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The Obama administration is stepping up measures against Iran, both to force Tehran to negotiate over its nuclear program and to mute Israeli leadership's ongoing drumbeat for a military strike against Iran.
According to a New York Times report yesterday, the US is set to hold a large-scale minesweeping naval exercise later this month in the Persian Gulf, and is accelerating efforts to complete a new radar system in Qatar that, in combination with existing radar in Turkey and Israel, would create broad antimissile coverage around and against Iran. The programs are meant to send a message to Tehran that closing the Gulf and developing nuclear weapons would be largely futile.
The Times adds that the US is also reluctantly considering previously rejected covert action against Iran, including air strikes on power plants and other sites that could impact Iranian civilian populations, as well as a "clandestine" strike against Iran's nuclear facilities, much like the strike Israel launched against Syria in 2007.
The Times report comes a day after Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called for the international community to set a "clear red line" for military action against Iran. Bloomberg News reports that Mr. Netanyahu said that such a threat was necessary to rein in Iran.
“This is a brutal regime that is racing ahead with its nuclear program, because it doesn’t see a clear red line from the international community,” Netanyahu said today at a meeting in his Jerusalem office, according to an e-mailed statement. “The greater the resolve and the clearer the red line, the less likely we’ll have conflict.”
But while the war drumbeat in Israel, echoed in its media, has been loud in recent weeks, there are signs that it is abating. Amos Harel writes in Haaretz today that the newspaper Israel Hayom, perceived as having close ties to Netanyahu's government, has been taking a softer stance in recent days – perhaps a sign that Netanyahu has "overplayed [his] hand."
In recent weeks, Israel Hayom has featured a barrage of worrying reports on Iran's nuclear progress and Washington's failure to halt it. But over the last few days, something interesting has happened: Last Friday, the paper instead highlighted a statement by Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, that he doesn't want America to be "complicit" in an Israeli attack on Iran right now. The International Atomic Energy Agency's disturbing report on Iran's nuclear program got second billing.
On Sunday, Iran was mostly relegated to the daily's inside pages. On Monday, it returned to the headlines, but only in the form of Israel Defense Forces Chief of Staff Benny Gantz's vague statement that the IDF can act "anywhere, anytime."
In short, the paper that has been beating the war drums for weeks is now muting them.
Mr. Harel adds that "many officials now believe an attack is not as inevitable as it previously seemed."
And while a new report from the International Atomic Energy Agency on Iran's nuclear program brought a brief "bout of panic" concerning an Iranian nuclear weapon, Shashank Joshi writes in a blog post for the Telegraph that the IAEA report indicated that despite increasing its uranium enrichment and installing more centrifuges, Iran has actually taken steps that put its program farther away from a "zone of immunity" from Israeli attack.
Iran is still using extremely old centrifuge designs, and – something that was missed in most reporting – has taken steps that actually put it further away from a bomb. Iran set aside over half of its stockpile of 20 percent enriched uranium for conversion to fuel plates used in its medical research reactor. In that form, the stuff is much harder to use for weapons purposes (and impossible to use quickly). Iran is left without enough for even one bomb. Yes, it will eventually make up this lost amount through more production – but that takes time, and its willingness to eat into this stockpile, a bargaining chip for Iran, is a positive step.
The upshot is that Iran – if it chose to do so at all – would take months, not weeks, to produce the weapons-grade uranium for a single bomb. And even if the breakout timeline did fall to weeks, this would still not eliminate the risk of getting caught by IAEA inspectors, foreign intelligence services, or both. In this sense, Iran is not about to leap into the zone of immunity.