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Cooling Rhetoric on Iran

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Japan on Thursday became the first country to officially inform Washington that it would seek a waiver from pending U.S. sanctions on foreign institutions doing business with Iran's central bank. Japanese officials delivered the message to a visiting U.S. government delegation. Other importers of Iranian crude, including India, China and South Korea, have either waffled in their commitment to support the U.S.-led sanctions or expressed an outright dismissal of them. 

Washington passed sanctions on the Central Bank of Iran as part of a larger defense authorization bill Dec. 31. Nations that agree to abide by the sanctions have a six-month window to comply, during which time they can continue buying crude from Iran. This is similar to proposed EU sanctions that will be discussed Jan. 23. As with the 2010 U.N. sanctions banning gasoline sales to Iran, these sanctions are unlikely to have the desired effect of crippling Iran's economy to the point of Iranian capitulation. The same goes for the European Union's planned embargo, which will be replete with loopholes for objecting states. Beyond trying to financially strain Iran, the sanctions rhetoric is designed to keep Iran and its nuclear ambitions in the headlines and to demonstrate publicly that action is being taken against Iran, while quieter clandestine efforts are in play.

The last three months have seen the latest round of a cycle that has played out repeatedly over the last several years: Israel escalates claims that Iran is close to attaining a bomb that could threaten the existence of the Jewish state. The United States and Europe then propose hardened sanctions aimed at deterring that activity -- while Washington makes sure to note that military options remain on the table -- and Iran responds by threatening to disrupt the shipment of oil through the Strait of Hormuz, enervating global energy markets. The rhetoric in this circumstance belies the actors' capabilities. Israel knows it has limited ability to launch a successful airstrike on Iran, while the United States wants to avoid a new war with a Persian Gulf state, and Tehran does not want to incur the economic cost of shutting down the Strait of Hormuz.

Israeli rhetoric markedly shifted Wednesday. Defense Minister Ehud Barak told Israeli Army Radio that an attack on Iran by his country is not soon forthcoming, and he downplayed the immediacy of the threat posed by Iran's nuclear efforts. Barak's comments came the day before U.S. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Martin Dempsey traveled to Israel. An article published Thursday in Israeli media, written by a journalist with close ties to Barak, claimed that Dempsey would be briefed on an Israeli intelligence assessment indicating that Iran has not yet tried building a deliverable nuclear device. The assessment also implies that the Iranian regime is more preoccupied with the potential for unrest following parliamentary elections in March than it is with moving forward with its nuclear program.

A visit by a high-level U.S. defense official to Israel was already guaranteed to capture Iran's attention, especially coming on the heels of Iranian military maneuvers centered on the Strait of Hormuz. Israel and the United States could have hinted at a possible attack in an effort to further their psychological warfare campaign against Iran. Instead, Israel has done essentially the opposite, choosing to de-emphasize the urgency of the Iranian nuclear threat. Notably, this follows revelations that the United States reached out to Iran amid tensions over the Strait of Hormuz. Israel's recent rhetoric on the Iranian nuclear program in many ways takes the wind out of an already tottering sanctions campaign. The question is why Israel would do this.

Israel could be employing psychological warfare tactics, lowering Iran's guard in preparation for an attack. But Israel could not carry out such an attack unilaterally, and the United States is giving no indication it is ready for a military confrontation in one of the world's most vital energy thoroughfares. Israel seems pleased with the progression of its covert military campaign against Iran (the recent death of an Iranian chemist associated with the nuclear program could serve to bolster that confidence), and thus does not seem motivated to push Washington toward a military campaign the United States wants no part of. Israel may be willing to see what comes out of the United States' latest attempt at dialogue with Iran. Israel is even doing its part to create an atmosphere more conducive to those talks, while relying on its covert capabilities to address Iran's nuclear threat.

And so, after a months-long buildup in tensions that again raised in the media the possibility of a looming regional war, it appears rhetoric is cooling for now. U.S. sanctions will likely leave space for allies of the United States to continue buying Iranian crude (albeit at reduced levels); Washington is reportedly reaching out to Iran for a diplomatic dialogue, while Iran has temporarily dialed down its bellicose rhetoric regarding the Strait of Hormuz; and the Israelis, through the conduit of Barak, have indicated that they are content for now with this course of action. 

This article reprinted by permission of Stratfor

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