The third round of talks between Iran and the "P5+1" group, held in Moscow on 18-19 June 2012, ended in stalemate. A formal process will continue at a lower level, but amid an atmosphere of continuing mutual suspicion and in a situation where United States electoral politics work against compromise. Iran believes that most of the P5+1 is bargaining that sanctions increase their impact until Tehran bends to its will, whereas Washington holds that it is the Iranians who are happy to prolong matters while they accelerate uranium enrichment.
Alongside these calculations, at least some European (especially German) politicians recognise that any substantial delay in negotiations could well create the space for a unilateral Israeli military strike on Iran, an act that would inaugurate a lengthy period of deep instability and perhaps an intensely destructive war.
The high European commitment to diplomacy over Iran has in part been motivated by the risk of Israel attacking Iran. There is little doubt that Israel would be prepared to make such a move at a time of its choosing. It is of even greater concern to the Europeans, then, that indications have emerged in recent weeks of the Pentagon's own serious engagement in comprehensive multi-option war-planning.
A question of timing
The belief underpinning this hawkish approach seems to be that a short, sharp military action directed very precisely at Iran's nuclear and missile facilities is the only way to force a weakened Iran to "come in from the cold" and - once and for all - abandon its nuclear ambitions.
There is no settled consensus in elite US circles about to handle the Iran problem. Several powerful voices, including within the Pentagon, argue that the best option is to continue the mix of sanctions and sustained cyber-warfare (the latter in collaboration with Israel). Others, however, argue that there is a need to plan for war, with the question of optimum timing a central issue (see David Fulghum, "Bombing Iran: U.S. military planners ponder when a kinetic attack might make sense", Aviation Week, 25 June 2012).
The Pentagon advocates of a strike on Iran believe that the early part of 2013 might be the best moment. In their eyes, this offers three advantages. First, the presidential and congressional elections of November 2012 would be out of the way, with nearly two years to the next mid-sessional elections; thus any political controversy would have plenty of time to diminish. Second, the months between now and the point of decision would make clear whether there was any possibility of a political compromise. Third, keeping the war option open - and informing the Israelis well in advance - would make a lone Israeli attack less likely. The most hardline of the US planners hold the view that it is much better that the US "does the job properly" than lets Israel, with its much smaller forces, take the lead.
The planners emphasise here the sheer power of the United States military, especially the ability of the US air force (Usaf) to fly from bases in the region and combine with naval-aviation forces operating out of carrier-battle groups in the Arabian Sea.
The key weapons used would be the B-2 strategic stealth bombers and the F-22 strike-aircraft, which would overfly Iran after the latter's defensive radar installations had been jammed by the new miniature air-launched decoy (Mald) and other systems.