President Ahmadinejad
Effigies of President Ahmadinejad in Berlin. Photo by AFP
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It's a safe assumption that outgoing Mossad chief Meir Dagan and outgoing Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazi, devoted considerable effort to thwarting the Iranian nuclear threat during their tenures. Dagan's eight-year term ended yesterday; Ashkenazi's four years will reach their conclusion in mid-February. There were significant developments regarding Iran during these years: breakdowns of the centrifuges, shipments that did not reach their destination, revelations of embarrassing intelligence information at critical moments - and even exploding scientists. The international media, and sometimes the Iranians themselves, attributed these events to various Western espionage agencies.

Ashkenazi and Dagan are both said to have followed a pragmatic, moderate line concerning key strategic issues that are worrisome to Israel. Despite almost unavoidable turf wars between the heads of the security branches, a well-coordinated alignment was fashioned between them, along with the head of the Shin Bet security service, Yuval Diskin (who will be concluding six years in office this May ). In the last part of their terms, the three established a strong, influential axis that was difficult to bypass on crucial decisions. The Iranian issue is now being passed on to their successors. It will occupy a high place on the agenda of the new Mossad chief, Tamir Pardo, and of the chief of staff-designate, Yoav Galant.

To date, neither Pardo nor Galant has expressed himself publicly on the subject. Galant's image here - and, perhaps more important, as perceived by Israel's neighbors - is one of a charismatic commander driven by a "can do" mentality. Still, it would be wrong to infer, from his relative hawkishness on Gaza, his views about a future confrontation in Lebanon or with Iran. The weight of responsibility is very different when one holds the top job.

The year ahead will see a few processes converging. In the international arena, the impact of the sanctions on Iran will increase, and the United States will grope its way out of neighboring Iraq. In Israel, along with the changes in the top ranks of the defense establishment, there might be a reshuffle of the coalition and possibly elections.

A historic mission

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu saw his return to power after a 10-year break as the resumption of a historic mission to remove the nuclear threat. The impasse that has been created in negotiations with the Palestinians, combined with the feeling that Israel is now alone in dealing with Iran, contains a potential for misadventure.

Some of Netanyahu's advisers speak contemptuously about ranking officers in the military "who don't know how to do anything except preach peace with Syria and talk about the Iranian problem."

It is, of course, important to create an Israeli offensive threat as a means of pressure on Iran. However, intelligence personnel in some Western countries are warning that a premature Israeli attack would terminate the possibility of diplomatic activity against Iran. In a speech he delivered two months ago in New Orleans to the General Assembly of the Jewish Federations of North America, Netanyahu called on the Americans to create a concrete threat against Iran. The reprimand followed immediately: Defense Secretary Robert Gates stated in an interview that an attack would only allow the rulers in Tehran to regroup against their opponents.

Last week, in an interview with Israel Radio, the minister of strategic affairs, Moshe Ya'alon, who is also a member of the ministerial forum of seven, said it would take three more years for Iran to acquire offensive nuclear capability. (In Ya'alon's case, there is a considerable disparity between his hawkishness in the Palestinian context and his approach to other issues. )

Netanyahu himself has not said much in public about Iran since the embarrassment in New Orleans. But his close associate, Defense Minister Ehud Barak, addressed the issue fairly extensively this week, in a conference held by the Center for Iranian Studies at Tel Aviv University. According to Barak, "Israel's future in the region is in the balance." He urged a bold political strategy that would restore the initiative to Israel, though he did not elaborate on it. Iran, he said, is a threat to the world order, is striving for nuclear arms and aspires to regional hegemony.

Last summer, Barak was disdainful of the results of sanctions against Iran. This week he admitted that they "have definitely scored achievements, but there is no chance that they alone will stop the Iranian effort. Far more acute sanctions - crippling sanctions - are needed." He reiterated his view that no option must be ruled out. That is Israeli leaders' code for a threat to attack Iran, but it is couched in language that will not result in a scolding from Washington.

The strong impact of the relatively sharp sanctions approved by the UN Security Council last June surprised both Israel and Iran.

"The effect has been stronger than we anticipated," an Israeli political source who has been involved with this issue for many years admits. "Everyone understands today that the sanctions are working. The leadership there is under pressure. There has been a sharp rise in the price of gasoline and domestic electricity, and within two months there will be additional increases. The impact has not yet reached its peak."

