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The danger of an Israeli strike on Iran

The US needs to make it clear it will not tolerate a first strike.

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•It would trigger a tsunami of anti-Semitism that would inevitably translate into violence against Jews worldwide.

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•Such a strike would be perceived as further evidence of a US-Israeli global war on Islam. Islamist fighters from Marrakesh, Marseille, London, Cairo, Karachi, and Tehran would enlist overnight by the thousands and march to Iraq and Afghanistan to wage jihad against the American troops there.

Netanyahu is no fool. He is keenly aware of these global implications. He knows that a unilateral Israeli strike would not only accelerate Iran's nuclear ambitions but also legitimize them. He also knows that Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's threat to wipe Israel off the map is bombast. It is the country's supreme leader, Ali Khamenei, who commands the armed forces and national security apparatus, not the populist president.

Domestic Israeli politics may have been a factor motivating Netanyahu's warnings. Talking tough soothes anxieties at home. Equally likely, Netanyahu was prodding the new Obama government. And in that sense he may feel the recent US-led invitation to Tehran to meet with Washington and five other major powers to discuss the disputed nuclear program was a result of his threat. Iran has agreed to "constructive dialogue," although it may be delusional for the Israeli prime minister – or any other Western leader – to believe that political or economic pressure can sway Iran's ruling clerics.

What's worrying is that Netanyahu had a record of bad judgment in his previous term as prime minister from 1996 to 1999. Not without cause did The Economist run a cover photo of "Bibi" in October 1997 under the headline "Israel's Serial Bungler." It described his governance of the Jewish state as a "calamity" for the peace process.

Iran has no need to nuke Israel. Its ruling clerics, whom Netanyahu described as a "messianic apocalyptic cult," believe time, history, and Allah are on their side. They believe the Jewish state, starting across the border in Lebanon, can be nibbled to death over the next century just as the Arabs did to the Crusader kingdoms 600 years ago.

It should surprise no one that Iran's mullahs want nuclear weapons. They live in a nuclear neighborhood: Pakistan, India, Russia, China, and Israel, which is estimated to have 200 nuclear bombs ready to use if it were attacked. The ayatollahs also remember Mr. Hussein's 1991 folly of going to war with the US without nuclear weapons.

Obama needs to do Netanyahu a favor and tell the Israelis: "No first strike." Keep the F-15s and F-16s at home. A messianic vision such as Mr. Ahmadinejad's is rife in much of the Islamic world. Bellicose rhetoric most often serves as an excuse for inaction. It does not denote suicidal inclinations on the part of Iran's more pragmatic leaders.

Walter Rodgers, a former senior international correspondent for CNN, writes a biweekly column for the Monitor's weekly print edition.