An Israeli-Iranian War That Seemed So Possible Until Recently Is Averted

Israel and the U.S. have agreed to stick with sanctions as the only leverage against Iran for now, while Iran, bowing to international pressure, agrees to talks and perhaps the presence of U.N. inspectors at the disputed Parchin military testing center.

Vahid Salemi / AP Photos

The escalation that began when journalist Nahum Barnea reported last October that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was pushing his cabinet for war to keep Iran from getting nuclear weapons has ground to a halt. The rhetoric and mistrust that caused the brinkmanship will now yield to a new playing field, with its own missteps all but inevitable, as talks are due to start again with Iran. Progress in negotiations will be a critical factor in keeping threats of war at bay.

Netanyahu and President Obama agreed in Washington Monday that the campaign of sanctions to get Iran to rein in its nuclear ambitions would be the offensive for now. The choreography of the moment required that it also be made clear that Israel was sovereign about deciding when to defend itself. But the window they were opening was one of a time for talks, not military attack. “We do believe there is still a window that allows for a diplomatic resolution to this issue,” Obama said, with Netanyahu sitting by his side in a meeting that for once eased, rather than increased, tension between the two leaders.

Later on Monday, a relaxed and confident-looking Netanyahu addressed perhaps the friendliest crowd possible for the sometimes testy prime minister. Speaking at a gala dinner for more than 10,000 members of the AIPAC pro-Israel lobby, he joked that “every day, I open the newspapers and read about these red lines and these timelines.” He said he would not talk about that but “about the dangers of a nuclear-armed Iran.” But of course the red lines and the timelines are what the Iranian nuclear crisis is all about. The war of words of the past few months has involved many misunderstandings and disagreements about such lines, which predict whether danger is imminent.

There is room for diplomacy because Iran’s timeline for getting ready to make a bomb, let alone making one, stretches longer than appears from all the talk about its capabilities. Iran claims its nuclear program is a strictly peaceful effort to generate electricity. But the United States and other nations fear Iran is hiding a weapons program.

David Albright, a close student of Iran’s nuclear program, observed in a report his ISIS Institute released this month that “no evidence has emerged that the regime has decided to take the final step and build nuclear weapons.” Iran needs first to get “to a point where it would have the ability to make weapon-grade uranium quickly and secretly.” However, “its efforts to master uranium enrichment have gone slower than it likely expected.” Albright said Iran could “build a nuclear device suitable for underground detonation or crude delivery in about one year,” but this is far short of putting a nuclear warhead on top of a missile, or building an armada of several such weapons. This means Iran is “unlikely” to break out to nuclear weapons in 2012, and truly getting its act together could take even longer.

The pressure was building, however, because Israel feared Iran was moving toward a “zone of immunity” where dangerous nuclear capabilities would be hidden away from a possible air attack. This would be under a mountain at the Fordow site, Iran’s second enrichment plant, much smaller than the main one at Natanz. Fordow was discovered in September 2009, and Iran moved fairly quickly to outfit its halls with piping and casings for centrifuges, the machines that enrich uranium, which can be used to power reactors or to be the explosive core of atomic bombs. Iran had as of February, according to a U.N. nuclear report, four cascades, or production lines, of centrifuges enriching uranium, some to the level of 20 percent, which is closer to weapons grade and far above the up to 5 percent level needed for power reactors. A diplomat explained to me why Fordow was more threatening than the Natanz site, where Iran wants to have industrial-scale enrichment with more than 50,000 centrifuges. Natanz is underground, in a bunker under yards of concrete, but clearly vulnerable to a determined air attack. As the diplomat said, “Natanz is a basement, but Fordow is under a mountain.” Yet Israel has not attacked despite Iran stepping over the red line of starting enrichment in Fordow. Is this just because of Washington urging the Jewish state to be patient? Or is the timeline, in fact, not quite what it seems, since Iran is having trouble getting advanced centrifuges, which can enrich uranium faster, running at the mountain site?

