WASHINGTON - The massive military exercise conducted by Israel earlier this month reflects a growing policy schism over Iran's nuclear program among major international players at a time when US politics may freeze major decisions until a new administration is in place.
A standoff in diplomacy is fueling divergent strategies on Iran. Washington faces growing constraints; Israel feels increasingly threatened; and US allies are determined to avoid military action.
Iran is more powerful than at any time since the 1979 revolution, US officials say, and it has repeatedly refused to halt its uranium enrichment work as precondition for a negotiated settlement.
Tehran is now producing about one kilogram of low enriched uranium a day for its energy program, which it has repeatedly stated is only for electricity, not weaponry. By the end of the year, Iran could have 500 kilograms of low enriched uranium. It would take about 700 kilograms to begin enrichment for weapons grade uranium for a bomb, according to former UN weapons inspector David Albright.
Senior US officials said Israel's military exercise involved the types of warplanes, distances, and maneuvers required for air strikes on Iran's nuclear facilities.
More than 100 Israeli warplanes - including F-15s and F-16s, refueling tankers and helicopters for pilot rescue - were involved in the military exercise, which was first reported by the
In a move that may have been partly fueled by domestic politics, Israeli Transportation Minister and former Army chief Shaul Mofaz said this month that an attack on Iran was unavoidable because international sanctions have been ineffective.
Israel's exercise sends a signal to Iran and its allies. "It's a way of saying 'If you're not willing to ratchet up the pressure, you're going to make force more likely, as the current path is not changing Iranian behavior,' " said Dennis Ross of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
The challenge of dealing with Iran's nuclear program is complicated by other issues. A lame-duck Bush administration and presidential candidates with disparate positions limit Washington's short-term options, US officials and analysts said. The US presence in Iraq also might be undermined by military action that could provoke an Iranian response.
"I don't think the Pentagon is in the business of scaring the Iranians," said former assistant secretary of state Martin Indyk, now at the Brookings Institution. "They are happy with the way things are going in Iraq and don't want anything to upset the apple cart in a way that will make the surge look problematic."
A senior Iranian cleric warned that Iran will respond to external threats. "If the enemies, particularly Israel and its American backers, adopt a language of force against Iran, they can be sure that they will receive a strong slap on the face from Iran," cleric Ahmad Khatami said in a sermon broadcast on state radio.
The soaring price of oil is another constraint on US military action or on prospects that the Bush administration would give Israel a green light to act. "A raid on Iran would convulse the markets," said J. Robinson West of PFC Energy. "The price would go into uncharted territory. Pick a number. It could easily reach $200."
But oil markets may not deter Israel, said energy specialist James Placke, a former US diplomat. "Take Israel's statements at face value. They really do regard [Iran's program] as an existential threat, and they will do whatever they feel is necessary."
The Bush administration insisted yesterday that it is firmly committed to a package presented last weekend by the world's six major powers - the United States, Russia, China, Britain, France, and Germany. The deal calls for Iran to suspend uranium enrichment in exchange for political and economic incentives, including talks with Washington.
Western diplomats said the six nations also have offered to hold preliminary talks with Iran on condition that it freeze uranium enrichment at current levels, Reuters reported. In return, the nations would delay moves toward harsher sanctions. Tehran has sent mixed signals on the incentives package, with Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki saying Thursday that the offer is under study.
"If things happen like threats of force and unilateral sanctions outside the framework of the Security Council, it is distracting from the negotiating process," said Vitaly Churkin, Russia's UN ambassador.