The pace of events in the confrontation between Iran, Israel, and the United States has accelerated rapidly in the last few months. The mysterious destruction of an Iranian missile facility in November was followed by a new wave of US-organized sanctions against Iran's central bank. In early January, Iran threatened to close the Strait of Hormuz and offered a belligerent "recommendation" that a US aircraft carrier avoid returning there. A week later, the assassination of an official from the Natanz enrichment plant triggered Iranian calls for revenge against Israel and the United States. (The United States has categorically denied any involvement.) A war appears likely before the end of 2012 -- in some sense, it may already be underway. Nevertheless, disaster might still be averted.
Starting in late October, Israeli media depicted the country's leadership as consumed with a debate about whether or not to attack Iran's nuclear facilities. The war camp allegedly consists of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak. In an interview broadcast on November 20, Barak told CNN that it was a matter of months -- "not two or three years" -- before Iran's nuclear program would become sufficiently dispersed as to enter a "zone of immunity." On December 1, Barak gave a similar interview to Voice of Israel radio, explaining that allowing too much time to pass would make it impossible to stop Iran from developing nuclear weapons. He added that the consequences of starting a war, including Iran's retaliatory missile barrages, would be manageable. "We are not looking for a war, but if Israel is pushed into a corner," it must act, he said. "We are not talking about 50,000 or 5,000 or not even 500 dead on the home front, provided everyone enters their shelter." Two days later on Israeli television, Barak said that the decision would come soon, remarking again, "This is not a matter of many years."
Actions have already followed the words. The January 11 killing of Mostafa Ahmadi Roshan, who was apparently in charge of buying equipment and materials for the Natanz enrichment complex, marks a watershed. Unlike previous targets since 2010, Ahmadi Roshan, a chemical engineer, does not seem to have been suspected of any role in a secret weapon-design effort. Rather, he worked at a safeguarded civilian facility. (The howls for bloody revenge heard from Iran underscore that a new line has been crossed.) A remarkable article in the Israeli newspaper Ha'aretz explains that Ahmadi Roshan was killed as part of an effort to complicate the rebuilding of Iran's nuclear infrastructure -- implying that its destruction, by whatever means, is not far off. Barak's more recent assurances that such an event is "really far away" -- certainly no sooner than late March -- do not offer much comfort.
Once, it was easy to interpret the words of senior Israeli officials as designed to intensify sanctions and diplomatic pressure. Now, it is hard to avoid the realization that they are meant to prepare Israel's public for war. What is less clear is why. The proximate cause for Barak's concerns about dispersal and protection of Iranian nuclear facilities seems to be the relocation of higher-level enrichment activities from an above-ground structure at Natanz to an underground facility at a military base near the city of Qom. But the Qom facility is subject to the almost continuous presence of international inspectors and does not actually appear half so invulnerable as it is usually described in the media. The US Defense Department even insists there would be "sufficient time" to detect and "take appropriate action" if the Iranians were to commence enriching uranium to weapons grade at any declared site.
Nahum Barnea, the distinguished Israeli columnist who broke the story of the war debate in late October, offered an explanation that had more to do with developments in Israel than in Iran. Turnover in the top ranks of Israel's national security establishment, Barnea reported, has dislodged the most senior and authoritative opponents of military action. One such person, former Mossad chief Meir Dagan, has loudly expressed concern about this precise scenario since mid-2011. Yet another possible explanation for the sudden sound of war drums is that an Israeli air campaign may depend on a window of opportunity opened by the withdrawal of American armed forces from Iraq, which President Obama announced just a week before Barnea's column appeared. In the absence of American forces, Iraq's military appears to have no ability to interfere with Israeli overflights.
The tightening of sanctions now urged by the United States seems, in part, like an attempt to head off Israeli action by applying enough pressure to get Iran to capitulate. Regardless of the exact reasons for mounting tensions, all of the main parties now have the opportunity to create a disaster. It may take some luck to avoid one.
The most serious mistake that Iran could make would be to carry out its threats to interfere with traffic in the Strait of Hormuz or to take any similarly drastic steps. The resulting clash could escalate quickly into an unwinnable conflict with the United States.
The most serious mistake that Israel could make would be to intensify what already looks like a covert war against Iran's civilian nuclear infrastructure or to transition to overt military operations without genuine provocation. If acted upon in this manner, Israeli fears that Iran will take its nuclear program underground (both literally and figuratively) threaten to become a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Barak's claims of an imminent decision point seem premature. As longtime Iran observer Patrick Clawson has recently written, Iran is quite unlikely to attempt a "nuclear breakout" for the sake of a single weapon's worth of highly enriched uranium: "Iran is more likely to wait until it can build quite a few nuclear warheads for missiles" -- either by stealth or in a very short period of time. Should Iran make the attempt, Clawson writes, "U.S. officials are confident that the current inhibitions against the use of military force against Iran would evaporate."
What's more, it's not clear that Iran's leaders would make such a risky decision without a heightened sense of threat. So far, there is no indication that they have done so, despite having continuously enriched uranium at some level since 2005. Israel's top leaders also seem to underestimate Iran's ability to discard its international safeguards agreement and reconstitute a nuclear weapons program rapidly. A centrifuge program is not like a nuclear reactor: In the absence of close scrutiny, a new facility can be set up quickly, quietly, and almost anywhere. Avner Cohen, chronicler of Israel's nuclear program, observes: "In fact, a military attack on Iran is probably what would make nuclear Iran and regional proliferation real. What an irony."
The most serious mistake that the United States could make would be to neglect the diplomatic opportunity now taking shape. Lately, Washington has shown itself to be more comfortable rallying the international community to new sanctions than with reaching a negotiated outcome -- or even reaching modest confidence-building steps. Americans so quickly wearied of Iran's obstreperous and erratic negotiating style that there has been very little engagement in the "two-track policy" of pressure and engagement since late 2009. Worse, a US election year offers an unfavorable diplomatic environment. Nevertheless, some early indications Iran is willing to start talking again have started to emerge.
Experts differ on exactly what agreement to pursue with Iran, but any bargain that does not forestall the rationale for military action will fall short. At a minimum, the concessions necessary to deliver Israeli restraint probably involve ending uranium enrichment beyond the low level necessary to provide a backup fuel load for the Bushehr power reactor, removing all uranium previously enriched beyond this point, and securing Iran's unstinting cooperation with the strongest existing forms of international safeguards. It will also be necessary to suspend Iran's heavy-water reactor program. In exchange, the United States and its partners could offer a variety of desiderata. The economic sanctions regime must be on the table; certain forms of nuclear cooperation may also be required to seal a deal. Such an extensive understanding probably cannot be reached in a single bound, if at all.
Experts also differ over the tactical keys to reaching an agreement. But, if a bargain seems possible, it may be advisable to send a high-level envoy, perhaps a former president, to secure the visible blessing of Iran's Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. This ingredient has gone missing in the past.
More than anything else, reaching a peaceful outcome depends on the ability of all sides to disabuse themselves of the idea that security rests on the will to prevail. In December, Prime Minister Netanyahu, without naming the subject, implicitly compared the choice he faces over Iran's nuclear program to David Ben-Gurion's decision to proclaim the establishment of state of Israel in 1948. Netanyahu concluded, "I would like to believe that we will always act with discretion, courage, and determination to make the right decisions to ensure our future and our security." But making the right decisions is not simply a matter of discretion, courage, or determination; it is, first and foremost, based on wisdom and discernment. Some problems cannot be remedied with high explosives.