By Victor Kotsev
The fog of war has fallen so densely over Iran and the Middle East that it is hard to say for certain whether the latest developments are a sign that one is imminent (in the form of an Israeli strike in the next two months) or that the timetable for a confrontation has been pushed back until the spring and summer of 2013. In the latter case, it is still possible that negotiations would eventually prevail, but this is far from guaranteed or even likely.
All of a sudden, the government of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is dropping hints left and right that it is willing to postpone action against the Iranian nuclear program. On Tuesday, it announced a number of new high-level military appointments which had previously been delayed amid the war preparations. As a prominent Israeli analyst put it, "You don't appoint a brand new
operations chief when you're about to go to war." 
On Monday, moreover, Netanyahu said that "the clearer the red line drawn before Iran by the international community, the smaller the chance of a conflict". He made this statement in the context of a New York Times report that United States President Barack Obama was considering making public his proverbial red line on Iran and authorizing a whole new range of secret operations in an effort to assuage the Israelis,  and his words were widely interpreted as willingness to back down.
Under massive pressure both at home and abroad - the daily Ha'aretz reported last week that even German Chancellor Angela Merkel phoned Netanyahu recently to discuss this - it is conceivable that the Israeli prime minister and his influential defense minister, Ehud Barak, have changed their minds about the urgency of a military operation. In another highly symbolic move, the man who headed the Israeli inquiry into the disastrous 2006 war in Lebanon - former Supreme Court Justice Eliyahu Winograd whose report cost the careers of several top politicians and army men - joined the chorus of critics of Netanyahu and Barak days ago.
The Israeli military analyst Ron Ben-Yishai offers a number of reasons why "now is not the time to strike Iran":
Some sort of a deal on the issue may be about to emerge from the "poker game" (to borrow a metaphor from another Ha'aretz article) between the US and Israel. Netanyahu is rumored to be preparing a major speech at the United Nations General Assembly in New York later this month, and perhaps also a meeting with Obama which many analysts speculate may provide him with an opportunity to start de-escalating his rhetoric. Whether and what kind of a guarantee the US president might offer the Israelis that he will stop the Iranian nuclear program by force if necessary, as they have requested, remains uncertain.
The tough talk this week, with the chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Martin Dempsey, saying that he did not want to be "complicit" in an Israeli strike on Iran and Time Magazine publishing a report that the US was scaling down a military exercise with Israel next month in an apparent effort to undermine the Israeli war preparations  - can be interpreted in the same vein. In the run-up to a deal, both Obama and Netanyahu could be expected to bluff very hard in order to pressure the other into concessions.
However, it is hard to trust either man's intentions. According to a report in the Israeli daily Yediot Ahronot, which the Americans subsequently denied, Obama recently passed a message to Tehran through European mediators renouncing any Israeli attack and requesting that Iran not retaliate against American military bases in the Middle East. (The Iranian response came from their close Lebanese ally Hezbollah, whose leader said on Monday that "If Israel targets Iran, America bears responsibility.")
Despite all the signs to the contrary, an Israeli operation is hardly off the table - and as Ben-Yishai hinted, it may not be off the table next year, either. The Israeli military doctrine emphasizes the element of surprise, and in the past the Jewish State has been able to achieve it even in situations where war has been long in the making. In this way, at least, the situation prior to the Six-Day War in 1967 paralleled the one today, while the Israelis could perhaps afford to make a new appointment or two if this would soften the watchfulness of their enemies.
It seems unlikely, moreover, that Tehran will give its nuclear program up at this stage, despite the fact that the sanctions have taken a heavy toll on the Iranian economy. The Iranian regime is reportedly very suspicious of the West - with good reason given that Western proponents of regime change there have become increasingly vocal in the last years - and a nuclear weapon or capability is among the few things that could give it a measure of reassurance. Also, the militant rhetoric of the ayatollahs has backed them into a corner of their own; amid much social discontent at home it would not be easy for them to save face and de-escalate.
Not to mention that the Iranian nuclear program is quite advanced and advancing rapidly, as documented by the latest report by the International Atomic Energy Agency which came out last week. "Despite the intensified dialogue between the Agency and Iran since January 2012," the report states, "efforts to resolve all outstanding substantive issues have achieved no concrete results…. "
Among other things, Iran stands accused of installing 1,000 new uranium enrichment centrifuges at the underground facility at Fordo, continuing to enrich uranium elsewhere, failure to cooperate with weapons inspections, and a cover-up at the military site at Parchin where alleged experiments related to the development of a nuclear warhead took place in the past. It also continued to build a heavy-water reactor at Arak, which could be used for the production of the most commonly used alternative to enriched uranium for nuclear weapons, plutonium-239.
According to a separate report published by the Wall Street Journal, a top Iranian scientist and Islamic Revolutionary Guard officer, Mohsen Fakhrizadeh (dubbed the father of the Iranian nuclear weapons program), resumed work recently . Fakhrizadeh had been sidelined several years ago, when the Iranian nuclear weapons program was reportedly halted, and his reappearance would suggest that the Iran is again steaming ahead towards a bomb.
In the absence of a breakthrough in the negotiations - which some analysts speculate could come after the US presidential elections - a military conflict over the Iranian nuclear program seems all but inevitable. War could start even without either side truly wanting it, given the military buildup in the Persian Gulf and the possibility of an accidental provocation.
At the same time, it seems that Israel is on the verge of agreeing not to attack Iran this fall. Still, even this is far from certain - and even less so is the price it would extract from the US in return. There are roughly two months to go before the US elections and unfavorable weather conditions more or less rule out a war this year, and two months can be a very long time in Middle Eastern politics.
1. Israeli army names new operations chief, in move seen as signaling reduced likelihood of Iran attack, , Times of Israel, September 4, 2012
2. To Calm Israel, US Offers Ways to Restrain Ira, New York Times, September 2, 2012 (registration required) 3. Now is not the time to strike Iran, Ynet, September 1, 2012 4. Exclusive: US Scales Back Military Exercise with Israel, Affecting Potential Iran Strike, Time, August 31, 2012
5. Implementation of the NPT Safeguards Agreement and relevant provisions of Security Council resolutions in the Islamic Republic of Iran, IAEA, 30 August 2012
6. Iran's Nuclear-Arms Guru Resurfaces, , Wall Street Journal, August 30, 2012
Victor Kotsev is a journalist and political analyst.
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