Bushehr - AP - Aug. 21, 2010
The reactor building of the Bushehr nuclear power plant is seen, just outside the southern city of Bushehr, Iran. Photo by AP
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For two decades, Iranian leaders have sought to achieve a nuclear capability. First, they were motivated by lessons of the war against Iraq, which concluded with the Ayatollah Khomeini's humiliating surrender; leaders in Tehran were frightened by Saddam Hussein's ambitions. Another factor was the perception of Iran throughout history as a major power in the Persian Gulf. And Israel is not last on this list of motivations - the destruction of Israel is a declared policy of at least some Iranian leaders.

That's the simple account of Iran's moves, but the on-the-ground realities are more complex than this detached analysis. Iran is having trouble accomplishing its goals. In fact, Iran's nuclear capability, like the horizon, recedes as you think it's approaching. Leaders in Tehran operate under their own logic, which is based on their own priorities and is not identical to the West's logic. Iran's leaders are loath to risk losing control of their regime or to wage a direct confrontation that would give justification for a military attack.

For these reasons, Iran's leaders were alarmed by President George W. Bush's decision in 2003 to invade Iraq, which had been suspected of developing weapons of mass destruction; Iran thus suspended work on its military nuclear program. Then there was a series of mishaps which plagued Iranian equipment and key figures associated with its nuclear program. The result was another deferral of the target date for attaining nuclear weapons; the deferral was for a year, or two years, or three.

The continuing disagreement between Israeli and American intelligence on this issue, with the Israelis appearing to be more impatient and pessimistic than their counterparts, was hit by a bomb last week. Not a nuclear bomb, but one that had significance for the public debate. This was an estimate by outgoing Mossad chief Meir Dagan that Iran will achieve a military nuclear capability only in 2015. This estimate is predicated on continued pressure on Iran via economic sanctions and other means. The conclusion, however, is that there is no reason to hastily launch a preemptive strike that could embroil the attacker in a war on more than one front.

Even if Dagan is correct, the period until 2015 is not in Israel's favor. Israel should seize the window of opportunity to make progress on the peace track via an accord with Syria and an improvement in relations with Washington, the sobered-up Palestinian leadership and moderate Arab states. Peace must remain on the horizon - the right place for Iran's nuclear project.