A U.S. or Israeli military strike on Iran's alleged nuclear weapons facilities is unlikely this year, but could happen as soon as 2013, say several former senior American officials.
Election-year politics and the time-consuming nature of continued multination talks with Tehran will push into next year final deliberations about whether to take out facilities where the defiant Islamic regime is believed to be building atomic weapons, the former--and likely future--U.S. officials say.
The problem, however, is that Iranian leaders know that, too, they said Monday at a Bipartisan Policy Center-sponsored forum in Washington.
"There is no chance the U.S. will take military action before the presidential election [in November]," says Stephen Rademaker, assistant secretary of state under George W. Bush now with the Podesta Group.
Addressing the soonest a U.S. or Israeli strike would occur, Nicholas Burns, undersecretary of state under Bush, said bluntly: "It's 2013."
The nature of diplomacy is one reason the former officials believe a pre-emptive attack is unlikely this year. So-called P5+1--the five U.N. Security Council permanent members plus Germany--talks with Iranian officials kicked off last month in Turkey; a second session is set for next week in Baghdad.
"A serious attempt at diplomacy should take us into the summer and the fall," Burns said.
Dennis Ross, a senior U.S. diplomat and presidential adviser under Bush, Bill Clinton, and Barack Obama, warned that leaders in Tehran "flimflam us all the time." Like a professional basketball coach will use his full allotment of time outs in the final minutes to extend a close game, Tehran--like North Korea--often uses diplomatic negotiations as a way to delay military action or the enactment of stiff economic sanctions.
So while the U.N. Security Council nations and a stubborn, nuclear-aspiring regime engage in what appears to be a process of negotiations, "they continue to develop their [atomic weapons] program year after year," Ross said.
Rademaker warns that if the Iranian delegation agrees to review a U.S.-backed proposal during the P5+1 process, but takes three months to do so, "then they're just buying time."
The former officials, who could very well show up again in senior administration posts working on the Iranian issue, agreed Washington and its allies should force upon Tehran a timeline for working out a deal under which it would give up its nuclear arms program.
"We need to set up a schedule now," Rademaker says, because come the summer, "everyone in Europe will be on vacation."