Iran Nuclear 224.88.
(photo credit: AP [file])
President George Bush was quick, early this week, to shrug off rumors of a possible American attack against Iran's nuclear sites, calling the latest buzz in the nation's capital no more than "wild speculation."
Bush, who does not usually shy away from an opportunity to play the role of the tough guy, was extremely cautious, making clear that when he talks about preventing Iran from having nuclear weapons, "it does not mean force necessarily. In this case it means diplomacy."
Bush's attempts to quell the rumors came after a weekend of speculations, fueled by reports in the New Yorker and in Washington Post that the administration is discussing attacking Iran - possibly with nuclear weapons - to prevent it from completing its nuclear project.
Experts and diplomats in Washington have been scrambling to understand what led to such reports. Was it a spin planned by the administration to pressure Iran and the world, with the approach of the Security Council decision on sanctions? Or was it a random leak of a military contingency plan that was blown out of proportion?
There is no clear answer. What is clear is that the administration's response indicates that Washington is not in the mood to issue threats, and that it fears that talk of a military strike against Iran could be harmful at this juncture.
Most analysts agree that an American attack is not likely at the moment, not only because of Bush's fairly week political stand - nor even due to the strain such an operation would put on the already thinly spread US forces in the region - but mainly because it would run counter to the diplomatic effort that is under way.
The US is now trying to get Russia and China to join the American-European alliance which views Iran as a danger zone that must be dealt with immediately, even if this means imposing sanctions on the Teheran regime. Carrying out a military strike against Iran's nuclear sites - or even raising this as a possibility or leaking it as a rumor - would only serve to convince the two countries that the US is not sincere in its attempts to solve the Iranian problem through diplomatic means, and drive them even further away from any possible cooperation.
Not that such cooperation is anywhere near in sight.
Sources close to the negotiations said this week that the diplomatic track is all but stuck. The US has not yet succeeded in convincing Russia and China, both veto-empowered members in the Security Council, to take the next step and discuss sanctions against Iran.
Half of the 30-day period the Security Council gave Iran in which to comply with the demands of the international community has already passed, and it appears that not much will change in the two weeks remaining until the April 28 deadline.
The professional team dispatched by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to Iran is completing its work. According to reports reaching Washington, the team is expected to confirm what is already known: that Iran is making progress in its small-scale centrifuge-cascading needed for uranium enrichment, and that it is now ready to move to a larger scale cascade of centrifuges. What this means is that the technological difficulties Teheran was facing in the enrichment process are being solved, and it is only a matter of time before the project achieves the full amount of centrifuges needed to complete the enrichment process.
The US and the Europeans would like to use these findings to push through a new resolution on Iran - one that would include the possibility of using UN charter article 7, enabling the international body to impose sanctions. According to sources close to the talks, however, this doesn't seem likely right now.
Far more likely is that after the 30-day period is up, the US will have to agree to another round of resolutions and ultimatums, without mentioning the possibility of sanctions - which both Russia and China oppose.
ISRAEL, THUS, finds itself in an awkward position. Though, for the past decade, the main voice calling for international attention to the Iranian nuclear issue, it is now careful not to be seen as the one pushing for an aggressive approach which might derail the diplomatic process. Israeli officials rejected claims made in the New Yorker article that Israel was pressing the American administration to take military steps against Iran's nuclear sites, and stressed that what Israel would like to see now is a completion of the diplomatic process that should lead to the end of the Iranian project.
According to Israel's calculations, there are about six months left before the nuclear program reaches an irreversible stage - a period during which intensive diplomatic efforts should be made to yield results as soon as possible.
An interesting result of this week's rumor-mill is that after the dust settles - and when all the official spokespeople are done denying military plans against Iran - one thing can be said that wasn't stated outright before: The US can attack Iran. It does not have to be a full scale ground war; it can take out a significant part of the Iranian program, and it might even include the use of nuclear bunker-buster bombs.
In other words, a military option for dealing with Iran is now on the table. Not on the administration's table, as officials repeatedly stressed, but on the public's table. This doesn't mean a military clash between the US and Iran is imminent. But it does mean that such a possibility is more seriously on the mind of the American people than it was previously.