Israel’s View of the Iranian Nuclear “Threat”

Over the last few weeks, some senior figures in Israel’s national security establishment have made — in an Israeli context — relatively moderate statements about their perception of the Iranian “threat” to their country.  Last month, Deputy Prime Minister (and former IDF chief of staff) Moshe Yaalon said that, because of technical difficulties and the impact of international sanctions, the Islamic Republic is at least three years away from attaining the capability to fabricate nuclear weapons.  Earlier this month, Meir Dagan, speaking to the Knesset’s Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee on the eve of his retirement as head of Mossad, Israel’s foreign intelligence service, said that the Islamic Republic would not be able to construct a nuclear weapons until 2015.

We note, as we have many times on, that Iranian officials have consistently rejected the charge that the Islamic Republic intends to build nuclear weapons.  We also reiterate our own view that there is no evidence indicating the Islamic Republic is seeking to fabricate nuclear weapons and that there are many reasons to take Iranian officials’ statements on this matter seriously.

The recent pronouncements by high-level Israeli officials reverse a trend, over the past few years, toward increasingly alarmist Israeli analyses of Iran’s nuclear timeline.  As Haaretz summarizes it,

The Israeli intelligence community’s assessments of Iran’s nuclear capability have changed during Dagan’s tenure. . . .  In 2003, Israeli intelligence officials thought Iran would have its first bomb by 2007.  In 2007, they thought it would be 2009, and a year later they put it at 2011.  Now, the date has moved to 2015.

Paul Pillar has offered some thoughtful observations about why Dagan and Yaalon might have advanced less alarmist assessments of Iran’s nuclear activities than those recapitulated by Haaretz.  We would offer a different perspective on the recent Israeli statements: while the views put forward by Yaalon and Dagan reverse a recent trend toward more alarmist readings of the situation, in the end, these relatively more relaxed assessments merely return us to what passes for a “normal” state of affairs, with Israeli intelligence claiming that the Islamic Republic is 3-5 years from building nuclear weapons.  In fact, until the last three years or so, Israeli intelligence had been pushing the same analytic bottom line — that the Islamic Republic is 3-5 years away from the bomb — since the early 1990s.  This means that, according to Israeli estimates, Iran is 13-15 years “overdue” in acquiring nuclear weapons.

Evaluated from this longer-term perspective, the record of Israeli assessments of Iran’s nuclear program confirms our view that Israeli leaders’ agitation about Iran’s nuclear activities is not driven primarily by concern that they pose a genuinely “existential threat” to Israel.  Rather, Israeli leaders’ agitation is driven by perceptions that Iran’s nuclear development works against Israel’s own push to consolidate and maintain a hegemonic position in the region.

For many years now, one of the foundational pillars for Israel’s hegemony over its regional neighborhood has been the perpetuation of a regional balance of power in which Israel enjoys virtually unconstrained freedom of unilateral military initiative — meaning that it can use military force first, anywhere and anytime it chooses, for whatever purpose it deems desirable.  Iran’s ongoing nuclearization — particularly if it generates a widespread perception that the Islamic Republic had achieved a nuclear “breakout” capability — could begin to constrain that freedom, at least on the margins.

In this context, the recent assessments of Iran’s nuclear program advanced by Yaalon and Dagan reflect, at least in part, a judgment by important elements of Israel’s national security establishment that Israel has succeeded in ensuring that the Islamic Republic will be kept “in a box” for the next 3-5 years.  (And, yes, Israeli intelligence is that thoroughly politicized.)  This judgment refers not just to Iran’s nuclear program; it runs much more broadly than that.

The Netanyahu government and the pro-Israel lobby in the United States have decisively undermined chances for successful U.S.-Iranian engagement.  This, in turn, means that Iran will be kept “in a box,” at least to some degree, in terms of the scope of its regional relations.  While we anticipate that the Islamic Republic’s already substantial regional influence will continue to grow in coming years, Israeli political and policy elites calculate/hope it will be difficult for Iran to normalize fully its relations with states across the region as long as its relations with the United States remain strained.  There has been another round of multilateral sanctions imposed on Tehran.  Moreover, the European Union has agreed to measures of its own that effectively “cut off” the Islamic Republic from Europe — a major victory, from Israel’s perspective (see Dennis Ross’ book, Myths, Illusions, and Peace, p.225-227, for his view on how important the EU role is in any international campaign to isolate Iran on Israel’s behalf).

Under these circumstances — certainly for those Israeli elites, like Dagan, who have long believed that Israel should be maximally restrained in provoking a military confrontation with Iran — Israel does not need to take on the downside risks of military strikes against Iranian nuclear targets.  Hence, we see new assessments that take a more relaxed view of the Iranian nuclear “threat.”

Neither Yaalon nor Dagan should be counted as a “dove,” even by Israeli standards.  Yaalon continues to argue that the United States eventually will have to take actions beyond sanctions to stop Iran — actions that will force Iran to “choose between continuing to seek nuclear capability and surviving.”  Dagan, during his tenure at Mossad, has been thoroughly amenable to crafting delusionally alarmist views of Iran’s nuclear activities when that was deemed politically necessary to push back against any relaxation of anxiety about Iran in Washington or any possibility that the United States might consider seriously engaging Tehran.  This, we believe, helps to explain the tone and substance of Israeli intelligence assessments on Iran’s nuclear activities in late 2007, 2008, and early 2009 — that is, after the release of the U.S. Intelligence Community’s 2007 National Intelligence Estimate on the Iranian nuclear program and the election of Barack Obama as President of the United States in November 2008.  If Iran turns out not to be in quite as tight a box as many Israeli elites believe is currently the case, expect to see Israeli intelligence turn on a dime and revert to over-the-top alarmism about the Iranian “threat.”

For us, it continues to be alarming to see the naiveté and/or calculated political considerations of U.S. officials — with long experience dealing with the Israeli politicians and Israel’s intelligence and military apparatus and who, therefore, should know better — who keep buying into the same sort of manipulation and manufactured alarmism, time and time again.

Flynt Leverett directs the Iran Project at the New America Foundation, where he is also a Senior Research Fellow.  Additionally, he teaches at Pennsylvania State University’s School of International Affairs.  Hillary Mann Leverett is CEO of Strategic Energy and Global Analysis (STRATEGA), a political risk consultancy.  She is also Senior Lecturer and Senior Research Fellow at Yale University’s Jackson Institute for Global Affairs.  The text above is an excerpt from an article first published in The Race for Iran on 10 January 2011 under a Creative Commons license.

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