Or was the rhetoric from Israel merely designed to get the United States to take a harder line, and so to get Iran’s attention? Obama made two key points in his comments during Netanyahu’s visit. First, that the United States does have a red line—which is Iran getting the bomb. Second, that force may indeed have to be used if diplomacy doesn’t work. This did not completely satisfy the Israelis, who would like the red line to be Iran having the capability to make a bomb, but it was a strong step in their direction.

Iran is paying attention. It has hinted, even if there is no confirmation, that it will let U.N. nuclear inspectors visit a key military-testing site, where the watchdog International Atomic Energy Agency suspects Iran used a huge steel container to experiment with how to explode a trigger for setting off an atom bomb. Iran has also said it is ready for new talks with the six major powers negotiating with it—the so-called P5 plus 1 of permanent U.N. Security Council members Britain, China, France, Russia, and the U.S. plus Germany. On Tuesday, the six nations said they would hold talks, although the place and date are still to be fixed.

And effective diplomacy. The United States is going to have to give Iran something it can live with. This will undoubtedly be dropping the precondition that has killed talks so far—that Iran must suspend uranium enrichment before talks can begin. There are currently two main negotiating approaches being considered by the P5 plus 1: a Russian plan and a U.S. one. Both are step-by-step road maps to reaching a point where Iran can enjoy its Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty rights to the use of peaceful nuclear energy and where the international community has guarantees, solid ones, that both limit Iran’s atomic work and allow for it to be closely monitored.

The Russian plan upset the United States last summer because Moscow was negotiating about it unilaterally with Tehran, threatening the unity of the P5 plus 1, and because it would give Iran security guarantees in a first phase, whereas Washington thinks this should come in a final phase. The Russian plan also lifts sanctions more quickly than the United States wants.

The first step of the U.S. plan would apparently be for Iran to stop enriching uranium to 20 percent and to ship out of the country the 20 percent uranium it has enriched. Iran says this level of enrichment is needed to fuel a research reactor in Tehran that makes medical isotopes. The problem is that this is a move up from the 5 percent enrichment needed for power reactors, and closer to the more than 90 percent refinement needed for nuclear weapons.

In return for Iran's giving up 20 percent enrichment, there would be a freeze on further sanctions against the Islamic Republic, and Iran would get fuel for its research reactor. This is a modified form of a fuel-swap plan already proposed but rejected by Iran, and which is designed to build confidence by reducing Iran’s stockpile of enriched uranium, and so its ability to move ahead to make a bomb. Iran would be expected to increase confidence in its peaceful intentions also by shipping out of the country enough of the low-enriched uranium it has refined to about 3.5 percent in order not to have enough left to refine further into a bomb.

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The fuel-swap proposal allows for Iran to keep on enriching uranium, however. It is the magic compromise in which Iran becomes less of a proliferation threat while at the same time getting, at least on a de facto level, the one thing it has sought from the beginning—to keep on enriching uranium. Further on, both the U.S. and Russian plans envisage some period, even a relatively short one, in which Iran would suspend enrichment. U.S. officials have made clear that Security Council resolutions do not call for Iran to give up enrichment definitively, only to do this for a while as a confidence-building measure.

The U.S. position has evolved. Washington started out under the Bush administration opposed to Iran even building a civilian power reactor, which it was doing at Bushehr on the Persian Gulf. President Bush had by his second term in office switched from this to support both the Bushehr reactor and civilian atomic power in Iran while working against possible Iranian military nuclear work. The United States has even considered helping Iran modernize its research reactor in Tehran, the one that needs fuel enriched to 20 percent, and toyed with the idea of offering to build Iran a new research reactor.

Catherine Ashton, the European Union foreign-policy chief, who speaks for the P5 plus 1, said in her letter accepting talks with Iran that dialogue should be aimed at producing “concrete results.” Negotiations should avoid “the experience of Istanbul,” where negotiations failed in January 2011 due to a lack of give and take. In a crisis that had seemed to be moving headlong to war, her words ring as a stern understatement.