WASHINGTON— Middle East experts expressed doubt Wednesday that either Israel or United States is on the brink of conflict with Iran, despite hawkish headlines and aggressive rhetoric from all three countries.
Their skepticism, they said, stems from the political repercussions of a strike on the Islamic Republic. The safest political route for bogging down Iranian nuclear aspirations lies in continued economic and diplomatic sanctions, they added.
Even so, the likelihood of conflict involving the three nations is at its highest levels since the foundation of the Islamic Republic in 1979, according to Suzanne Maloney, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.
“We are at the most precarious moment in the long history of bluffing between these three countries,” Maloney said.
Maloney spoke at a panel at the think tank where a study of Israeli public opinion on Iran was unveiled. Only 19 percent of Israelis support a strike on the Iran without backing from the U.S., according to the survey conducted by the University of Maryland and Dahaf Institute in Israel.
The low support underscores the potential political consequences for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s administration that could accompany an attack on Iranian nuclear facilities.
Israeli’s current public posture, Brookings fellow Natan Sachs said, can be interpreted two different ways.
“On the one hand, the discipline does echo a serious decision-making process [on possible conflict],” Sachs said. “We could also read it another way: this is part of the posturing Israel is taking to influence what the international community does,” Sachs said.
American backing of the Jewish state has been a hot topic among both members of Congress and Republican presidential candidates. But Israeli officials said this week that they won’t warn the U.S. beforehand of a pre-emptive strike against Iran, the Associated Press reported.
Pentagon officials – notably Defense Secretary Leon Panetta – have predicted an Israeli strike to disrupt Iranian nuclear programs as early as April. Western anxiety regarding the country’s uranium enrichment hit a new high last week when nuclear weapons inspectors were barred from a military site outside Tehran.
Recently, many lawmakers have called for more hardline policies regarding the Islamic Republic. On Feb. 16, 32 senators introduced a bipartisan resolution calling on President Barack Obama to step up pressure on Iran.
“We . . . want to say clearly and resolutely to Iran: You have only two choices—peacefully negotiate to end your nuclear weapons program or expect a military strike to end that program,” Sen. Joe Lieberman, I-Conn., a sponsor of the resolution, said at a news conference.
But while Obama and Panetta have insisted they are leaving all options open, the administration has supported only political and economic sanctions thus far. The president’s stance contrasts sharply with those of GOP hopefuls Mitt Romney and Rick Santorum, who both support airstrikes on Iranian nuclear sites.
“The policy that we have pursued with our partners has put unprecedented pressure on Tehran,” White House Press Secretary Jay Carney said Tuesday. “[The policy] has put great strains on the Iranian economy, great strains on the Iranian political leadership, and that is a course that we will continue to pursue.
Contrasting with Israeli politicians’ seemingly aggressive posture on Iran, the Obama Administration has played it coolly, said Colin Kahl, a senior fellow at the Center for New American Security.
Obama is playing the political long game on a threat that is not “imminent,” Kahl said, even as “hyperbole and hyperventilation” continue among the international media.
Despite known uranium enrichment, Iran doesn’t currently have an active program to produce warheads, according to their annual threat assessment, according to U.S. intelligence agencies.
“Unlike Iraq, this administration isn’t just kind of checking the boxes on the way to war,” Kahl said at a Feb. 21 National Iranian American Council panel. “It actually believes that there is time to pursue non-kinetic solutions to Iran’s nuclear challenge.”
Brookings’ Maloney, an expert in the political economy of the Persian Gulf, said effects of the economic sanctions on Iran are “unprecedented.” The New York Times reported on Feb. 8 that they have led to rampant inflation and a plunging currency.
“Iran is in the midst of the most severe sanctions in its 33-year history,” Maloney said. “Iranians resent sanctions…Never before have we seen such a direct impact on the pocketbook.”