Only the credible threat of military action against its nuclear weapons sites will deter Iran.
Nobody knows better than the Israelis what a mortal threat a radical Iranian regime will be when it is armed with the nuclear weapon it pretends it is not devising and the ballistic missiles it does not even bother to conceal. The combination will give the people of Israel 10 to 12 minutes’ warning that they are faced with extinction.
Aggressive regimes tend to be hypocritical, professing peace while planning war. (The classic case is Hitler and his nonaggression pact with the Soviets.) But the Iranian leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, having wrecked his own country, is open in his manic obsession with Israel: „From now onward, we will support and help any nations, any groups fighting against the Zionist regime across the world. … The Zionist regime is a true cancer tumor on this region that should be cut off” and „it definitely will be cut off.”
As Shimon Peres, the president of Israel and architect of the Oslo peace agreements, has pointed out, Iran already has such huge oil and gas reserves that there can be little doubt its nuclear endeavors are aimed at constructing a bomb rather than producing energy. Iran, as he dryly added, is also the only country in the world threatening to wipe out another country. Not just to hurt it, or to damage it, but to wipe it off the face of the Earth. And while no other country was threatening it, Iran chose to become a center for global terrorism. It sent—and is still sending—both munitions and money to murderous outfits, first and foremost such radical groups as Hamas and Hezbollah, also intent on killing Israelis. This clearly suggests that the Iranians would also be willing to transfer nuclear materials to their terrorist allies. Of course, Iran doesn’t scruple at assassinating its own citizens and goes abroad in search of perceived enemies.
Wiping out Israel is but one objective. If successful in its nuclear efforts, Iran would wield power as the dominant force in the energy-rich Persian Gulf region. By terror and proxy warfare, it would undermine and seek to destabilize moderate regimes, embolden the radicals, and bring an end to any possibility of Middle East peace.
What can stop Iran’s palpable determination to be a nuclear-armed power? Only the threat of military action against its weapons sites. Iran has shown continual contempt for any kind of negotiation regarding nuclear energy for a peaceful purpose. Sanctions, too long delayed, create hardship for its people, but the regime reckons it can keep the lid on unrest until it is too late. It bars U.N. inspectors and continues its deadly work, calculating to give the world a nasty shock. The possibility of a pre-emptive strike is now the only credible deterrent. It’s crucial for the whole region, the whole world, but if the United States forswears military intervention, or seems to forswear it, the Israelis and everyone else can only conclude that nothing will stand in the way of Iran becoming a nuclear power. Except Israel.
What may happen is that one day the Israeli defense minister will telephone the White House and the Pentagon to inform them that the prime minister has just ordered the Israeli Air Force to fly east toward Iran with the intention of dealing with the gravest menace since Hitler to the physical survival of the Jewish people. For a country as small as Israel, even a small-scale nuclear attack would be an existential catastrophe. The Israelis believe that if they make a pre-emptive strike they have a reasonable chance of at least delaying the Iranian nuclear program for three to five years. They will reasonably assert that Israel was left with no choice.
Nobody can expect Israel to sit back and do nothing substantial to defend itself when it alone stands between its people and a potentially apocalyptic Islamic regime. Otherwise, Israel’s status as a safe haven for the Jewish people would evaporate and with it the core raison d’être of the Zionist state. This time, the Jewish people at least have the power to attempt to save themselves; they could not when Hitler’s war machine rolled over Europe. For the Jews, the balance of risks is grotesquely lopsided. The Iranian demand is not „Money or your life!” It’s just „Your life!”
As for the risks to Iran, former President Hashemi Rafsanjani, speaking in 2001, was quite blunt about the balance. „The use of an atomic bomb against Israel would destroy Israel completely, while [a nuclear attack] against the Islamic countries would only cause damage.” No wonder the Israelis fear that a theocratic regime that embraces the Shiite culture of martyrdom and responds to the imperatives of jihad would not be deterred by a nuclear balance of terror, in spite of Israel’s secure nuclear response capabilities. In other words, rational deterrent theory or the threat of mutual assured destruction would not apply to Iran.
If Iranian leaders wanted simply to scare Israel and pose as the good guys to the other anti-Semitic regimes in the region, they have pressed all the wrong buttons on Israel’s sensitive national psyche. Since the Holocaust, the Israelis’ primary conviction has been „never again.” Perhaps the most famous picture in Israel is the one of Israeli jet fighter-bombers flying over Auschwitz with the intention of making clear Israel’s determination to defend itself against threats of horrors to come. Never again will they consign their fate to their enemies. Never again will they live or die at the whim of others. As the former head of the Mossad put it, Israel can’t afford to wonder every night if Tehran „will go crazy and throw a bomb on us.”
Israeli prime ministers took action against Iraq in 1981 and Syria in 2007 to eliminate those countries’ nuclear capacities. It worked. The Israelis have even stronger reasons now not to take the risk that someone else will come to the rescue. If President Obama is spending energy to make it known to the Israelis—and the Iranians!—that the United States is opposed to an Israeli last-chance effort, what confidence can Israel have that the United States will wake up in time or even then act with resolution? The Israelis cannot be expected to put full faith and confidence in an American president who fails to recognize the critical threats to Israel.
The Israelis cannot live on that hope. They know the consequences of nuclear bombs hitting Tel Aviv and Haifa: There would be no more Israel. Who would bet his life on the chance that reason might dawn in Tehran and it would hold back from a promised attack? Yes, if Iran were so treacherous as to bomb, the day will live in infamy—but not the victims.
Of course, a nuclear-armed Iran is a threat not only to Israel but to all of Western civilization. When a messianic cult grabs the reins of power and the weapons of mass death, there is no knowing what mad things it will do. It is not restrained by world opinion and still less by opinion at home, not restrained by treaty nor inhibited by constraints of decency. After all, the ayatollahs view most of their critics as infidels; the United States is the „Great Satan.”
Iran is not Israel’s problem. It is the world’s problem. The world, led by the United States, should grapple with it. But if Israel concludes that Obama will not under any circumstances launch a strike on Iran soon enough to prevent it from achieving a breakout nuclear capacity, then it will have no choice but to begin the countdown for a unilateral Israeli attack.
It is not just an outright nuclear attack from Iran that concerns Israel. Iran could raise the stakes by firing conventional rockets. What is more, Iran’s sheer possession of nuclear arms would undermine the confidence of the Israeli people in their security at home and so undermine Israel’s attraction for creative and productive citizens.
Israel enjoys the support of others. French President Nicolas Sarkozy has criticized Obama as the purveyor of a false hope. At the U.N. Security Council in 2009, he said: „I support the extended hand of the Americans, but what good have proposals for dialogue brought the international community? More uranium enrichment and declarations by the leaders of Iran to wipe a U.N. member state off the map.”
What will the United States do if sanctions fail to force an early resolution? What will Iran do if it does not think the United States will use military force? The permutations of peril are daunting, but there is one virtual certainty. If there is no credible alternative to stopping a nuclear Iran, then the Israelis will do it.
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- Read Mort Zuckerman: Barack Obama’s Middle East Miscalculation.