weapon, calling it a “red line” for both Israelis and the United States.

Asked about the possibility of military action, Panetta responded that “there are no options that are off the table.”

Panetta also stressed the urgency of the situation, suggesting that Iran would be able to develop a nuclear weapon in approximately a year.

Israeli officials also seem to feel Iran is close to developing a nuclear weapon.

In a statement Jan. 30 after returning from the annual economic forum in Davos, Switzerland, Barak said: “The determination of world leaders is critical in order to prevent the Iranians from advancing their military nuclear program.

“Time is urgently running out.”

Meanwhile, during Jan. 31 hearings in Washington, D.C., James Clapper, the director of national intelligence, told Congress that Iran’s leadership has shown itself willing to carry out attacks on American soil.

“The 2011 plot  to assassinate the Saudi ambassador to the United States shows that some Iranian officials — probably including Supreme Leader Ali Khameini — have changed their calculus and are now more willing to conduct an attack in the United States in response to real or perceived U.S. actions that threaten the regime,” Clapper told the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence.

Clapper said Iran is “expanding its uranium enrichment capabilities,” strengthening the U.S. intelligence agencies’ assessment that “Iran has the scientific, technical and industrial capacity to eventually produce nuclear weapons.” However, he also said that intelligence services “do not know” if Iran will eventually build nuclear weapons. The central issue, he said, is “its political will to do so.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Ron Kampeas

JTA D.C. bureau chief