The wave of demonstrations in Tehran over the last few days, sparked by the plummeting value of the Iranian rial and the consequent rise in the price of staple products, has significantly changed the nature of the international discourse on Iran. The harsh international sanctions that took effect in July are now being felt with increasing force. Thus the question of whether continued economic pressure could bring about regime change in Iran has once again become legitimate.
- Iran Denies Offering to End Nuclear Impasse
- Iran Slowed Down Its Nuclear Program
- U.S. Mulls 'Surgical Strike' on Iran
Israel, which for months downplayed the impact of sanctions, has recently done an about-face and become a significant contributor to the new discourse. Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman has spoken publicly about the possibility that the ayatollahs' regime could collapse in 2013, and his ministry has been stressing the impact of sanctions. There has also been much speculation that June's presidential election in Iran could prompt a repeat of the Green Revolution: the massive - but ultimately unsuccessful - demonstrations that followed the 2009 election.
So far, Lieberman's prediction still appears excessively optimistic. Nor is there any evidence that Iran's leadership is willing to halt its nuclear program to ease the international pressure. Yet this debate over the possibility of regime change would clearly never have reemerged had Israel carried out its threat to attack Iran's nuclear facilities this fall.
Public opinion, like the media, has a short attention span. But it's worth recalling that from early July to early September, the possibility that Israel would attack Iran's nuclear facilities before the U.S. elections on November 6 topped the agenda of both the Israeli and the foreign media.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu completed his descent from that tree in his speech to the UN General Assembly 10 days ago. While his drawing of a bomb attracted the most public attention, he also made it crystal-clear that he had extended his deadline to the international community from this autumn to the spring or summer of 2013. Only if all other efforts to halt Iran's nuclear program had failed by then would Israel decide to attack Iran on its own, Netanyahu implied.
It is, of course, necessary to consider another possibility: That Netanyahu and the man who until recently was his closest ally, Defense Minister Ehud Barak, are now engaged in a brilliant campaign of deception, which will culminate in Israeli planes taking off to attack just when the international community is expecting it least. But at the moment, that looks like a highly unlikely scenario.
For most of the year, Iran has been at the forefront of our concerns, the explanation for every political move - from Netanyahu's announcement of early elections this summer through his decision to postpone them and bring Kadima into the government instead, to Kadima's abrupt departure from the coalition. Now, a new agenda has come to the fore, a traditional political one. Iran seems less urgent.
Was an attack imminent?
What happened this fall was an exact repeat of the two previous autumns, in 2010 and 2011. Then, too, there were various assessments suggesting a possible Israeli attack. How close were we to really doing it this time? The degree of concern broadcast by both the Obama administration and President Shimon Peres - who deviated from his usual custom by publicly voicing opposition to an attack that wasn't coordinated with Washington - seem to indicate that an Israeli attack really wasn't far off.
From the prime minister's speech to the AIPAC conference in March until sometime in June, it seemed as if the public statements by Netanyahu and Barak had fulfilled their purpose: spurring the international community to impose tougher sanctions on Iran. But then, Israel turned the screws one notch too far and sparked genuine worry in Washington, prompting a constant stream of visits by senior administration officials.
When chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff Martin Dempsey warned publicly in August that a solo Israeli attack couldn't deal Iran's nuclear program a significant setback, it was clear that America had pulled out all the stops in its effort to prevent such an attack. American officials have sensitive antennae when it comes Israel's leadership, and an effort of this magnitude indicates real fear.
Opposition at home
But it wasn't just American opposition that kept Netanyahu from military action; domestic opposition did as well. Warnings by senior army and Mossad officials against any attack that wasn't coordinated with America, which were leaked to the press at critical moments, tied the premier's hands.
Another important factor was Barak's last-minute u-turn. Until the summer, Barak had been the leading supporter of an Israeli attack. But after he said an Israeli attack would delay Iran's nuclear program by only a year or two, warned against a rift with the United States and objected to trying to force U.S. President Barack Obama to set "red lines," it was clear that Netanyahu had been left alone at the front.
Now, officials in Jerusalem are pointing out that Iran has used some of the uranium it enriched to a 20 percent level for medical research - meaning it isn't all being earmarked for a nuclear bomb. But that fact was already known back in August. Israeli officials are also highlighting reports of the protests over inflation in Iran.
Before this about-face, Israel had invested some NIS 10 billion in preparations for an attack. It's quite possible this was necessary to rouse the world to action. But it also had many negative side effects, from panicking the Israeli public to causing some foreign investors to flee.
Netanyahu hasn't abandoned the idea of attacking Iran; the issue will likely be back on the agenda in the spring of 2013 if the ayatollahs show no signs of buckling by then. But an attack on Iran this fall - which had until recently been viewed as an almost sure bet in light of Israeli leaders' public rhetoric - is no longer in the cards.