By David Gordon and Cliff Kupchan
"You don't want a messianic apocalyptic cult controlling atomic bombs," Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told a journalist in 2009, in reference to Iran's nuclear program. He wasn't the first or last Israeli official to use such inflammatory rhetoric. References to Iran as an existential threat or to the country's nuclear program as raising the specter of another Holocaust have been typical among Israeli officials. But on a recent research trip to Israel, we heard surprisingly little anxiety. No official spoke about a threshold beyond which Iran's program would be unstoppable -- a deadline that in the past was always one year off. And elites across the political spectrum for now favor sanctions and covert action, rather than military force, to deter Iran. As a result, the chance of Israeli strikes in the next eighteen months is very low.
So what accounts for the sea-change in the Israeli approach? Success, essentially. Iranian officials have claimed that successive rounds of international sanctions have benefitted the country by forcing it to adopt necessary economic reforms. But top Israeli officials stressed to us that sanctions are crippling Iran's economy and sparking debate about nuclear policy among the ruling elite. Likewise, the triumph of the Stuxnet computer worm -- credited with destroying 1,000 Iranian centrifuges and widely believed (though not confirmed) to be an American-Israeli creation -- and possibly other covert measures have encouraged Israeli policymakers. While officials wouldn't talk in detail, they said that Iran's nuclear program has been slowed.
Buying time is an important reason to stick with sanctions and covert action. For one, as the repercussions of ever harsher sanctions sink in, Tehran may be forced to make concessions at the negotiating table. Second, in the wake of Stuxnet, Israel is probably more optimistic about its ability to impair Iran's nuclear program over the long term. Third, an extended time horizon opens the door for domestically induced regime change in Iran -- a remote but real possibility that bears monitoring as disaffected crowds again take to the streets of Tehran.
There's probably also a public relations angle to Israel's transformed rhetoric. As some sources noted, breathless statements about existential threats and points of no return likely strengthened Iran's hand, both diplomatically and publicly. Moreover, Israeli public opinion has turned its gaze elsewhere, to what it considers the more imminent threats of Gaza, Lebanon, and Egypt.
It would be wrong to read the shift in the Israeli approach as a rejection of military action, though. While no sitting politician said so, there is a widespread belief among the country's elite that the government still considers force a viable option: Netanyahu would not stomach a nuclear Iran. But unless sanctions and covert action lose their credibility in the eyes of this (or a similarly inclined) Israeli government, strikes in the next year and a half will remain unlikely.
David Gordon is head of research at Eurasia Group. Cliff Kupchan is director of the firm's Eurasia practice.