VIENNA (Reuters) - Sanctions and possible sabotage may be slowing Iran’s nuclear drive, making it less likely Israel will try to launch military strikes against the Islamic Republic’s atomic sites, at least for now.
Technical glitches and other woes for Iran’s uranium enrichment programme could also help create more space for diplomatic efforts by major powers to convince Tehran to curb work the West fears is aimed at making bombs.
“I do believe people are a bit more relaxed now ... the technical problems the Iranians have are much more severe than expected,” Oliver Thraenert, senior fellow at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs, said.
“It appears that we have much more time for a diplomatic solution.”
This could help ease persistent speculation in recent years that Iran’s foes, especially Israel but also the United States, could soon resort to military action to prevent the major oil producer from acquiring nuclear weapons.
Israel, whose jets bombed an Iraqi reactor in 1981 and what U.S. officials said was a Syrian nuclear facility in 2007, sees a nuclear-armed Iran as an “existential threat” and has hinted it could use force to deny it the means to develop such arms.
But Israeli intelligence assessments published last week said the Jewish state now believes Iran will not be able to produce a nuclear weapon before 2015 and that a top Israeli official had counselled against pre-emptive military steps.
It signalled new confidence in U.S.-led sanctions and covert action designed to discourage or delay Iran’s nuclear work.
“Israel appears no less willing to contemplate military action against Iran to prevent it from obtaining nuclear weapons,” Greg Thielmann, a senior fellow at the Washington-based Arms Control Association, said.
“However, there has been a dramatic change recently in statements from Israeli officials about the timeline they project for Iran to achieve a nuclear weapons capability.”
NO WAR DRUM BEATING?
Ben Caspit, senior commentator for Israel’s Maariv daily, said Israeli intelligence over the last decade had repeatedly pushed back the estimate for when Iran would have an atom bomb.
“Potentially, continuous diligent activity, both overt and covert, against Iran’s nuclear programme, could delay this even further towards the decade’s end,” he wrote.
Washington has also not ruled out armed action against Iran, even though U.S. officials have warned that it would only delay its nuclear programme and that convincing Tehran to give up its work is the only viable long-term solution.
But U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said on Monday that sanctions have set back Tehran’s nuclear activities, giving major powers more time to persuade it to change tack.
Shannon Kile at the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute said the “war drum was really beating” a year ago.
“I don’t see that now ... something is clearly going on which is causing policy makers both in Washington and Tel Aviv to step away from some of the more dire predictions that they were making just 18 months ago,” Kile said.
But any reduction in tension and lessening of talk of possible military conflict, which could have dire consequences for the world economy, could turn out to be temporary.
Iran is still amassing refined uranium -- material which can be used to make bombs if enriched much further -- and it is showing no sign of backing down in the long-running international dispute over its atomic ambitions.
“There definitely has been sort of a de-escalation of the situation,” Kile said. But, he added, “I don’t see that as being necessarily something more permanent or lasting.”
IRANIAN NUCLEAR “BREAKTHROUGH”
Analysts say Iran’s nuclear work has been experiencing technical difficulties for several years, partly because it is using enrichment centrifuges adapted from a smuggled 1970s European design which is prone to overheating and vibration.
Iran is testing an advanced, more durable model able to refine uranium two or three times faster, and says it intends to introduce it for production in the near future.
But the sanctions, which ban trade in nuclear-related technology and equipment, may make this more difficult.
Signs of foreign sabotage, such as the Stuxnet computer worm which some experts believe was aimed at Iran’s enrichment activities, could also be a factor.
“For many years, governments have pursued methods to disrupt Iran’s ability to procure goods illegally overseas for its nuclear programme,” experts of the U.S.-based Institute for Science and International Security wrote in an analysis.
“Such overt and covert disruption activities have had significant effect in slowing Iran’s centrifuge programme,” David Albright, Paul Brannan and Christina Walrond added.
Iran rejects any suggestions that it is experiencing significant technical problems and last week announced a new “breakthrough” in its nuclear programme, saying it will make its own fuel for a research reactor later this year.
Western officials say tougher sanctions imposed on Iran since last year are hurting its economy and that this may force it to enter serious negotiations about its nuclear programme.
But no substantial progress was made when talks between Iran and six world powers resumed in Geneva last month, for the first time in more than a year, and expectations of a breakthrough are low ahead of a second round in Istanbul next week.
“Sanctions will not force Iran to capitulate,” Thielmann said. “It is also clear that negotiations will be a drawn-out and difficult process, requiring many months.”
Additional reporting by Dan Williams in Jerusalem; Editing by Samia Nakhoul
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