A Nuclear Iran: Israel’s Impossible Choices


Will Israel bomb Iran’s nuclear reactors before President George W. Bush leaves office in January?

That’s the question being debated in Israel, the U.S. and throughout the Mideast these days.

And the discussion has been ratcheted up by reports that the White House has given Israel an “amber light” to prepare for such an action, plus warnings from Syria of the hell to pay if Israel does attack, and the overheated charge, made by Time magazine’s Joe Klein, and others, that the U.S. may be going to war again — in Iran, as it did in Iraq — to protect Israel, prodded by Jewish neoconservatives.

I don’t have the inside scoop on what Israel will do. But as much as I share the deep concern
about Iran’s president making good on his horrific and hateful pledge to destroy the Jewish state, I would argue that a preemptive strike on Israel’s part against Iranian nuclear sites is an absolute last resort and should be avoided at practically all costs.

That’s because one of the lessons of the Iraq war has been the law of unintended consequences, where Washington’s attempt to defeat those who threaten a democratic way of life in the name of Allah has resulted in our enemies being strengthened instead. The war unleashed new levels of anti-U.S. sentiment in the Arab and Muslim world, Iraq has become a magnet for terrorists from within and outside of the country and Iran, which represents the greatest threat to Israel, has become more powerful and influential as a result.

It’s true that Saddam Hussein, an awful tyrant, and his regime were destroyed. But Iraqis have not embraced the U.S. for its intervention; rather they are resentful of our presence in their land. And the world is a more dangerous place, not a safer one, since the U.S. invaded Iraq more than five years ago.

Those advocating an Israeli attack on Iran before Tehran completes its effort to develop nuclear arms have a powerful emotional argument. They assert that Iran’s president repeatedly has threatened to destroy the “Zionist entity,” and that if history has taught us anything, from Haman to Hitler, it’s that when a tyrant threatens to eradicate the Jews, believe him — and act against him before it’s too late.

That’s what Israeli did in 1967, launching a lightning-quick air strike against the Egyptian air force before the Arab armies could make good on President Gamal Abdel Nasser’s threat to drive Israel into the sea. The result was a remarkable victory in six days. Six years later, when Israel learned that another war was imminent, its leaders hesitated, fearful of angering a White House that would have blamed them for initiating the conflict. By absorbing the initial blows of the Arab forces on Yom Kippur of 1973, Israel came perilously close to being annihilated, and its ultimate victory took three weeks, resulting in the deaths of more than 2,500 soldiers, an enormous loss.

Since then Israel has learned not to worry about world reaction when it felt it had to act to preserve its people. In 1981, when Prime Minister Menachem Begin ordered the successful air strike that destroyed Iraq’s nuclear reactor, the whole world expressed outrage, including President Ronald Reagan. Only years later did Washington acknowledge that the Israeli action made the world a safer place.

Privately, moderate Arab leaders say they would welcome a successful Israeli attack on Iran, even if they would condemn it publicly.

But an air strike against Iran would be far more complicated and difficult than the 1981 attack on Iraq. It is widely believed that Iran has numerous secret nuclear sites around the country, and that they are deep below the earth. Even more worrisome than the attack itself, which would require U.S. support, is what would happen in its aftermath.

Even if Israel proved successful in striking some Iranian targets, it is highly unlikely that it could hit them all. And retaliation against Israel could be devastating, especially if the Arab and Muslim worlds unite in lashing out at their common enemy. There would be stepped-up rocket attacks from Hamas and Hezbollah, the Iran-sponsored terror groups in Gaza and Lebanon; jihadists would focus their efforts on Israel and quite possibly the U.S.; oil prices would skyrocket around the world, with Israel to blame; and Iran would be doubly committed to wiping out Israel, even if its nuclear program suffers a serious setback.

Israel’s leaders have to determine whether a proactive military action on Iran is warranted, and what level of casualties among their civilian population they would be willing to suffer in response. How does one make such calculations?

One reason I think Israel is not planning an imminent attack against Iran is because of the news reports several weeks ago that the IDF was undergoing military exercises in preparation for such an air strike. If Jerusalem really were coordinating such an action, there would be a cloud of secrecy around its plans, as there were before, and after, Israel’s quick strike against a presumed nuclear facility in Syria some months ago. The fact that the recent military exercises were reported seemed to indicate that Israel was sending out a warning to Iran, saying in effect “you’d better think twice before attacking us.”

Israeli officials are consistent in insisting that Iran will not be allowed to make good on its threat to destroy the Jewish state. It’s a purposefully vague phrase, not specifying how Tehran will be stopped.

Is the world prepared to live with a nuclear Iran? Some say we’d best get used to the prospect, noting that it is probably going to happen and suggesting that even the militant leadership there will not be trigger-happy to the point of risking national suicide. But that is less than comforting.

I’d like to believe that the free world, motivated by self-preservation if not morality, will increase sufficient diplomatic pressure and sanctions to the point that Iran will back down from its nuclear objectives. But I’m not convinced that is the case, and neither, it seems, is Jerusalem.

was editor and publisher of The Jewish Week from 1993 to 2019. Follow him at garyrosenblatt.substack.com.