Gary Samore, President Barack Obama's chief adviser on the subject of weapons of mass destruction, said last month at a Washington conference that the administration is "determined to maintain and even increase pressure" if Iran does not strike a deal with the international community.

In December, following lengthy pondering of the issue, Tehran returned to the format of talks with the six powers at a meeting in Geneva. The U.S. administration understands that the resumption of the talks reflects Iran's desire to gain time, Samore remarked. Another round of talks is expected at the end of this month in Istanbul. By renewing the discussions, the Iranians are able to release a little pressure at home, while making a good-will gesture toward the West.

Obama is currently absorbing ongoing criticism in the realm of foreign policy, from the lack of response, to the provocations by North Korea, to the stalemate on the Palestinian question. As for Iran, "We have to be truthful," the Israeli source says. "He is far more serious than his predecessor. The president stated from the outset that he would follow a combined path of dialogue and sanctions, and that is what he has done. The measures against Iran are more acute than anything we had in the past. The administration is delivering the goods."

Israeli Military Intelligence describes the development of the Iranian threat in terms of clocks: the project clock, the sanctions clock and the regime-change clock. But if the first clock shows the hour is 9, the two others lag far behind. The hopes that were generated by the "green revolution" - the unrest following the presidential election in Iran a year and a half ago - have been shattered.

"I am not sure that the regime of the ayatollahs will be ruling in Iran 10 years down the line," Barak said at the Tel Aviv University conference. "On the other hand, I also cannot say that it will fall in a year or two. It is impossible to bet on the toppling of the regime as a working assumption."

Prof. Bernard Hourcade, a French expert on Iran, who took part in the conference, told Haaretz that "the Iranian clock is not in our [the West's] hands. Iran already achieved significant nuclear capability the moment it upgraded the quality of its uranium enrichment. The main clock is the one that is ticking within Iranian society."

According to Hourcade, a major consideration driving President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is to preserve the hegemony of his camp in the next presidential elections, set for 2013 (Ahmadinejad himself cannot by law run for a third term ): "In order to present himself as a winner, Ahmadinejad needs an accomplishment. An agreement in which the international community recognizes Iran's right to enrich uranium to a level at which it has no military use, and the lifting of the sanctions, could provide that accomplishment. The United States, too, is more amenable now to an arrangement along those lines, because it needs Iranian cooperation in order to leave Iraq peacefully."

Hourcade cites a variation on the deal for the scientific research reactor in Tehran, an initiative the Iranians toyed with but which was dropped a year ago. At the same time, he admits that there is an inbuilt difficulty in trying to decode the intentions of the Iranian leadership at its diverse levels. A Western diplomat who took part in the most recent rounds of talks on a nuclear compromise says, "We know a lot less about Iran than we knew about China."

Hourcade, a senior research fellow at the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique, agrees. He himself is retiring in March, and says he finds few experts of stature on Iran in the West. He used to be a welcome guest in Iran and actually lived there and managed a French institute during the first five years after the Islamic revolution. In recent years it has been intimated to him that he would not be welcome in the country. He is also not overly impressed by the quality of the information possessed by Western intelligence agencies. "They know how to blow up things, not analyze them," he says.

The WikiLeaks documents have made clear the global situation with regard to the threat. In contrast to the situation that existed in late 2007 - when a U.S. intelligence report asserted that there was no proof of Iranian progress on nuclear weapons - the Western powers now seem to agree with the Israeli analysis of the danger, the timetable and, to some extent, the need for harsher sanctions. The documents also lifted the masks from the position of the Arab world. The Arabs view the Iranian nuclear project as a serious problem and would be happy if someone resolved it for them, preferably with the use of military force.

Paradoxically, all this leaves Israel, at the beginning of 2011, in a better place than it was before, despite the Iranians' progress. Israel must see itself as part of a global effort to curb the nuclear danger, and not insist on making itself the bull's-eye of Iran's target. Israel's response to the threat must be composed of more profound elements than simple specifications of bombing sorties: What's needed is a combination of political initiative, preventive effort, upgraded defensive ability and a strike-back capability - but not the total subjugation of resources and initiatives to dealing with remote scenarios of a threat that Israel is unlikely to be able to cope with on its own.