Iran. Remember that country? Just a few months ago, before the "Mayan apocalypse," the Newtown school massacre, the Egyptian constitutional referendum, the Syrian chemical weapons scare, the Palestine vote at the U.N., the bombings in Gaza and Israel, and the U.S. elections, Iran seemed like the most threatening and important country in the world to the U.S.; its alleged nuclear program was a deadly Kraken of world domination, slowly swelling its radioactive tentacles outward toward Israel, and by extension the U.S..
Editorials were written, fists were shaken, and sabres were rattled. Red lines were literally drawn on a cartoon bomb during Israel Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's speech at the U.N. in September. Israel and the Iran nuclear program were two of the major topics touched on in the third U.S. presidential debate, when both candidates declared that a nuclear Iran would be unacceptable, without defining exactly they would do in response to quite what.
And then, after the U.S. elections, suddenly Iran all but disappeared from the U.S. media circuit. Even in the Israeli media, the chatter on Iran has quieted significantly. What gives?
Elections, in a word.
The U.S. re-elected Barack Obama, the horse that Netanyahu did not back. Had Republican challenger Mitt Romney won, knowledgeable minds say chances are higher that Israel would have attacked Iran already. But Romney didn't win, and soon after Israel experienced its own political drama in the form of its party primaries.
Why does Israel care about Iran's nuclear capabilities in the first place? For starters, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is anything but a friend of Israel. He is, in fact, one of the most outspoken Holocaust deniers and anti-Semites in power today. And Israel views an Iran with a nuclear bomb as a mortal threat.
Secondly, the Iranian government has close ties with at least three of Israel's neighborhood Western-classified terrorist groups: Hamas and Islamic Jihad in Gaza, and Hezbollah in Lebanon.
Hezbollah receives somewhere between $60 million and $200 million per year from the government of Iran, according to analyst estimates.
Hamas, which received $3 million from Iran during the early 2000's before Western sanctions took hold, also obtained the rockets it so gleefully fired at Israel's main population centers from Tehran. Hamas is sometimes called a "surrogate Iran" in the Holy Land, and Iran is also known to provide training to Hamas' military wing.
Slightly worse than Iran with a nuclear bomb is Iran providing a nuclear bomb to an associated group with Israel's name at the top of a hit list.
Iran hasn't disappeared from the collective Israeli mind, even if it mostly has from the collective Western mind, for the moment. Even columnist Zvi Bar'el noted in Haaretz last week that the Israeli media seems to be taking an "Iran holiday" during the campaign for the January Israeli election. Don't worry, he assured readers. Once the elections are over the "twin swords" at Israel's neck from Iran and the Palestinians will again be of concern.
If the intensity of the focus on Iran has slackened, said Israeli political consultant Jonny Daniels, it's partly because of the upcoming election, and partly because there isn't too much to debate anymore.
"Iran is an issue that's at full consensus amongst Israeli politicians," Daniels said. "The only question is how. In terms of a campaign issue, it's not an issue. Everyone understands what's going on."
Iran may actually be the issue that helps keep Netanyahu in power, Daniels said.
"People understand he's the best person to deal with them."
"It's being spoken about less, but it's definitely not going away," Daniels added. "In a month the elections will be over. And you'll see the Iranian issue will be spoken about a lot more."
The Israeli elections are scheduled for Jan. 22, and the power in the Israeli Knesset is expected to remain in the hands of Netanyahu's new right-wing coalition party, Likud Beiteinu, so not much is expected to change in Iran policy.
Even though Bibi, as Netanyahu is called, didn't get his pick for U.S. president, he might get an ally in the newly nominated Secretary of State, Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry. Daniels described the Kerry-Bibi relationship as a strong one.
"I think Kerry has an understanding of the situation here," Daniels said. A Kerry secretaryship could nudge Obama toward a more activist stance on Iran, and toward drawing a red line as clear as Bibi's infamous cartoon bomb.
At present, most major Israeli outlets still run a few Iran stories per week, although most coverage is devoted to the election. On Dec. 19, the Times of Israel ran a story about 57 U.S. senators who sent a letter to Obama asking him to take a more aggressive stance on Iran. In the U.S., only the Jewish News Service and the Israel-focused paper The Algemeiner picked up the story.
In the letter to Obama, the 57 senators – led by Connecticut independent Joe Lieberman, New Jersey Democrat obert Menendez, and New Hampshire Republican Kelly Ayotte – informed the president that Iran "has continued to press forward with its nuclear program.
"It has quintupled its stockpile of low enriched uranium since 2009," the letter read, and "taken a significant step closer to possessing weapons-grade uranium by enriching up to 20 percent."
In a column in daily Israel Hayom on Friday, Israeli statesman Dore Gold cited International Atomic Energy Agency reports that revealed Iran had enriched about 200 pounds of uranium up to 20 percent. This is still below the 496 pounds Iran needs to produce a full-fledged warhead, Gold wrote, but production was picking up.
Any negotiated ending to the Iranian nuclear crisis will have to come through the IAEA, wrote Mark Hibbs in blog post for the Carnegie Endowment for Peace on Dec. 20.
Hibbs is Carnegie's senior associate for its Nuclear Policy Program, and he proposed using the 1994 agreement between the U.S. and North Korea as a template for a possible Iran deal. That is, assuming the program is a peaceful program, as Iran claims.
"A negotiated settlement with Iran will permit the country to continue its peaceful nuclear program," Hibbs wrote. "Especially for this reason, it is important that the IAEA can provide assurance that Iran’s nuclear program does not have a military dark side that it can hide behind declared and peaceful activities."
It is now expected that the U.S. and/or Israel will attack Iran sometime in 2013, analysts -- like Elliot Abrams at the Council on Foreign relations, Dennis Ross, a former Clinton Middle East envoy, and former Ambassador to Iraq James Jeffrey -- expect.
"If Obama's position was not to use force, he would have accepted the objective of containment," Ross told the Times of Israel at a dinner early in December. "He did not … What that means is, fundamentally, that if diplomacy doesn't succeed you're prepared to do it [to use military tactics]. I believe he is."
The question is merely exactly when, and exactly how. "Don't worry," Daniels said with assurance. "One morning you'll wake up and we'll have attacked Iran."