Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the United Nations General Assembly, September 2012. (Lucas Jackson / Courtesy Reuters)
At the end of January, Israeli intelligence officials quietly indicated that they have downgraded their assessments of Iran's ability to build a nuclear bomb. This is surprising because less than six months ago, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu warned from the tribune of the United Nations that the Iranian nuclear D-Day might come as early as 2013. Now, Israel believes that Iran will not have its first nuclear device before 2015 or 2016.
The news comes as a great relief. But it also raises questions. This was a serious intelligence failure, one that has led some of Israel's own officials to wonder aloud, "Did we cry wolf too early?"
Indeed, Israel has consistently overestimated Iran's nuclear program for decades. In 1992, then Foreign Minister Shimon Peres announced that Iran was on pace to have the bomb by 1999. Israel's many subsequent estimates have become increasingly frenzied but have been consistently wrong. U.S. intelligence agencies have been only slightly less alarmist, and they, too, have had to extend their timelines repeatedly.
Overestimating Iran's nuclear potential might not seem like a big problem. However, similar, unfounded fears were the basis for President George W. Bush's preemptive attack against Iraq and its nonexistent weapons of mass destruction. Israel and the United States need to make sure that this kind of human and foreign policy disaster does not happen again.
What explains Israel's most recent intelligence failure? Israeli officials have suggested that Iran decided to downshift its nuclear program in response to international sanctions and Israel's hawkish posture. But that theory falls apart when judged against Tehran's own recent aggressiveness. In the past few months, Iran has blocked the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) from gaining access to suspect facilities, stalled on diplomatic meetings, and announced a "successful" space shot and the intention to build higher-quality centrifuges. These are not the actions of a state that is purposely slowing down its nuclear program.