With Iran, you never really know what's what (remember the National Intelligence Estimate a few years ago telling us that Tehran had stopped developing nuclear weapons?) but I think it is fair to say that the combination of sanctions and subterfuge has definitively set back Iran's nuclear program by at least one and perhaps as many as four years. As I said, all of this is provisional, and it is perhaps true, as some critics have it, that the outgoing Mossad chief, Meir Dagan, who is telling anyone who will listen that Iran is back on its heels, is letting his personal opinions about the efficacy of a military strike against Iran color his intelligence analysis, but I really don't think so. Dagan, those who know him tell me, is too invested in the survival of Israel and the Jewish people to politicize intelligence in this way. In any case, Dagan's recent statements have led to an unlikely scenario in which the American secretary of state sounds tougher on Iran than the head of the Mossad. But Iran can do that to people.
Much credit in delaying Iran goes to the unknown inventor of Stuxnet, the miracle computer virus, which has bollixed-up Iran's centrifuges; much credit goes to the Mossad and the CIA and the Brits and God knows who else, who are working separately and in tandem to subvert the Iranian program, and a great deal of credit must go to, yes, President Barack Obama, who has made stopping Iran one of his two or three main foreign policy priorities over the past two years. He did the difficult work of pulling together serious multilateral sanctions against Iran; he has convinced the Israelis -- at least he has partially convinced some Israelis -- that he has placed the prestige of his presidency behind this effort, and that he sincerely and deeply understands why it is in no one's interest to see Iran with a bomb, and he has supported, in ways that I only know the most general way, some very hard-edged counterproliferation programs, programs whose existence proves, among other things, that he is capable of real and decisive toughness.
What all this means is that the West -- in combination with Iran's own incompetence -- has created a bit of breathing space for itself. David Ignatius:
The delays in the Iranian program are important because they add strategic warning time for the West to respond to any Iranian push for a bomb. U.S. officials estimate that if Iran were to try a "break out" by enriching uranium at Natanz to the 90 percent level needed for a bomb, that move (requiring reconfiguration of the centrifuges) would be detectable -- and it would take Iran one to two more years to make a bomb.
It is important to remember that Iranian intentions are unchanged, until proven otherwise, and it is also important to remember that technical difficulties are surmountable, but it is definitely fair to say that the zero hour is not yet here. I spoke with one of the Israeli officials I quoted in my article last year about the coming confrontation between Israel and Iran, and he put the chances of an Israeli strike on Iran in the next year at less than 20 percent -- and he was one of the Israelis who felt, in the spring of last year, that it would be necessary for Israel to attack Iran's nuclear facilities by the end of 2011. "People have very different opinions inside the defense establishment," he said, when I reached him, "but it's clear to all analysts that the virus and the sanctions are working better than we thought."
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