Former Israel Deputy Defense Minister Ephraim Sneh warned a nuclear Iran could accelerate other Arab nations' nuclear capability. (David Uberti/Medill)

WASHINGTON – Experts Wednesday called the situation in Iran a “budding crisis,” but they warned against military action to stop the country’s fledgling nuclear programs.

A strike against Iranian nuclear facilities could not only increase regional sympathy for the Islamic Republic, they said, but it could possibly accelerate the rate at which Iran becomes nuclear capable. These effects are in addition to an Iranian military response to Israel or the United States.

“This is the most confusing and complicated time for foreign policy in my lifetime,” said Jane Harman, director of the Woodrow Wilson Center and a former congresswoman from California. “The opportunity for miscalculation and mistakes is huge.”

A nuclear Iran poses great threats to Israel – a strong U.S. ally – and not only because of the country’s weapon’s capabilities, said Ephraim Sneh, Israel’s former Deputy Minister of Defense.

“There is no government in Jerusalem that may accept a nuclear Iran,” Sneh said. “The problem is the regime with imperial ambition and with no real inhibitions. And this regime must be toppled.”

A reason for more concern

Sneh and other experts spoke at a Wilson Center panel focused on the complicated diplomatic triangle between Israel, Iran and the U.S. The discussion came only a day after a huge blow to United Nations inspections of Iranian nuclear sites.

Officials from the International Atomic Energy Agency left Iran late Tuesday night after failing to reach an agreement to inspect a military site outside Tehran.  The two-day talks were the second time in a month the IAEA attempted to gain access to the facility.

A November IAEA report listed the military complex at Parchin – just outside Tehran – as a site where Iran’s nuclear program tests explosives for future nuclear warheads.

“We engaged in a constructive spirit, but no agreement was reached,” IAEA Director General Yukiya Amano said in a statement.

The denial of U.N. inspections is the latest development pointing to Iran using nuclear capabilities for future military use. Iranian officials have repeatedly stated the country’s enrichment of uranium is for use in civilian power plants.

President Barack Obama and Defense Secretary Leon Panetta agree a nuclear-capable Iran is unacceptable. At a Friday town hall meeting at Barksdale Air Force Base, Panetta hinted at the possibility of U.S. military action, saying Iranian weapons of mass destruction could “threaten the stability of the world.”

“We don’t want an Iran that basically spreads violence around the world, that supports terrorism, that conducts acts of violence,” Panetta said. “We, the United States, have all options on the table.”

Envisioning a military strike

But the panelists warned against military action on Iran’s nuclear sites. The current situation is similar to that of North Korea in 2006, said Trita Parsi, president of the National Iranian American Council. And it hasn’t reached the point at which economic and political sanctions aren’t enough.

“I think the risk for a military confrontation is higher than it has been in the past,” Parsi said. “But we’ve seen this movie about five times in the last decade.”

“There are far more options on the table. We’re not at a point at which such negative options are the only ones on the table.”

Ghaith Al-Omari, executive director at the American Task Force on Palestine, said while a strike might temporarily delay Iran’s nuclear programs, it could strengthen ties among the country’s regional allies.

“An attack on Iran could create a resurgence of sympathy,” he said, especially from such allies such as Hamas and Hezbollah. Both groups are considered terrorist organizations by the U.S. State Department.

There are various estimates as to when Tehran could become nuclear capable. A 2009 Congressional Research Service report on Iran’s nuclear programs estimated no sooner than 2013. Other sources suggest 2015 at the earliest.

Regardless, Parsi said, military action against Iranian nuclear sites will reinforce the regime’s desire for warheads and accelerate its related military programs.

A nuclear-capable Iran will multiply regional security threats – and not just from within the Islamic Republic. Sneh, a former member of Israel’s Knesset, said once Tehran gets the bomb, “it’s a matter of several years…that Saudia Arabia, Egypt and Turkey will have a bomb of their own.”

Hope for a peaceful solution

Despite the multiplied threats, military action is not the best way to inhibit Iranian nuclear proliferation, he added. Current sanctions on the Iranian Central Bank are slowly taking their toll on the nation’s economy.

The New York Times reported on Feb. 8 that sanctions against the Islamic Republic are leading to rampant inflation and a plunging currency, placing strain on the nation’s population. In response, Iran has been in talks with Russia and China to replace the U.S. dollar as a transaction currency in the oil trade, according to the state-backed Fars news agency.

Despite the reports, the regime downplayed the effects of sanctions yesterday, Fars reported, saying economic and political pressure “will not yield any results.”

The Islamist government’s stoicism has led experts – including Panetta – to predict an Israeli strike against Tehran’s nuclear sites as early as April.

But Sneh cautioned against overestimating the Jewish state’s willingness to strike. Attacking the Islamic Republic’s nuclear facilities is a merely a last resort, he added.

“No one in Israel is trigger happy about Iran,” Sneh said. “We all know the repercussions. We all know the unavoidable price for a military strike. But all of us know that, in a certain situation, the price is worth paying.”

There is still reason for hope in the Islamic Republic, Sneh said, and it comes from within.

“The Iranian people want this regime to be changed,” he said. “Not be external force, not by military action from an external power, but by its own will. They want to live freely.”

The deteriorating economic outlook for Iran’s people is likely to decrease their faith in the regime. Sneh said continued sanctions could expedite an uprising against it.

“I believe that a revolutionary situation can be created in Iran,” he said. ” It’s almost unavoidable. The question is when.”

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