A moratorium for military action but not for settlements
Those working hardest to drum up support for bombing Iran's nuclear facilities suffered a significant setback last week, with the news that Tehran is currently not capable of building a nuclear weapon - and is unlikely to be for the next three years. That assessment takes the wind out of the sails of advocacy groups in Washington who insist that Iran is on the brink of achieving nuclear-weapons status, and that urgent military action is required to avert the danger.
Republicans in Congress berate the US president Barack Obama for failing to respond adequately to this "crisis". Those in the US military and intelligence establishments who push back with a more realistic picture of Iran's capabilities are often painted as appeasers. But the recent news that Iran's nuclear programme is not the immediate peril that some suggest comes from an impeccably hawkish source: Israel's deputy prime minister, the former general Moshe Yaalon, who advocates military action to stop Iran getting hold of the bomb. Iran had encountered difficulties in its nuclear efforts, Mr Yaalon told Israeli radio last week, and would not pass any point of no return for the next three years, adding, "Iran does not currently have the ability to make a nuclear bomb on its own".
Contrast that with the suggestion in a widely-read article by pro-Israel commentator Jeffrey Goldberg in the Atlantic Monthly last spring - based on interviews with some 50 top Israeli officials - that Israel would bomb Iran before the coming summer if the Obama administration had failed to force Tehran to abandon its nuclear programme by the end of 2010. That deadline has passed with no change in Iran's posture, but here is one of Israel's most senior security officials publicly extending the "deadline" by another three years.
The conspiracy-minded may be tempted to see Mr Yaalon's remarks as a rope-a-dope trick to lull the Iranians into a false sense of complacency over Israel's intentions so as to give it an edge of surprise in the coming air raid. Then again, there's always been a certain elasticity in the deadlines Israel has cited over Iran's nuclear programme. A US diplomatic cable in 2005 released by WikiLeaks quoted an Israeli government official as warning US officials to take Israeli time-lines on Iranian capabilities with a pinch of salt. The cable quotes a senior Israeli foreign ministry official as noting wryly that his government, in 1993, had "predicted that Iran would possess an atomic bomb by 1998 at the latest".
A second cable covering a 2009 meeting in which an Israeli general warns that Iran will be able to build its first weapon by 2012, a US official observes: "It is unclear if the Israelis firmly believe this or are using worst-case estimates to raise greater urgency from the United States."
The assessments offered by Israeli leaders to American officials over the past two decades have certainly been heavy on unfounded alarmism. "The best estimates at this time place Iran between three and five years away from possessing the prerequisites required for the independent production of nuclear weapons," the current Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu wrote in 1995. Nor was such scare-mongering confined to his Likud party. Ehud Barak, leader of the Labour party and then foreign minister, warned members of the UN Security Council in February 1996 that Iran would have nuclear weapons within eight years. The then prime minister Shimon Peres in April 1996 put the timeline at just four years.
And when those deadlines were passed with no sign of Iranian nukes, Israeli leaders simply updated their time-lines. In February 2009, Mr Netanyahu told a US Congressional delegation that Iran is "one to two years away" from nuclear weapons capability; in June of the same year Mr Barak told US legislators that the world had "between 6 and 18 months" to stop Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons.
And so, as 2011 dawns with no sign of an Iranian nuclear arsenal, Mr Yaalon steps forward to extend the deadline and concede that Iran will not be able to build nuclear weapons for at least another three years. What has prompted this sudden outburst of sobriety?
Americans have often heard the message that Israel will be forced to plunge the Middle East into a disastrous war if the US doesn't force Iran to heel. Americans are routinely told that Israel sees Iran as a reincarnation of Nazi Germany, seeking the means to annihilate the Jewish state. But that message carries great risks for Israel's own leaders.
Washington remains unlikely to launch an unprovoked attack on Iran over its nuclear programme. The US defence secretary Robert Gates has long argued that the potentially catastrophic risks of such action outweigh the gains, which are temporary at best. Therein lies the problem: Israel's voters have been told, to quote Mr Netanyahu in 2006, that "it's 1938 and Iran is Germany". So they'll expect their leaders to act if Washington doesn't. After all, the very idea of Israel is that Jews can't depend on others to save them from annihilation, so if its citizens believe that Iran is a reincarnation of Auschwitz, they will demand action.
Alarmist Israeli rhetoric may be designed to press Washington, but it potentially paints Israel's own leaders into a corner. They, too, know that Iran is not the threat painted in the more apocalyptic rhetoric. A little over a year ago, Mr Barak said publicly that "Iran does not constitute an existential threat against Israel," adding that "Israel is strong, I don't see anyone who could pose an existential threat."
Then again, Mr Barak had made clear to Goldberg that he believed that the greatest danger was that alarm at the idea of an Iranian nuclear weapon would prompt Israel's best and brightest to emigrate. If Israeli voters believe, as Goldberg suggests, that a "point of no return" was passed with the New Year and there are no air strikes in the spring, they may begin to doubt their government's ability to protect them.
But now some in the Israeli leadership are resetting the clock. While Mr Obama failed to convince the Israelis to extend their moratorium on settlement construction, they may be signing up, unprompted, to a moratorium on bombing Iran for the next three years.
Tony Karon is a New York-based analyst. Follow him on Twitter @Tony Karon
Updated: January 3, 2011 04:00 AM