Israel could have welcomed the European Union sanctions on Iran this week as a diplomatic coup, but instead it has reacted with characteristic sourness.

The reason is that Israel's persistent urging of the world to accept that Iran's nuclear program is more advanced and dangerous than the West admitted has now been undermined. Its use of the military threat to keep international pressure on Iran is deflated.

There also appears to be another reason. If Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak are really planning an attack on Iran's nuclear sites, as former Mossad chief Meir Dagan hinted recently, then toughening the sanctions reduces Israel's maneuvering space. The world's tolerance toward Israel's position, certainly to a military offensive, is considerably reduced once real sanctions are imposed against Iran's central bank and oil industry.

At the beginning of November, a slight national alarm was raised - and echoed in the foreign media - over the possibility of an attack on Iran. The panic passed and the winter clouds over the nuclear sites froze any talk of such a possibility.

As Israel draws closer to making a decision, Barak is discussing its leaders' considerations more openly. In a fascinating article published in Sunday's edition of the New York Times ("Will Israel Attack Iran?" ), Israeli journalist Ronen Bergman outlines the Israeli positions regarding Iran. Bergman interviewed Barak in his Tel Aviv home on the night of Friday, January 13. Barak told him on the record most of the things he had told other Israeli journalists, off the record, in the autumn.

Barak talks in the interview about three categories of questions that will determine whether Israel attacks - the extent of Israel's ability to act, the international legitimacy for attack (especially the United States' implied or explicit agreement ), and the need for military action.

Bergman received the impression that, for the first time, the Israeli leadership's answer to the three questions is positive. If the world waits too long, warns Barak, the moment will come when it will be too late to act. In a short while, it will be impossible to hold up the nuclear program any longer. From then on, the issue of dealing with Iran will pass from the hands of the statesmen to those of the journalists and historians.

Barak warns that a nuclear bomb will ensure the survivability of the Iranian regime. A nuclear Iranian umbrella would make it difficult for Israel to act, even in the face of Hezbollah provocation. Barak's logic is as sharp as always, but his arguments hold an internal contradiction. If international legitimacy for an attack is such a central consideration, the new sanctions reduce it to almost nothing, also, apparently, as far as the American administration is concerned.

The article ends with the prediction that Israel will bomb Iran in 2012. Is that what Barak really believes will happen, or is it only the impression he wishes to give the international community? At present this is not at all clear.