James Risen

WASHINGTON: After a winter of alarm over the possibility that a military conflict over the Iranian nuclear program might be imminent, U.S. officials and outside analysts believe the chances of war in the near future have significantly decreased.

They cite a series of factors that, for now, argue against a conflict. The threat of tighter economic sanctions has prompted the Iranians to try more flexible tactics in their dealings with the United States and other powers, while the revival of direct negotiations has tempered the most inflammatory talk on all sides.

A growing divide in Israel between political leaders and military and intelligence officials over the wisdom of attacking Iran has begun to surface. And the White House appears determined to prevent any confrontation that could disrupt world oil markets in an election year.

“I do think the temperature has cooled,” an Obama administration official said.

At the same time, no one is discounting the possibility that the current optimism could fade. “While there isn’t an agreement between the U.S. and Israel on how much time, there is an agreement that there is some time to give diplomacy a chance,” said Dennis Ross, who previously handled Iran policy for the Obama administration.

“So I think right now you have a focus on the negotiations. It doesn’t mean the threat of using force goes away, but it lies behind the diplomacy.”

The talks two weeks ago in Istanbul between Iran and the United States and other world powers were something of a turning point in the American thinking about Iran. In the days leading up to the talks, there had been little optimism in Washington, but Iranian negotiators appeared more flexible and open to resolving the crisis than expected — even though no agreement was reached other than to talk again, in Baghdad next month. U.S. officials believe the looming threat of tighter economic sanctions to take effect on July 1 convinced the Iranians to take the negotiations more seriously, and that in turn has reduced the threat of war.

“There is a combination of factors coming on line, including the talks and the sanctions, and so now I think people realize it has to be given time to play out,” one administration official said, who, like the other official, spoke without attribution in order to discuss sensitive matters. “We are in a period now where the combination of diplomacy and pressure is giving us a window.”

In a television appearance Wednesday, Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass. and the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said, “I have confidence that there is a way forward.”

Senior Iranian leaders have sought to portray the Istanbul round of negotiations as successful, which might be a sign, U.S. officials and outside analysts said, that the Iranian government is preparing the public for a deal with the West that could be portrayed as a win for Iran.

“At the Baghdad meeting, I see more progress,” predicted Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi after the talks.

IRNA, the Iranian state-controlled news service, reported last week that a leading Iranian cleric, Ayatollah Kazem Seddiqi, had made positive statements about the negotiations. The news service said that the cleric, in his Friday sermon to thousands of worshippers in Tehran, said that if the United States and other nations negotiating with Iran show “logical behavior in nuclear talks, the outcome will be good for all.”