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Good news over Iran - for now

If you listened to all the hints being dropped by senior Israeli politicians last month, a war with Iran seemed almost inevitable. It was being speculated that Israel could make a unilateral strike against its neighbour in the next few months, before the US presidential elections. An anonymous "decision maker" quoted in a newspaper making this suggestion was widely assumed to be Defence Minister Ehud Barak.

Yet, if that was the case, Barak has now changed his tune. While sticking to the trend of speaking in code, a statement given to the media on Thursday suggests that the march towards all out war has been paused, if not shelved entirely. He said:

"We face a common challenge but the clock is ticking at a different pace for each of us. We also have our differences; Israel keeps its sovereign right to act independently, and the US understands this.

"However, there is no doubt about the US readiness to face the challenge on every level. Only Israel will take decisions regarding its future and security. However, the US is our most important ally. The intelligence co-operation and the military support are deep and exceptional in scope. I am sure that it will stay this way in any scenario that might happen in the future."

Crucially, Barak appears to acknowledge that Israel cannot act without the support of America ("our most important ally"). While he reiterates that Israel has the right to act alone, he appears to have new faith in the US. This is supported by a report in Haaretz, which quotes Barak as adding: "One should not ignore the impressive preparations by the Americans to counter Iran on all fronts." Another report in the newspaper says that a source who recently met with Barak found that he "cited his reasons for not attacking now with the same conviction and skill he used to support the opposite approach just two months ago".

So why the change of tone? It is possible that Barak and Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu believe that it is worth waiting until after the US election in November, as a Mitt Romney victory will give them a better chance of convincing the US to join them in a strike on Iran. Israeli commentator Amos Harel has suggested that Netanyahu and Barak have suddenly realised they've overplayed their hand (in poker terms), with all this talk of unilateral action damaging their relationship with their superpower ally for little strategic gain.

In addition to this, the latest report from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) did not, as hoped by those calling for war, provide a clear basis for action against Iran. It showed progress in the country's nuclear programme, with the number of centrifuges installed at the protected Fordow site roughly doubling. But these centrifuges have not been turned on, and the number of machines producing 20 per cent enriched uranium (the type that can easily be turned into weapons grade material) at the site has remained constant. As well as that, a substantial proportion of the 20 per cent enriched uranium produced by Iran has been used for the production of reactor fuel plates, which are harder to turn into weapons grade fuel. All of which is a rather technical way of saying that the report did not provide unambiguous evidence that Iran is making a nuclear warhead.

Whatever the reasons, pacifists should be relieved – for now – that a calmer mood appears to be prevailing. How long that lasts, particularly in the event of a change of government in Washington, is another question entirely.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.

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