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Tehran and Baghdad: Changing the Nuclear Dynamic

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No one knows what Israel's actual intentions are regarding Iran and its nuclear program. How much of what Israeli leaders say reflects their real intentions and how much is intended to goad the international community to action is unknown. The revelation of the sophisticated computer virus known as Flame reminds us that non-military solutions are clearly part of the mix.

If, however, Israel is actually still seriously weighing the option of a military strike in the next six months, then events of the last week significantly increased the odds of that happening. The credibility of Israel's concerns and sense of urgency took a leap forward with the results of both the diplomatic and inspections tracks.

There is much talk of a potential U.S.-Israel gap in the negotiations -- with Israel reportedly insisting that all enriched uranium be turned over and the Fordo nuclear enrichment plant be dismantled, and speculation that the U.S. is reportedly ready to settle for the end of uranium enrichment only above 3.5 percent and that Fordo plant only be suspended.

The negotiations in Baghdad revealed that it is not a potential gap between allies that is the core issue -- though that still may be a concern -- but the very real, continuing and possibly unbridgeable gap between Iran and the world's position. Iran is not ready to consider giving up on its 20 percent enriched uranium. It is not ready to open its most secret nuclear facilities to unfettered inspections. In sum, it sticks to its position that it has every right to develop nuclear fuel and that it is for civilian purposes.

These are the fundamental gaps that show no sign of being closed. Tactical issues as to when the West will ease sanctions in exchange for Iranian steps may be open to finding some common ground, but they are meaningless while Iran stands firm on the fundamentals.

The Baghdad meeting enhanced the credibility of the Israeli position that the Iranians see diplomacy as merely a stalling tactic to enable it to move forward on its nuclear program. The basic criticism of Israel in some quarters that Israel was rushing to judgment seemed far weaker after Baghdad.

The Israeli position was similarly enhanced regarding the International Atomic Energy Agency chief's meetings in Tehran.

It was duly noted, when optimism about the joint tracks was in the ascendency, that this was the first time a U.N. nuclear chief had been invited to Tehran since 2009. The IAEA's Yukiya Amano came and negotiated in good faith and left Tehran with the belief the Iranians would be allowing U.N. inspections at the most sensitive nuclear sites. No sooner had he left when Iranian nuclear officials made it clear they had conceded nothing of the sort and the Fordo site remained off-limits to inspectors.

So after all these years and with greater sanctions looming -- July 1 is the date for Europe to cut off oil purchases for Tehran -- nothing much and everything have changed. The "nothing much" is Iran's willingness to back off its program; the "everything" is Iran's getting closer and closer to a nuclear weapons capability and the creation of a "zone of immunity" through a deeply embedded nuclear facility.

Israel undoubtedly took in all these developments with profound interest. Its skepticism about Iran's willingness to seriously engage turned out not to be a "worst-case scenario," but reality. The sense of urgency about the need to act, whether by tougher sanctions or a military option, reemerges to the top of the agenda.

And the international case against Israeli military action -- give diplomacy a chance, Iran seems to be hurting so it will be more flexible, the Israelis are out of control and even paranoid -- is looking more divorced from reality than Israel's fears.

The old questions about a military option remain: Can Israel succeed alone? What will be the consequences for Israel and the West? Where are Israel's military leaders on that matter?

But what may have changed the balance is the greater possibility of getting U.S. and international support for an Israeli action. Amos Yadlin, former head of Israeli Military Intelligence and current Director of Israel's Institute for National Security Studies, has wisely said that even in the best-case scenario, an Israeli attack would set back the Iranian program only four to five years.

The key for success beyond that, he said, will be the willingness of the U.S. and Europe to support continued sanctions against Iran after an Israeli attack. In such a case, the four to five years can be stretched well into the future, and there wouldn't be a need to revisit the military option theme in a few years.

Undoubtedly, the goal of getting at least some legitimacy for an Israeli military option gained ground over the last week. And with it, the logic of the value of a military strike rose as well.

None of which is to say that we know what Israel intends to do. But Iran's clear intransigence at a critical moment may have changed the dynamic of decision-making in Jerusalem and maybe in time in Washington and elsewhere as well.