Israel and the Iranian Nuclear Timetable

January 7, 2011 Topic: IntelligenceNuclear ProliferationRogue States Region: IsraelIran Blog Brand: Paul Pillar

Israel and the Iranian Nuclear Timetable

Why are Israeli officials suddenly so sanguine about Iran's nuclear-weapons program?

During the past ten days Israeli officials have made some remarkably reassuring statements about the status of what Israel has customarily and vehemently characterized as the overwhelming security threat of our time: Iran's nuclear program. Before the new year Deputy Prime Minister Moshe Yaalon said that thanks to technical difficulties and sanctions, an Iranian nuclear weapons capability is probably three years away—a longer timeline than Israeli officials had been suggesting. Now retiring Mossad chief Meir Dagan says an Iranian bomb is even farther away—that Iran won't have that capability until 2015 even if all current international efforts to constrain Iran were to stop tomorrow. If those efforts continue, says Dagan, an Iranian nuclear weapons capability will be pushed back even more.

If we accept these assessments, they are obviously good news for anyone who does not want Iran to acquire nuclear weapons. It is also good news that such assessments are being voiced publicly by senior Israelis, because they seem to make it less likely that the possible action that has posed the greatest risk of severely damaging U.S. interests in the Middle East—an Israeli military attack on Iran—will happen anytime soon. But given the divergence between these recent pronouncements and the alarmist statements about Iran we have become accustomed to hearing from Israel, how can one explain the remarks by Yaalon and Dagan? I can think of a half dozen possible explanations.

One is that they are more or less straightforward reflections of careful, straightforward analysis by Israeli experts of the actual state of the Iranian program. Not every statement by a public official needs to be a disingenuous manipulation of the facts in pursuit of a policy objective. Sometimes we need to resist the tendency to overanalyze someone else's motives. A corresponding U.S. experience that comes to mind was a controversial intelligence assessment in 2007 about the Iranian nuclear program, which left journalists and many others convinced that the writers of the estimate were seeking to disable the military option, even though the principal reasons that estimate came out the way it did had to do with such mundane procedural matters as whether a classified paper was prepared before it was decided to prepare an unclassified one. Dagan is an intelligence professional, and it may have been fully in that capacity that he made his valedictory remarks to journalists.

A second possible explanation is that the remarks are self-serving for both the professionals and the policymakers, in the sense that they were taking credit for slowing down the Iranian program, whether through software worms or other means. For Mossad in particular, impeding the Iranian program has been a major objective for many years. For Dagan, who has headed the intelligence agency since 2002, whatever he has managed to accomplish in sabotaging and constraining the Iranian effort is a big feather in his cap.

Third, what we are hearing may be well-reasoned thoughts from Israelis who have come to realize that resorting to military force against Iran would damage Israel's interests along with the interests of others. And thus they are trying to take the military option off Israel's table. To the extent this explanation is valid it would be very good news. But even if valid, such thinking is undoubtedly still outweighed by the more visceral, less well-reasoned sentiments in Israel about an Iranian bomb.

A fourth explanation is that Israeli leaders have come to realize that the alarmism and saber-rattling about Iran were having deleterious effects on Israel's society and public confidence, and so it was necessary to tone the alarmism down. More specifically, the scare-mongering was encouraging emigration out of Israel, which is one of the very effects Israeli leaders fear will ensue if Iran actually gets a nuclear weapon.

A fifth explanation is that the Israelis were trying to show that sanctions against Iran are working and that it thus makes sense to keep them in place and even to expand them. Yaalon in particular suggested that sanctions were a major reason for the slowing of the Iranian program. The Israeli statements were in this respect a rebuttal of the periodic boasting by Iranian president Ahmadinejad about how much nuclear progress Iran supposedly has made.

The sixth possible explanation is the one that is most in line with the virtuosic manipulation of the U.S. political process that we have come to expect from Israel. It is a matter of timing. Israeli policymakers would prefer a U.S. military strike on Iran over an Israeli strike, because given U.S. capabilities it would be more operationally feasible and effective. But Israelis do not see this happening under the current U.S. administration. So they already are looking ahead to January 2013 and a hoped-for new administration that would be more to their liking and more likely to do Israel's bidding. Israel is saving more of its rhetorical and lobbying ammunition on the Iranian nuclear issue for when it is most likely to have the desired effect, a couple of years from now. In the meantime, the toning down of the alarmism makes sense because it avoids a cry wolf effect and will heighten the impact when, at a more propitious time in the future, the alarm is cranked back up again.

Any or all of these explanations may have some validity. They are not mutually exclusive. Probably the relative importance of each of them varies from one Israeli official to another. Perhaps the first three have more explanatory power for what Dagan said, and the last three for Yaalon's comments. Probably the sixth and final explanation best represents the thinking of the Netanyahu government.

Whatever the combination of explanations, one should not get too encouraged by whatever good news is embedded in all this, because it is ultimately just a matter of timing. Days of reckoning have been postponed, not eliminated. Israeli pressure and agitation on this issue will persist, and it will intensify some time in the future. And whatever is said about timing does nothing to address the more fundamental questions of what harm an Iranian nuclear weapon really would or would not do if ultimately is not precluded, and what harm a resort to war would do instead.