A U.S. attack on Iran? Not coming soon

Tehran has softened its tone, but tough decisions await the next US president.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

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    Last month: Iran's top nuclear negotiator, Saeed Jalili (r.), and the EU's foreign-policy chief, Javier Solana, met in Tehran in mid-June.
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    Mr. Solana presented Iran with a modified package of incentives to suspend uranium enrichment.
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A preemptive US attack on Iranian nuclear facilities may be unlikely anytime soon. But that does not mean it is off the table forever. And Israel – worried about the possibility of a hostile, nuclear-armed regional neighbor – may have its own timetable for possible military action.

That is the bottom-line conclusion of a number of US-based experts who have talked in recent days about the possibility of any preemptive strike on Iran intended to halt its uranium enrichment program.

US-Iranian relations may well be one of the two or three toughest foreign-policy problems the next American president will have to handle. That leader will have to decide, for example, whether the issue is important enough that the US should make further concessions to Russia to ensure greater cooperation in the struggle to control possible Iranian nuclear proliferation.

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And the next president will have to decide on an overall tone with which to approach an Iranian government that of late has sounded more temperate.

"Right now, the Iranians feel they have the upper hand. They're just getting smarter about their rhetoric," says George Perkovich, a nuclear-proliferation expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington.

Since the end of June, Iran has been talking in a less bellicose manner about its nuclear program.

Talks are "in a new environment, with a new ... perspective," said Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki in a July 6 interview broadcast on CNN.

Meanwhile, the European Union official who is acting as lead negotiator on the nuclear issue with the Iranians reacted guardedly on July 7 to a new letter from Tehran.

The Iranian letter, which EU foreign-policy chief Javier Solana said he received late on July 4, was a response to an international offer of incentives meant to persuade Iran to halt its uranium enrichment program.

The contents of Iran's letter have not been made public. Mr. Solana called it difficult and complicated, and he said it did not make him "completely optimistic."

Solana said it was "not impossible" that he would soon meet with Iran's top nuclear negotiator, Saeed Jalili, but would not confirm any dates.

"I hope that we can continue the dialogue [with Iran] in the coming weeks, before the end of the month if possible, but I don't want to give you completely optimistic impressions," the EU foreign-policy chief said.

This change of tone came after weeks in which the US and Iran traded threats and warnings over possible American or Israeli military action.

In particular, an Israeli military exercise last month was widely seen as a warning to Tehran.

But that exercise may also have been intended to send a message to the US, noted Kenneth Pollack, a Middle East expert at the Brookings Institution, at a June 26 seminar on US policy toward Iran.

"They are trying to signal that they are really concerned about what is going on here. And [the US and other nations] don't want to let this go too far down the road," he said at a Center for Strategic and International Studies seminar on June 26.

The likelihood of Israel bombing Iranian nuclear enrichment facilities is not zero, but it is not as high as many experts seem to think, Mr. Pollack said at the CSIS seminar.

That is because Israel knows that it may face retaliation from Iranian allies in Lebanon and Gaza.

"The Israelis are very nervous that if they do it, what happens is actually that Hezbollah and Hamas are told [by Iran], 'We gave you guys 15,000 rockets for a reason. Use them,' " Pollack said.

Meanwhile, talk of force, either overtly or through hints and nods, may be counterproductive, according to Jon Alterman, director of the CSIS Middle East program.

"The more we talk about force, I think the less likely you are to get Gulf ally cooperation.... They are terrified," Mr. Alterman said at the CSIS event.

Elizabeth Cheney, former principal deputy assistant secretary of State for Near Eastern affairs, took issue with this position, saying that it is essential that the Iranians believe the US will use force if necessary.

Statements from those in power saying that force is off the table are counterproductive, Ms. Cheney said.

"Whenever you've got statements like that, in my view it actually makes the potential of having to use force greater because people will think, 'Well, the Americans aren't serious about using force,' " she said.

The key way for US officials to look at the issue may be to decide their bottom line as to whether they could live with a nuclear-armed Iran.

If they decide they can't live with an Iran that has a nuclear arsenal, what they are really saying is that they are willing to invade Iran to prevent that from occurring, Pollack said.

"And I don't think that the American public is ready to invade Iran to prevent it from having a nuclear weapon," he said at the CSIS seminar.

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