The likelihood of a U.S. or Israeli military attack on Iran’s nuclear installations seems miniscule during the remaining months of the Barack Obama administration’s first term.
The U.S. is focused on domestic economic problems, winding down wars in Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya, and stabilising emerging democracies in Egypt and Tunisia. Israel is preoccupied with Arab uprisings and new manifestations of people power by Palestinians in and outside the West Bank and Gaza.
Yet war cannot be ruled out, according to regional specialists who say that the persistent invocation of the "military option" by some Israelis and U.S. officials may be inhibiting diplomatic initiatives.
Retired Adm. William "Fox" Fallon, who resigned as head of U.S. Central Command in 2008 after a profile in Esquire magazine portrayed him as opposing a military strike on Iran, told a Washington audience Tuesday that while there seemed to be "little chance" of a preventive strike, "I have no idea" whether one could occur.
"The problem was and still is… this incessant focus on conflict, conflict, conflict," he told a symposium of the American Iranian Council, a group that advocates engagement with Iran. "We ought to be working pretty hard to focus on other things that would put us in a different place" with Iran, he said.
One spark for conflict could be a shooting incident in the narrow waters off Iran in the Persian Gulf.
Fallon said that during the many years he spent stationed in the region as a Navy flyer and commander, U.S. interactions with the regular Iranian Navy were "in my experience, very professional… The problem for us lately is that the IRGC (Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps) has muscled in … more frequently than ever … and they don’t behave in the expected ways. They’ve been challenging in some respects."
"On several occasions while I was the commander we had some shooting out there that was absolutely unnecessary," Fallon added. "This kind of potential is not good."
Fallon and his predecessor, Army Gen. John Abizaid, sought but were apparently denied permission from the George W. Bush administration to negotiate an "incidents at sea" agreement with Iran that would have established procedures for preventing altercations from turning into a major conflict.
"Gen. Abizaid had some very good ideas but they weren’t accepted by the Bush administration," said Col. David Crist, a special adviser to the current head of Centcom, Marine Gen. James Mattis, and the author of an upcoming book on the history of U.S. military clashes with Iran.
Speaking Tuesday at the same Washington symposium as Fallon, Crist said that "there is always the potential for an unintended consequence in the Gulf." He noted a lack of understanding in both countries of how national security decisions are made and examples of "Tom Cruise fly-bys" of Iranian aircraft close to U.S. ships.
"Is this part of an Iranian plan to systematically harass the United States or just [the actions of] hot shot pilots?" Crist asked. The U.S. and Iran are in a "regional cold war but the means to de- escalate are not in place."
Some hardliners in Iran might actually welcome conflict with the United States or Israel to unify a politically divided nation.
At the same time, Iran is continuing its provocative nuclear progress. On Tuesday, Iranian vice president and atomic energy chief Fereydoun Abbasi announced that Iran would install advanced centrifuges to produce uranium enriched to 19.75 percent at Fordow, an installation outside the theological centre of Qom that is built into a mountainside and was revealed by the United States in September 2009. Abbasi also said Iran intended to triple its output of 19.75 percent enriched uranium by the end of this year.
While the uranium is ostensibly meant to be fuel for a Tehran reactor that produces medical isotopes, the Institute for Science and International Security, a Washington research group that focuses on nuclear proliferation, warned that such a step would enable Iran "to more quickly break out and produce enough weapon-grade uranium for a nuclear weapon, if it chose to do so."
U.S. intelligence officials have said they do not believe that Iranian officials have made a decision to produce a nuclear weapon. The U.S. has not disclosed any hard evidence that Iran has resumed weapons research that, according to a 2007 U.S. intelligence estimate, ended in 2003.
However, Yukiya Amano, the head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, the global nuclear watchdog, told the IAEA board Monday that the agency has acquired new "information related to possible past or current undisclosed nuclear related activities that seem to point to the existence of possible military dimensions to Iran’s nuclear programme."
President Obama, after a brief and unsuccessful effort at engagement with Iran, has focused on sanctions to try to convince Tehran to suspend uranium enrichment. The policy has failed to achieve its goal in part because of high oil prices and China’s deepening involvement in the Iranian economy.
Obama has said repeatedly that an Iran equipped with nuclear weapons is "unacceptable".
Greg Thielmann, a senior fellow at the Arms Control Association and veteran nuclear expert at the State Department, told IPS that while he thinks the chances of an unprovoked U.S. attack on Iran in the next two years is "very low", some Israeli officials will continue to press for U.S. military action.
"Some in Israel want to prod us into an attack while others want to wave the saber so that the U.S. will have more sanctions and not consider talking to Iran," Thielmann said.
Any attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities would probably not destroy all the sites, would certainly not eliminate Iran’s nuclear knowledge and could provoke formidable retaliation against Israel by Iranian partners such as Hezbollah and against U.S. troops in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Meir Dagan, the former chief of the Israeli intelligence agency, the Mossad, said recently that an Israeli strike on Iran’s nuclear installations would be "the stupidest thing I have ever heard". This provoked harsh criticism of him by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defence Minister Ehud Barak.
"They’re not arguing with his logic," Thielmann said. "They are arguing with his right to talk about this publicly."
Fallon said the best solution would be negotiations with Iran but that "it takes two to tango".
"The interests of both people are better addressed with engagement and cooperation rather than antagonism and hostility [but] there is no clear path to this preferred alternative anytime soon," he said.