VIENNA (Reuters) - Sanctions and possible sabotage may be slowing Iran’s nuclear drive, reducing the risk that Israel might resort to military strikes against the Islamic Republic’s atomic sites any time soon.
Technical glitches and other hurdles for Iran’s uranium enrichment programme could also provide more time for diplomatic efforts by major powers to persuade it to curb work the West fears is aimed at making bombs, a charge Tehran denies.
“There is a feeling that the sanctions and also some of the covert action are buying time, more time than many previously expected,” a senior Western diplomat said.
Oliver Thraenert, senior fellow at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs, said: “I do believe people are a bit more relaxed now ... the technical problems the Iranians have are much more severe than expected.”
This is likely to reduce the persistent speculation in recent years that Iran’s foes, especially Israel but also the United States, may soon launch military action if diplomacy fails to resolve the nuclear dispute.
Israel, which bombed an Iraqi reactor in 1981 and a suspected Syrian nuclear site in 2007, sees a nuclear-armed Iran as a threat to its existence and has indicated it could use force to prevent it developing such weapons.
But Israeli intelligence assessments published last week said the Jewish state now believed Iran would not be able to produce a nuclear weapon before 2015 and that a top Israeli official had counseled against pre-emptive military action.
It signaled new confidence in U.S.-led sanctions and other measures 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.”
U.S.-based journalist Jeffrey Goldberg, who wrote about the “coming confrontation” between Iran and Israel in an Atlantic magazine article last year, said one Israeli official now put the chances of an Israeli strike on Iran in the next year at below 20 percent.
“And he was one of the Israelis who felt, in the spring of last year, that it would be necessary for Israel to attack Iran’s nuclear facilities by the end of 2011,” Goldberg wrote in a blog this week.
Washington has not ruled out armed action against Iran, even though U.S. officials have warned that it would only delay its nuclear programme and that persuading Tehran to abandon its activities was the only viable long-term solution.
But U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said on Monday that sanctions had set back Tehran’s nuclear work, 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” about a year ago, but this no longer seemed to be the case.
But any reduction in tension and lessening of talk of possible military conflict, with possible dire consequences for the world economy, could turn out to be temporary.
“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.”
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.
“Technical difficulties and sanctions should not lead anyone to think we are near a solution,” said Alireza Nader, an Iran specialist at the RAND Corporation.
“Iran may be motivated more than ever to develop the nuclear programme, especially since the ruling elite believe that backing down would send precisely the wrong signal to the United States and its allies.”
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. In addition, Iran has blamed the West and Israel for the killing of two nuclear scientists last year, a charge Washington has rejected as “absurd.”
The U.S.-based think-tank, the Institute for Science and International Security, said in an analysis that “overt and covert disruption activities have had significant effect in slowing Iran’s centrifuge programme.”
Iran rejects any suggestions that it is experiencing major technical woes and last week announced a new “breakthrough” in its nuclear programme, saying it would make its own fuel for a research reactor later this year.
It says its nuclear work is aimed at producing electricity.
Western officials say tougher sanctions imposed on Iran since last year are hurting its economy and that this may force it to enter serious nuclear talks with six world powers — the United States, Russia, Germany, France, Britain and China.
But no substantial progress was made when talks 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 and Alistair Lyon in Beirut; editing by Tim Pearce