The nuclear power plant at Bushehr, Iran.(IIPA via Getty Images)

First, Iran won’t be getting a nuclear weapon until 2015 (departing Mossad chief Meir Dagan). Then, “no one should be misled by anyone’s intelligence analysis—this remains a serious concern” (Secretary of State Hillary Clinton). Then, an estimate that Iran is as many as four years away (Clinton again). Then, “These sanctions have not yet achieved their objective” (Prime Minister Netanyahu). Did I mention these suggestions were all made in the past week?

As ever, public statements about Iran are more about advancing the speaker’s immediate interests than accurately describing reality. Dagan wished to cast his just-concluded eight-year term in-charge of Israel’s foreign intelligence agency as a success—and what better way to do that than to note that things are looking up regarding Israel’s top foreign priority? Clinton, traveling through the Gulf, sought to temper optimism on Iran to make sure the Arab states—who, as we know from WikiLeaks, are as worried about an Iranian bomb as anyone else, but might look for any excuse to appear to be going easy on the Islamic Republic—don’t take their foot off the gas pedal in terms of sanctions, the enforcement of which is part of the reason why Iran’s program has been delayed. Then, a few days later, Clinton wished to brand the Obama administration’s Iran policy as a success—and what better way to do that than to brag that the most important piece of that policy, sanctions, is working? Cut to Netanyahu, whose very job description is to worry about Iran when no one else is: He called for yet harsher sanctions and emphasized that the military option remains on the table.

So what is actually the case? The money has got to be on the notion that the program has genuinely been delayed. There have been ample reports that the refining-challenged Islamic Republic has been having trouble acquiring sufficient amounts of gasoline due to sanctions (less the U.N. sanctions than the series of bilateral sanctions, exacted by the U.S., the EU, and others), and if the sanctions are having that effect, it is logical to presume they are having other adverse effects, too. And even before we knew about Stuxnet, there were pretty large hints that sabotage was succeeding; and now with all we know about Stuxnet, it seems pretty clear even to the naked eye that subterfuge is accomplishing at least as much as sanctions.

In the end, I have to agree with Tablet Magazine contributing editor Jeffrey Goldberg (whose August Atlantic article was significantly at odds with what he says now*) when he argues, “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.” (Among other things, Goldberg reports that Dagan “is too invested in the survival of Israel and the Jewish people to politicize intelligence,” and is therefore worth listening to when he gives his 2015 estimate.)

I also agree with Goldberg when it comes time to dole out credit: Stuxnet (“the virus,” one Israeli source calls it) gets a pat on the back, sure; but so does the American president. “He did the difficult work of pulling together serious multilateral sanctions against Iran,” notes Goldberg, “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 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.”

A Major Victory for President Obama on Iran [Jeffrey Goldberg]
Netanyahu Presses for Tougher Iran Sanctions [WSJ]
Related: Modern Warfare, Too [Tablet Magazine]
Earlier: Iran: Stuxnet Isn’t Harming Nuclear Program

* I think the article accurately reflected the Israeli fears and a slice of Iranian reality six months ago, fears and reality that have since been altered in part because of his article, which scared people and countries into getting serious about Iran and prompted the Americans to provide reassurance to the Israelis. Also, Stuxnet apparently happened since Goldberg did his reporting, and Stuxnet was a game-changer.