His remarks followed the publication of articles in several American newspapers quoting American officials and analysts saying that they believe that a military conflict with Iran is no longer likely. They point to the negotiations with Iran, which they say leave room for hope that Iran will compromise on its position, as well as conflicting opinions in Israel on the wisdom of an attack. Additionally the US appears prepared to compromise with Iran, to prevent anything that would lead to a reduction of the flow of oil here, driving up gasoline costs in an election year.
An administration official said this week that “I do think the temperature has cooled.” “There is a combination of factors coming on line, including the talks and the sanctions, and so now I think people realize it has to be given time to play out,” another official said. “We are in a period now where the combination of diplomacy and pressure is giving us a window.”
Echoing that, insider Dennis Ross, who until last fall was the White House’s point man on Iran and the Middle East, said that, “While there isn’t an agreement between the U.S. and Israel on how much time, there is an agreement that there is some time to give diplomacy a chance.” He added that “I think right now you have a focus on the negotiations. It doesn’t mean the threat of using force goes away, but it lies behind the diplomacy.
Their remarks were given further credence by Senator John Kerry, who served in Vietnam and chairs the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said, “I have confidence that there is a way forward.”
The Los Angeles Times reported that the administration may be considering a compromise that would permit Iran to continue it’s nuclear buildup, but would seek to ensure that the nuclear energy would only be suitable for non-military uses. The deal, if reached, would allow Iran to enrich uranium to 5% purity which is at the higher end of what is needed for peaceful uses, but below what is necessary to make a bomb.
The report quoted a senior administration official as saying that if Iran would fulfill demands for strict enforcement of U.N. monitoring and safeguards, “there can be a discussion” of allowing low-level domestic enrichment, “and maybe we can get there, potentially.”
The official stressed that that since Iran has so far been unwilling to meet those demands the likelihood of this happening is quite small. However Gary Samore, who is the top White House official on nuclear nonproliferation, said two weeks ago that, “We recognize that Iran has the right to a peaceful nuclear energy program, once it has addressed concerns about its nuclear activities.”
DIFFERING ISRAELI OPINIONS
Last week, Israel’s military chief said that he believes Iran will choose not to build a nuclear bomb, an assessment that contrasted the gloomier statements of Prime Minister Netanyahu and may point to differences over the issue at the top levels of Israeli leadership.
Lt. Gen Benny Gantz said international sanctions on Tehran have begun to show results. Netanyahu and Ehud Barak have repeatedly stressed that they feel sanctions and diplomacy will not persuade Iran to halt a military nuclear program , and the time to stop it is running out.
Gantz made his reservations clear in a handful of rare interviews with Israeli newspapers, offering comments that analysts said seemed intended to inject nuance into a debate that has reached frenzied heights this spring. Speaking to Ha’aretz, he said that the Israeli military would be ready to act if ordered, but that he did not think that this year would be “necessarily go, no-go.”
Gantz described Iran’s leaders as “very rational people” who are still mulling whether to “go the extra mile” and produce nuclear weapons.
“I believe he would be making an enormous mistake, and I don’t think he will want to go the extra mile,” Gantz said of Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran’s supreme leader. Although Gantz cautioned that Khamenei could still change his mind, the supreme leader has said repeatedly that Iran does not intend to build a nuclear weapon and that its uranium enrichment program is for peaceful purposes.
Although striking in its bluntness, Gantz’s assessment of Iran’s nuclear intentions did not differ dramatically from comments made publicly and privately by other current and former Israeli officials in recent months. Others also have concludedthat Iran intends to achieve nuclear weapons capability but would stop short of assembling and testing a bomb, steps that would almost certainly incur a military response from Israel and perhaps the United States.
Gantz’s comments differed starkly in tone from those made recently by Netanyahu about the diplomatic efforts of the United States and other world powers. The Israeli prime minister recently dismissed the five-week break between this month’s nuclear talks in Istanbul and the next round as a “freebie” that awarded Iran more time to work toward making bombs.
“The centrifuges are still spinning,” Netanyahu told CNN. “They were spinning before the talks began recently with Iran, they were spinning during the talks, they’re spinning as we speak. So if the sanctions are going to work, they’d better work soon.”
THE THOUGHT BEHIND IT
Ray Takeyh, a former US State Department senior adviser on the Persian Gulf region, said Gantz’s comments suggest that Israeli officials, like many of their counterparts in Iran and the United States, are looking for ways to step down from the crisis.
“Netanyahu is skeptical of the negotiations as a means for Iran to drag things out,” said Takeyh, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, “but you’re seeing a lot of discussion in the Israeli military suggesting that Israel would like to have a greater degree of flexibility.”
Dennis Ross said Gantz’s remarks reflect that “in the Israeli security establishment, there are different views. The regime in Iran openly calls and determinedly works for our destruction. And it is feverishly working to develop atomic weapons to achieve that goal.”
“Despair not,” he told Ha’aretz. “The state of Israel is the strongest in the region and will remain so. Decisions can and must be made carefully, out of historic responsibility but without hysteria.”
