Eying the Conflict Timeline with Iran

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When will the U.S. go to war with Iran? That question was on the minds of President Barack Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at their summit this week in Washington, as Massimo Calabresi and I write in this week’s dead tree version of the magazine.

Perhaps the smartest answer I’ve heard on the Iran timeline comes from Dennis Ross, who until November was thinking about these issues full time at Obama’s National Security Council. “The use of force is likely when the world’s reaction to Iran will continue to be the same after the use of force than before it. It’s crucial to sustain isolation and pressure,” Ross says. “This isn’t just Israel against Iran, it’s the world against Iran.” In other words, having worked so painstakingly hard to forge a fragile near-global alliance against Iran, the U.S. and Israel would not lightly discard diplomacy until absolutely necessary and by that time the circumstances would be so extreme that most other countries in the world would accept a strike.

Ross notes that the Israelis are on a timetable of their own, so a unilateral strike isn’t out of the realm of possibility. However, he added, “If the Israelis were so anxious to use force, they would’ve done it a long time ago.”

Waiting for much of the rest of the world to be comfortable  with the U.S. or NATO bombing Iran might take years, if ever. But who would’ve thought a year ago that Europe would willingly boycott Iranian oil and that even China could be coaxed to shop elsewhere for its crude?

Iran seems to be fully aware of its increasing isolation in the world. Last week, Iran said it would grant inspectors access to the Parchin military research facility, where International Atomic Energy Agency  inspectors were denied access last month. (There are reports that Iran is scrubbing the area up before granting access). And this week, Khamenei responded to Obama’s Tuesday press conference in which the President pledged to focus on diplomacy as “good words… a sign of being no longer in delusion,” adding there is a “window of opportunity for diplomacy.”

So, is Iran on the cusp of willingly giving up its nuclear ambitions? Probably not. But as the world unites against them, leaders in Tehran are realizing that the time Ross speaks about — and he does think a strike is eventually possible — when the world would near consensus on strikes against them, is closer than they’re comfortable with. “[Khamenei] has to make a decision on whether ceding to the U.S. is worth it vis-à-vis the sanctions or if it threatens his hold on power,” says Ross. For the moment, it looks like Khamenei’s betting, even if it’s just a play for time, that diplomacy is the smart move.