The danger of an Israeli strike on Iran

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

The new Israeli prime minister recently appeared to give President Obama a blunt ultimatum: Stop Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons – or we will.

Benjamin Netanyahu's challenge (intimated in an interview he gave to The Atlantic magazine) smacks of unrealistic bravado and, worse, it appears to be a crude attempt to bully an American president into bombing Iran's nuclear installations.

The world should hope it's a hollow threat.

The consequences of a unilateral Israeli strike would be enormous if not disastrous. Mr. Obama cannot allow himself to be intimidated by Mr. Netanyahu, nor can he wink if the Israeli air force bombs Iran's nuclear facilities.

Israel has acted unilaterally to squash a perceived nuclear threat before. In 1981, Prime Minister Menachem Begin sent fighter jets to knock out Iraq's "Osirak" nuclear reactor. Israel claimed that Saddam Hussein was on the verge of obtaining nuclear weapons and that it had no choice but to bomb it out of existence. In 2007, Israel bombed a facility in Syria it claimed was a nuclear reactor.

Any strike on Iranian reactors would be a different matter entirely. Osirak was a lone, poorly guarded, and inoperative nuclear plant that had a year earlier been damaged by an Iranian airstrike. The Iranians have taken considerable precautions to build their facilities on something more solid than desert sand. At present there is but one facility, Bushehr I, but Tehran is gearing up to build an entire network of nuclear plants. Israel would be bombing until the Shah comes home to merely delay what is an unstoppable Iranian nuclear program.

The fallout from Israel's strike on Osirak was serious but limited. But a preemptive strike on Iranian soil would border on catastrophic. Consider:

•Iran has signaled that if attacked, it would close the Strait of Hormuz, through which 20 percent of the world's oil flows. This would plunge the world into economic calamity.

Hezbollah, Iran's proxy army in Lebanon, is believed to have more than 42,000 missiles, according to Defense Minister Ehud Barak – enough to make Israeli cities such as Haifa and Tel Aviv burn like London did during the Nazis' Blitz. Hezbollah is believed to have terror cells in Europe and North America. It has struck in South America, and many terrorism experts believe it is potentially even more dangerous than Al Qaeda. Iran, using this proxy force, would probably unleash it on the world if Netanyahu were to bomb the Bushehr I reactor.

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

•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.

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