Adding to Israeli concern, Clawson and Wurmser said, is uncertainty over whether the next US administration will be willing and able to get organized on Iran policy quickly enough to meet Israeli concerns about Iran's nuclear progress as the calendar advances.
"Even beyond the question of whether McCain or Obama wins, the Israelis are afraid that no new administration is really going to be able to get its act together quickly to be able to mobilize a plan and do something," Wurmser said.
Wurmser put the odds of Israel striking Iran before Bush leaves office at "slightly, slightly above 50-50."
Wurmser said that different pressures weigh for and against Israeli military action either before or after the US election in November, but before Bush leaves office. "Israelis may think politically they don't want to get in a situation to do something that causes a reaction against US forces in Iraq, which causes the Republicans to lose the election." But acting after the elections would deeply complicate Israeli relations with the incoming administration.
Wurmser posits a third possibility. "The Israelis may have new information," and that may explain the up-tempo in the high-level US Israeli discussions on Iran. "But a second thing that might explain it is, this is not real. This is pressure to get Bush to act before he leaves."
"A lot turns on details about the assessment not just of Iran's nuclear progress, but also on parts of the Iran program that may not be publicly disclosed and on the projected status of Iran's air defenses or other countermeasures," says one former Bush administration official who asked to speak on background. "I think this also may be a more demanding option operationally than may be apparent from the public debate.
"I've been skeptical of the war talk until recently because I was informed enough to know better," the former official added. "Now I'm not gloomier, just less informed."
Robert Gallucci, a former longtime State Department nonproliferation expert who now serves as dean of Georgetown University's School of Foreign Service, said a recent consultation with US government scientists persuaded him that Iran is not likely to have significant nuclear breakout capability for about five years.
"The test is when Iran could plausibly accumulate significant quantities of highly enriched uranium or plutonium so you have to worry about not only nuclear weapons development, but also the possible threat of transfer to a terrorist organization," Gallucci said Friday.
"I came away [from recent consultations with government scientists] believing that is actually some distance away in time—beyond five years," Gallucci said.
Gallucci said he was talking about when Iran could conceivably produce five or ten or more nuclear weapons. (Iran denies it is seeking a nuclear weapons capability at all, and the 2007 US NIE concluded that Iran had halted its weaponization program in 2003.) Are Israel's threat assessments based on the projection of when Iran could produce one nuclear weapon? "I tend to want to answer that and say there are two ways to come up with a difference [between US and Israeli assessments]. Technically, Israel and the US could have a different assessment of the obstacles that the Iranians might run into and how quickly they could overcome them."
"There could also be a tolerance [difference]," Gallucci said. "We're prepared to say, 'It's unlikely they could do this in this amount of time.' The Israelis could be saying, 'Thank you very much, we're a little closer to the problem than you are.' American national security types are not certain of how quickly Iran could do it, but are just as uncertain about whether Iran would do it or not."
Photo of a B-2 Spirit bomber by flickr user James Gordon used under a Creative Commons license.