Israel, the United States and Iran have all gone deep into mixed-signals territory. Conversations with Israeli officials, including Defense Minister Ehud Barak, left one prominent journalist convinced that Israel will strike Iran by year's end. Yet two weeks ago, Barak had said that any possible Israeli attack on Iran is "far off."
U.S. Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta said in December that any military strike would only set Iran's nuclear program back a couple years — a remark that some Israelis read as conveying a sense of resignation to the idea that if Iran wants a nuclear weapon, it will be able to get one. But in a television interview broadcast Sunday, he vowed that the United States would take "whatever steps are necessary" to stop Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon.
Meanwhile, Iran is responding to sanctions with a mix of threats to shut down the Strait of Hormuz and efforts to placate Western concerns about its nuclear program by allowing in inspectors and calling for new talks.
Two questions remain: Will Israel strike Iran? And will the sanctions cause Iran to bend? The first question was the subject of a Sunday New York Times Magazine cover story by Ronen Bergman, one of Israel's best-connected security journalists. It featured rare and extensive on-the-record interviews with top Israeli officials, most prominently Barak.
Recent moves by the Iranians have underscored the significance of the second question.
Last week, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said that Iran was ready to sit down for talks to discuss its nuclear program. On Sunday, a team of inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency, the United Nations nuclear watchdog, arrived in Tehran.
The team, according to the Associated Press, includes two weapons experts who will visit an Iranian nuclear facility near the city of Qom. President Barack Obama's revelation in 2009 of the until-then secret underground facility helped the United States make the case to the world community for intensified sanctions, leading to the recent international squeeze on Iran's economy and energy sector.
The inspectors' visit is the first since an IAEA report in November concluded that Iran was engaged in activities, in the area of enhanced uranium-enrichment capabilities, that could have no other discernible purpose than weaponization.
Iran continues to insist that its nuclear program has civilian purposes. Ali Akbar Salehi, Iran's foreign minister, was quoted by various media on Monday as saying that he was "optimistic" about the results of the inspectors' three-day visit, and that it could be extended "if necessary."
"One shouldn't get too carried away, but I assume they have something to offer or they would not agree to schedule this visit," said Barbara Slavin, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council who has written a book on U.S.-Iran relations titled Bitter Friends, Bosom Enemies.
But Michael Adler, at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, noted that the Iranians resisted setting a formal agenda for the inspectors' visit, which suggested a lack of seriousness on their part. "Iran has a history of offering to talk when it is under pressure, and then stalling so that the talks delay punitive measures against it," he said.
Iran is also sending mixed messages to the United States. In addition to its threat to shut Hormuz, Iran's army chief warned a U.S. aircraft carrier not to return to the Persian Gulf. But other Iranian officials later seemed to backtrack, calling the entry of another U.S. carrier into the gulf a routine event. Also this month, Iran test-fired cruise missiles that could be used against U.S. ships.
Israel's plans, meanwhile, also have been the subject of speculation. Bergman in the Times Magazine article concluded that an Israeli strike before year's end was all but inevitable. "I have come to believe that Israel will indeed strike Iran in 2012," he wrote. "Perhaps in the small and ever-diminishing window that is left, the United States will choose to intervene after all, but here, from the Israeli perspective, there is not much hope for that."
Some Iran experts questioned his conclusions, noting that his article included lots of Israelis warning against a strike — and even referred to Barak's Jan. 18 statement that any decision to strike was "very far off."
"It was a very odd article considering all the people he quoted who said that a strike was a bad idea," Slavin said.
In part, Bergman argues, the feeling that Israel will need to strike Iran stems from what he suggests is Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's belief that the United States will not attack in its stead should Iran be on the verge of developing a nuclear weapon.
U.S. officials, including Panetta, have tried to emphasize their commitment to stopping Iran from acquiring weapons. In an interview broadcast Sunday, Panetta said on 60 Minutes that the United States would take "whatever steps are necessary" to prevent Iran from developing a nuclear weapon.
Asked about the possibility of military action, Panetta said, "There are no options that are off the table." He also stressed the urgency of the situation, suggesting that Iran would be able to develop a nuclear weapon in approximately a year. "The consensus is that if they decided to do it, it would probably take them about a year to be able to produce a bomb and then possibly another one to two years in order to put it on a deliverable vehicle of some sort in order to deliver that weapon," Panetta said.
In articulating the notion that Iran could be able to develop a nuclear weapon in fairly short order, Panetta seems to be on the same page as Israeli officials.
In a statement Monday after the economic forum in Davos, Switzerland, Barak sounded a note of concern. "Over the course of the various meetings" with other leaders at the forum, Barak said, "we repeatedly emphasized our stance that we must urgently intensify and broaden the sanctions against Iran. The determination of world leaders is critical in order to prevent the Iranians from advancing their military nuclear program.
"Time is urgently running out," he added.