Speaking in his uniform, Israel's top military intelligence official broke down his agency's assessments of threats facing the country without the passionate flair of many speakers here at Herzliya, Israel's leading security conference. His remarks that Hezbollah has 50,000 fighters in Syria and that Bashar Assad's regime is prepping its chemical weapons made most of the headlines. But Maj. Gen. Aviv Kochavi also delivered a sober assessment of Iran's nuclear program. His frankness aligned him, at times, with some of his political bosses' rhetoric, but he nonetheless emphasized things that Benjamin Netanyahu and other Israeli hawks tend to gloss over.
Kochavi said Iran's leaders were holding off on handing down the decision to construct a weapon. "Iran's nuclear plan is progressing," he told a rapt audience, but added, "Iran is being careful not to cross any red lines." That view tracks with one expressed by Netanyahu recently at AIPAC, and leads inexorably to the conclusion that—contra Netanyahu's sometime view of a "messianic apocalyptic cult"—Iran leaders are rational actors. "The main goal that animates any action [by the Iranian leadership] is that they want to keep ruling," Kochavi said.
He was no fool: Iran—with its place in the region's "radical axis" and support for terror groups—definitely poses a threat; that's why Kochavi spent so much time on it. But neither was this soldier subject to the flourishes that pervade many Israelis' discussions of Iran; his wasn't a description of fundamentalists hell-bent on destroying Israel with a nuclear weapon at all costs, but one that balanced precisely those costs as it pursued nuclear advances. Surely referring to intercepts from inside Iran, Kochavi explained: "In simple words, we are starting to hear people saying that perhaps it is time to rethink [our] strategy"—he was clear that he meant this chatter had been picked up from the regime, though not Iran's Supreme Leader itself.
What's causing this consternation in Iran? "Sanctions affect Iran in a most meaningful way," Kochavi said. "All of these [sanctions] create heavy pressure on the Iranian regime and the Iranian citizen." (The Financial Times recently reported that sanctions may hurt ordinary Iranians more than regime big-wigs.) Kochavi went on: "The weight of sanctions is going to become a more important factor in decision-making, although it hasn't yet caused a change in the nuclear program." Kochavi, who said Iran doesn't take the threat of a military strike seriously, sees some hope for Iranian concessions, but noted that the Islamic Republic would never fully give up its nuclear program—something hawks like Netanyahu have demanded. This much seems clear: Kochavi's hope that a program of pressure can yield sanctions should be the international community's focus, not Netanyahu's constant predictions that such a project has all but failed. One outlook gives us options; the other only leads to war.