WASHINGTON - After a winter of alarm over the possibility that a military conflict over the Iranian nuclear program might be imminent, US officials and outside analysts now believe that the chances of war in the near future have significantly decreased.
They cite a series of factors that, for now, argue against a conflict. The threat of tighter economic sanctions has prompted the Iranians to try more flexible tactics in their dealings with the United States and other powers, while the revival of direct negotiations has tempered the most inflammatory talk on all sides.
A growing divide in Israel between political leaders and military and intelligence officials over the wisdom of attacking Iran has begun to surface. And the White House appears determined to prevent any confrontation that could disrupt world oil markets in an election year.
“I do think the temperature has cooled,’’ an Obama administration official said.
At the same time, no one is discounting the possibility that the current optimism could fade. “While there isn’t an agreement between the US and Israel on how much time, there is an agreement that there is some time to give diplomacy a chance,’’ said Dennis B. Ross, who previously handled Iran policy for the Obama administration.
“So I think right now you have a focus on the negotiations,’’ he added. “It doesn’t mean the threat of using force goes away, but it lies behind the diplomacy.’’
The talks two weeks ago in Istanbul between Iran and the United States and other world powers were something of a turning point in the current American thinking about Iran. In the days leading up to the talks, there had been little optimism in Washington, but Iranian negotiators appeared more flexible and open to resolving the crisis than expected, even though no agreement was reached other than to talk again, in Baghdad next month.
US officials believe the looming threat of tighter economic sanctions to take effect on July 1 persuaded the Iranians to take the negotiations more seriously, and that in turn has reduced the threat of war.
“There is a combination of factors coming on line, including the talks and the sanctions, and so now I think people realize it has to be given time to play out,’’ one administration official said, who, like the other official, spoke without attribution in order to discuss sensitive matters. “We are in a period now where the combination of diplomacy and pressure is giving us a window.’’
In a television appearance on Wednesday, Bay State Democrat John F. Kerry, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said, “I have confidence that there is a way forward.’’
Senior Iranian leaders have sought to portray the Istanbul round of negotiations as successful, which might be a sign, US officials and outside analysts said, that the Iranian government is preparing the public for a deal with the West that could be portrayed as a win for Iran.
At the same time in Israel, the conservative government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has been rocked by a series of public comments from current and former Israeli military and intelligence officials questioning the wisdom of attacking Iran.
The latest comments came from Yuval Diskin, the former chief of Shin Bet, Israel’s domestic security service, who on Friday said Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak should not be trusted to determine policy on Iran.
He said the judgments of both men have been clouded by “messianic feelings.’’ Diskin, who was chief of Shin Bet until last year, said an attack against Iran might cause it to speed up its nuclear program.
Just days before, Israel’s army chief of staff suggested in an interview with the Israeli newspaper Haaretz that the Iranian nuclear threat was not quite as imminent as Netanyahu has portrayed it. In his comments, Lieutenant General Benny Gantz suggested that he agreed with the US intelligence assessments that Iran has not yet decided whether to build a nuclear bomb.
Iran “is going step by step to the place where it will be able to decide whether to manufacture a nuclear bomb. It hasn’t yet decided whether to go the extra mile,’’ Gantz told Haaretz. He also suggested that the crisis would not necessarily come to a head this year: “Clearly, the more the Iranians progress, the worse the situation is. This is a critical year, but not necessarily ‘go, no-go.’ ’’
The divide within the Israeli establishment is significant because Israel has been threatening to launch a unilateral strike against Iran’s nuclear facilities if the United States is unwilling to do so.
The United States has feared that if Israel were to do so, the US could get dragged into the fight, which could result in a widening war in the region.