Shlomo Brom, a retired general who is an analyst at the Institute for National Security Studies in Tel Aviv, said Gantz’s comments indicated that he “doesn’t want to be pushed into rash decisions, so he’s trying to cool it a little bit.”
Military analysts cautioned that Gantz’s comments should not be interpreted as defiance of the political leaders to whom he reports. Instead, they reflect the Israeli intelligence community’s assessment that Iran has not yet decided to make nuclear weapons, as well as the Israeli military’s concern about the potential fallout of an Israeli strike – for Israeli civilians and for the reputation of the military if it does not go well, said Amir Oren, a veteran military analyst for Ha’aretz.
“Many Israelis get the impression that Netanyahu itches for a fight,” Oren said. “The military does not. The military must weigh the consequences.”
THE POWER OF SANCTIONS
Several former security officials have expressed opposition to the idea of an Israeli strike on Iran. Among the most prominent of them to break publicly with the government was Meir Dagan, the tough-talking former chief of Israel’s legendary Mossad spy agency. Many Israeli leaders are convinced that Iran has resumed warhead work in recent years, though on a much smaller scale than existed before 2004, when, the U.S. intelligence community believes, Iran was actively working on designing a nuclear warhead. Both the United States and Israel believe that Iran’s priority now is amassing enough enriched uranium to give its leaders the option to make nuclear weapons.
But in recent interviews, some Israeli officials have said they believe that sanctions could deter Iran’s nuclear ambitions, particularly if more countries, including Russia, line up behind them; the Israeli finance minister recently described the Iranian economy as “on the brink of collapse.”
U.S. Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta, in a January interview on CBS’S “Face the Nation,” said he believed Iran would halt its work just short of the finish line.
“Are they trying to develop a nuclear weapon? No,” Panetta said. “But they are trying to develop a nuclear capability, and that is what concerns us.”
Some Israeli observers described Gantz’s analysis – that sanctions must be given time but that the military option is on the table – as less theatrical but not fundamentally different from Netanyahu’s. The big question is how much is bluff, said Or Heller, a military correspondent for Israel’s Channel 10 news.
Gantz indicated that is part of the strategy.
“The military option is the last chronologically but the first in terms of its credibility,” Gantz told Ha’aretz. “If it’s not credible it has no meaning. We are preparing for it in a credible manner. That’s my job, as a military man.”
Gantz’s comments were followed by those of the Yuval Diskin, former chief of the Shin Bet, Israel’s domestic intelligence agency, who described Netanyahu and Barak as men driven by “messianic feelings” and said he had “no faith” in them to lead a potential strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities.
The scathing comments by Diskin, who had kept a low profile since retiring last year, added to the sense of a divide between Israel’s security establishment and its political leadership over the Iran issue. Speaking at a community meeting Friday, he said a pre-emptive Israeli attack on Iranian nuclear sites would probably accelerate, not end, Iran’s nuclear ambitions.
“They are misleading the public on the Iran issue,” Diskin said of the prime minister and the defense minister, according to an account in Ha’aretz. “Believe me, I have observed them from up close. . . . They are not people who I, on a personal level, trust to lead Israel to an event on that scale and carry it off. These are not people who I would want to have holding the wheel in such an event.”
“If these are his opinions, he should have stated them in the appropriate forums while he was in office,” Transportation Minister Yisroel Katz said of Diskin, according to the Jerusalem Post.
Another Israeli official said Diskin’s leadership of the internal security agency meant he was a “peripheral player” on the topic of Iran. The official termed Diskin’s criticism of Israeli leaders “surprising and strange,” in part because Diskin had elected to serve an additional year at the Shin Bet.
Diskin’s comments echoed those previously made by Meir Dagan, who said last year that a strike on Iran would lead to “regional war” and encourage Iran to continue its nuclear program. At the time, Dagan also told Israeli journalists that he feared his retirement, as well as that of Diskin and the former military chief, Gabi Ashkenazi, had removed voices that could “block any dangerous adventure” led by Netanyahu and Barak.
On Thursday night, Barak emphasized that the decision about a pre-emptive strike would be made by political leaders and carried out by the military, and he deemed the chance of sanctions permanently stopping Iran’s nuclear programs as “low.”
“The fact that we are talking about clever and calculated people, who seek to stay in power, and are striving to reach their goals underhandedly, and with an idea of the moves and intentions of their rivals, does not make them rational in the Western sense of the word, in other words, a status quo and peaceful solution to the issue,” he said in an address on Israel’s Independence Day.
Disgraced former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert got into the act as well. Speaking Sunday at a conference organized by the Jerusalem Post, he said, “A nation has the right to determine what it should do to defend itself. But when at the same time we ask the United States and other countries to provide us with the means to do it, no one is entirely independent to act, irrespective of the positions and attitudes and policies of other countries.”
He was booed and people in the audience shouted towards him, “NaÃ¯ve!” and “Neville Chamberlain.”
When they objected to his comments that Netanyahu should be more accommodating to Obama, he responded, “You have to respect him. He is the president of the most powerful nation on earth, and happens to be a friend of Israel.”
The Associated Press and The Washington Post contributed to this article.