Washington —The Obama administration is engaged in a full-court press to persuade Israel that Iran's nuclear threat can be contained short of war.
The U.S. lobbying has received a mixed reception from Israel, where the Netanyahu government has not ruled out a unilateral strike on Iran.
Iran, meanwhile, is taking an aggressive stance in response to mounting sanctions. Last week, the Iranian naval chief, Adm. Habibollah Sayyari, threatened to close the Strait of Hormuz if Western sanctions intensified. The threat to close the strait — the passageway for oil from the Persian Gulf states — could presage a war, experts said.
"We may be further along the road to war than most people believe," said Michael Adler, an Iran scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.
Experts are divided as to the seriousness of the threat to cut off the strait and whether it would lead to war. Adler said that a confrontation between the United States and Iran may be inevitable, and that the two countries are headed down that road in "slow motion."
"Don't underestimate what the Americans have been saying," he said, referring to the longstanding U.S. line that all options for dealing with Iran are on the table.
Stephen Rademaker, a former top nuclear arms negotiator under President George W. Bush, said the blowback Iran would suffer for shutting down the strait suggests that Sayyari was bluffing.
"It would be extremely difficult for them to close the strait for more than a brief period of time," said Rademaker, now a principal at the Podesta Group, a lobbying shop and think tank. "The U.S. Navy knows how to keep waterways open."
The resultant war also would give the United States a pretext to attack suspected Iranian nuclear sites, he said.
Anthony Cordesman, a former senior U.S. defense intelligence analyst who is now at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, wrote that the real threat was not the shutting of the strait — itself an act of war — but of "much lower level attacks which could sharply raise the risk to Gulf shipping."
Edwin Black, a historian who has written extensively on the Gulf, said the effects of any action in the vicinity of the strait would be far-reaching.
"Any conflict in the Persian Gulf would not be limited to the waterways," Black said. "All they have to do is lob a few medium-range missiles at Abqaiq," a processing plant in Saudi Arabia, "or at Ras Tanura," a terminal on the coast, "or on the strait," where shipping lanes are just two miles wide, "and they can take out 70 percent of Saudi exports."
Iran also is flexing its military muscles. On Monday, Iran test-fired a surface-to-surface cruise missile during naval maneuvers that Iranian officials said proved they were in control of the strait.
The aggressive posture from Iran comes in the wake of the Obama administration's increased determination to cut off Iran's economy as a means of shutting down its nuclear program — and its strenuous efforts to convince Israel's government that it's serious about doing so. At the most recent U.S.-Israel strategic dialogue on Dec. 1, the U.S. side, led by Deputy Secretary of State William Burns, laid out a detailed plan to accumulate international sanctions against Iran over the next few months. The Americans said their efforts could force Iran to back down from progressing on its suspected nuclear weapons plan or even precipitate regime change.
The plan involves two tracks: aggressive diplomacy to get states that buy Iranian oil to stop doing so, along with lining up other nations — Saudi Arabia, Libya and Iraq were named — to compensate for the estimated 2 million barrels a day that Iran's isolation would cost the world's oil markets.
The plan targets, among others, Iran's Central Bank and its energy sector, and is aimed at squeezing the economy full force by March, when the International Atomic Energy Agency board next meets and when a new report on Iran's nuclear weapons is expected to be more damning than ever. Such reports in the past have triggered intensified sanctions.
The Israelis at the meeting, led by Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon, seemed persuaded that the plan had a strong chance of rolling back Iran's nuclear plans, according to officials who attended. They agreed with American caveats that sanctions must not be rushed.
"The worst thing would be to impose sanctions too soon, and then to have the price of oil go up, and Iran profits," one Israeli was quoted as saying.
That reaction would have been a political and diplomatic triumph for the Obama administration; Israeli officials effectively were embracing a more moderate line than Congress, which in the following days passed a law calling for sanctions on the Central Bank to kick in almost immediately.
But that reaction wasn't apparently echoed in Jerusalem, where Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu continued to press for a more immediate ratcheting-up of pressure on Iran, in part by hinting that Israel might take action alone.
Likening himself to Israel's first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, who declared statehood against the counsel of some allies, Netanyahu said in a speech — just days after the strategic dialogue — that he would "make the right decision at the right moment," whatever allies counseled.
That was seen as a rebuke to Leon Panetta, the U.S. defense secretary, who a week earlier had warned that striking Iran could envelop the region in a conflagration.
In weeks subsequent to the dialogue, the Obama administration took steps to reassure Israel that the option of a U.S. military strike was still very much on the table.
Last week, plans for Gen. Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, to visit Israel this month were leaked to Israeli media; his visit likely will coincide with the largest-ever joint U.S.-Israel anti-missile exercise.
The actions have yet to fully sway Netanyahu, according to a report in Newsweek. Netanyahu will not agree to give the United States advance warning of a strike, the report said.
Netanyahu's posture is a function of Israel perceiving Iran as an existential threat, Rademaker said. "We've seen this threat from Israel in the past," he said. "A lot of people discount it and say it's to motivate the U.S. and other countries to do more. That may be true, in part, but Israel does see it as an existential threat," and they have used force. "We have examples from 1981 and 2007."
Rademaker was referring to Israeli pre-emptive strikes on Iraqi and Syrian reactors, respectively.