If you thought the biggest news story between now and November 6 was going to be the U.S. presidential election, guess again. It looks like the Israeli government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is preparing to attack Iran’s nuclear program well before election day in the U.S. That is not what the Obama Administration wanted or expected, but Netanyahu and his advisors have bigger concerns than getting the president reelected. Like preventing Iran from using nuclear weapons to wipe Israel off the map, a threat that Iranian supreme fanatic Ali Khamenei repeated again this week.
As former U.S. diplomat Nicholas Burns observed in a Boston Globe commentary on Thursday, the Obama Administration has been following an approach to Iran similar to that adopted by the administration of George W. Bush: impose tough sanctions while offering to negotiate. The sanctions are definitely biting in Teheran, but so far there’s no sign of movement on the diplomatic front. Meanwhile, Iranian scientists continue assembling the items needed to build Iran’s first nuclear weapons. The Teheran regime periodically puts on a show to demonstrate how much progress it has made in developing ballistic missiles that could carry nuclear warheads to Israeli population centers.
Western skeptics are correct in noting that Iran has yet to successfully test a nuclear device, and that even when it does that device probably won’t be suitable for delivery on any of Iran’s existing missiles. But put yourself in Netanyahu’s position. If you were the first prime minister to be born in Israel since the Jewish state was forged in the aftermath of the Holocaust and had fought in two wars aimed at destroying that state, would you be prepared to wait indefinitely for diplomacy to produce results? Probably not when your intelligence agencies keep reporting new evidence of progress in the Iranian nuclear-weapons program, and Teheran’s leaders keep saying it is their religious duty to save Palestine “from the clutches of Zionist occupiers.”
So with Washington distracted by the presidential campaign, Netanyahu is accelerating the timetable for taking military action. It isn’t a coincidence that Israel’s new civil-defense chief, Avraham Dichter, served in the same elite commando unit where Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak did. The prime minister is assembling a war cabinet because war is coming. In fact, the outgoing civil-defense chief went into considerable detail this week describing how long a war might last and how Israel has prepared for that eventuality. The main concern is Iran’s missiles, but the way Netanyahu sees it, at least if Israel acts now there’s no danger those missiles will be carrying nuclear warheads.
What should Washington do about the prospect of a yet another war in Southwest Asia shortly after Labor Day? Well for starters, the presidential candidates should tone down their rhetoric about how America will always be there for Israel no matter what it does. Governor Romney’s remarks on his recent trip to Israel about the “moral imperative” of denying Iran nuclear weapons even as Prime Minister Netanyahu’s advisors were drawing up war plans to do precisely that probably made a near-term conflict more likely. War may eventually be necessary, but if that proves to be the case, then the military campaign should unfold on a timetable that is most likely to yield the desired results.
We’ve learned in recent conflicts that Israeli intelligence isn’t the omniscient operation it was once thought to be. There probably are important features of the Iranian nuclear program that are not well understood by Israel’s military, requiring intelligence support or overt military action from the U.S. to effectively address. Beyond that, the distances involved, the dispersion of Iranian facilities, and the various hardening and deception efforts undertaken to confuse attackers, all suggest a unilateral attack by Israel might not produce the desired effects. And then there is the question of Iranian responses. If the Teheran regime is as fanatical as Israel claims, then there is a high likelihood of increased terrorist activity both inside and outside Israel — including in America.
No matter how crazy we may consider Iran’s leaders to be, it is just common sense to avoid military action at an inopportune time. If U.S. analysts judge the likely outcome of an Israeli attack to be ineffective, then the Obama Administration should be doing everything it can to dissuade Prime Minister Netanyahu from early military action. The U.S. public is not prepared at this point to support Israel in another Middle East war, and one thing Iranian leaders don’t need right now is evidence that Israel’s strike capabilities are less potent than advertised. If, on the other hand, it looks like Israel has the wherewithal to materially degrade Iran’s nuclear efforts, then maybe Washington should just stand back and let it happen. A combination of military action and continued economic sanctions might finally bring Iran’s political system to its senses.
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