At a time when news headlines from the Middle East are dominated by battles in Syria, growing Sunni-Shi'ite conflict in Iraq and Lebanon, and mass disturbances in Turkey, it is easy to forget about Iran's nuclear program; but early warning indicators are signaling an impending, explosive crisis over Iran's refusal to halt its covert nuclear weapons program.
At enrichment facilities in Natanz and Fordow, Iran is continuing to inch closer to the point of nuclear breakout, as a report by the UN's International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) recently noted.
The report confirmed what defense analysts had been saying for months: that Iran installed hundreds of additional centrifuges for uranium enrichment, enhancing its nuclear program, while continuing enrichment activities.
Tehran has also taken steps to create a parallel path to nuclear weapons through its plutonium plant at Arak.
Iranian engineers are constructing a reactor at the heavy water plant at Arak, which could enable the production of a plutonium-based atomic bomb.
Meanwhile, Iran continues to deny IAEA inspectors access to its suspected nuclear trigger facility at Parchin, and has been busy shifting earth around the site to cover its activities. At this point, the IAEA said, even if inspectors were allowed to visit, the cover-up would mean they may not find a thing.
These developments have led leading Israeli defense experts at the Institute for National Security Institute in Tel Aviv to conclude that unless the White House soon adjusts its policy on Iran, the U.S. may end up adopting a policy of nuclear containment rather than prevention.
The analysts, Emily Landau, director of the Arms Control and Regional Security Program at the INSS, and Ephraim Asculai, a senior research associate, questioned President Barack Obama's assertion that the US will know ahead of time if Iran took a decision to produce nuclear weapons. They cited historical failures by intelligence agencies, and cautioned that relying on the IAEA to identify the danger in time could prove disastrous.
Even if a timely warning were received, they said, it remains unclear that there would enough time to reverse Iran's trajectory, or that the White House would be willing to employ force.
Most importantly, their paper said that it is now "blatantly apparent" that the diplomatic approach for solving the Iranian crisis has failed, "even though the US administration has yet to admit this."
Their stance was echoed on Monday by the United Nation's top nuclear diplomat, IAEA Director General Yukiya Amano.
Amano told the IAEA's board of governors that talks with Iran are simply "going around in circles," and described the past ten rounds of negotiations as failures.
Using unusually blunt language to underscore the dead-end situation, Amano said: "To be frank, for some time now, we have been going around in circles. This is not the right way to address issues of such great importance to the international community, including Iran."
Iran's intransigence, and its unwillingness to cooperate or provide assurances about the absence of nuclear material and activities were all to blame, he said.
"These activities are in clear contravention of resolutions adopted by the Board of Governors and the United Nations Security Council," Amano added.
Israel, which is more threatened by Iran's nuclear program than is the U.S., as well as militarily weaker than Washington, has less time to make its up mind on how and when to proceed to avert a threat to its existence.
Israel's Minister for Strategic Affairs, Yuval Steinitz, reflected the urgency of the situation in a warning he sent out to the public last week. "Time is running out," he said. "We have only a few months. The danger is a global one, which will change the face of history. Iran could have hundreds of atomic bombs and hundreds of long-range missiles."
He added: "The danger is many times bigger than North Korea."
Against this background, the Israeli military's former intelligence chief, Maj.-Gen. (res.) Amos Yadlin, and former Vice-Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. James Cartwright USMC (ret.), published an analysis in the Atlantic examining what would happen if either Israel or the US launched military strikes on Iran's nuclear program.
Yadlin and Cartwright simulated a classified phone call between Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and U.S. President Barack Obama, which would take place later this year. During the call, the two leaders agree that the diplomatic-sanctions route to stopping Iran has failed.
Their starting position is the current situation, and the timing of their piece is not coincidental. Their envisaged phone call may well occur sooner rather than later.
A central conclusion reached by the defense figures is that Israel has the highest moral authority to launch military action, as it faces the greatest threat.
Practically, an Israeli strike might also safeguard the U.S.'s ability to act as a broker and negotiate a permanent diplomatic solution to the crisis after a strike – a role the U.S. could not undertake if it carried out the strike itself. Nevertheless, the U.S. enjoys superior military capabilities to launch such an operation.
Iran's response to an attack from either side could range from a limited retaliation to launching a regional war.
The other day, an Israeli defense official said the production of Arrow-3 anti-ballistic missile defense systems – which intercept incoming long-range missiles in space – have been fast-tracked.
Eight months ago, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu told the international community at the United Nations that the clock was ticking for a resolution to the Iranian crisis, and that time could be up by the spring or summer of 2013.
A growing number of alarms are ringing.