Will 2012 Bring a New Israeli Attitude Toward Iran?

As far as is known, the Americans do not share the observation made last month by Defense Minister Ehud Barak that only a year remains for an effective attack on Iran's nuclear facilities.

Israel Defense Forces Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Benny Gantz spoke publicly about the Iranian nuclear threat for the first time Friday, after almost a year at his post. In response to a question from a high-school student in the town of Be'er Tuvia as to whether Israel should attack Iran if it has the capability to do so, and whether it should act alone, Gantz said, "International preparation is proper and with suitable Israeli preparation, this challenge can be dealt with." Gantz also conducted an interview on Army Radio as part of the Shirutrom telethon for IDF soldiers.

What was interesting about the chief of staff's comments is that Gantz - who like his predecessor, Gabi Ashkenazi, is seen by the media as being on the moderate end of the Israeli spectrum in the debate over Iran - chose to stress first and foremost an international move against the Iranians. This approach tallies with remarks made by U.S. Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta when he was in Israel in October. Gantz is being careful not to heat up the atmosphere, which is already tense in the region, by issuing menacing statements against the Iranians.

Iran missiles - AP - November 2011

Gantz's remarks were made on the eve of a new year which, like previous years, is described as a "fateful year" in terms of Iran. A series of mysterious mishaps and accidents have pushed the Iranians back from their goal of producing a nuclear warhead, much further than the pessimistic forecasts of Western intelligence services. But it seems that time is gradually running out for the West. Iranian progress demands harsher measures.

In this context, over the past few weeks the United States has been issuing more implied threats that it might attack Iran. And what is more realistic, at this stage, it is also moving ahead on another round of sanctions. President Barack Obama is considering more restrictions on commerce with the Iranian Central Bank, while European foreign ministers are expected, in about a month, to discuss an embargo on Iranian oil.

The Iranian response to these moves is two-pronged, but typical. Last week Iran threatened to close the Strait of Hormuz (a move that would paralyze one third of the world's oil supply, which arrives on tankers through the Persian Gulf). Yesterday, in contrast, Tehran announced it would soon be willing to renew stalled talks with the European Union on the nuclear issue. It is reasonable to assume that this is another play for time, and an attempt to delay the tightening of the ring of sanctions around Iran while continuing to move ahead on its nuclear project.

Although the United States has stated loud and clear that it does not want Israel to attack Iran, over the past few months Israel and the U.S. have moved closer with regard to the analysis of intelligence on Iran's nuclear development. The understanding between the two countries is that Iran is now at the "threshold space" that will allow it to move rapidly toward nuclear status if its spiritual leader, Ali Khamenei, decides that the time is right. But if in the past Western experts spoke of a "break-out" - Iran moving quickly and openly toward a goal that would also involve ejecting the International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors, and would take about a year - an alternative is now being discussed: a "sneak-out."

This means Iran apparently now believes that a year will be too long for it to accomplish its program, and therefore it will try to amass capabilities clandestinely, which will then put it only months away from a bomb.

Still, as far as is known, the Americans do not share the observation made last month by Defense Minister Ehud Barak that only a year remains for an effective attack on Iran's nuclear facilities.

Barak was referring to the possibility that Iran will by then be impervious to fatal damage by means of aerial attack because it will have been able to concentrate a good deal of its necessary infrastructure at a protected underground site near the holy city of Qom. It seems that the general consensus in Washington, as among various experts in the international community (and in Israel), is that this is too harsh a scenario, and that the time frame is broader than the defense minister presents it.