Israel's public campaign against Iran has West on edge

Israel's steady stream of warnings against Iran troubles Western leaders, who worry that Israel will act unilaterally.

Ilan Assayag/AP/File
In this November 2011 file photo, a smoke trail of a missile test-fired by the Israeli army as seen from the central Israeli town of Yavne. Israel's steady stream of warnings against Iran troubles Western leaders, who fear that Israel may launch unilateral attacks against Iran that could destabilize the Middle East and shatter the international coalition pressuring Iran to rein in its nuclear program.

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Israeli officials have ratcheted up the volume insisting that Iran poses a great danger to Israel and the West, with top Israeli government and military officials issuing multiple warnings yesterday about the Iranian nuclear program. Israel's public campaign against Iran is fueling concerns that Israeli forces may launch a unilateral strike on Iran's nuclear facilities this year.

Haaretz reports that Yoram Cohen, the head of Israel's intelligence service Shin Bet, told a closed forum in Tel Aviv that Iran has attempted "three serious attacks" against Israeli interests in the past year in retaliation for the assassinations of four Iranian nuclear experts, which Tehran believes were executed by Israeli agents.

Although Israel denies being behind the murders, Mr. Cohen said, "It doesn't matter if it's true or not that Israel took out the nuclear scientists."

"A major, serious country like Iran cannot let this go on," he said. "They want to deter Israel and extract a price so that decision makers in Israel think twice before they order an attack on an Iranian scientist."

Elsewhere in Tel Aviv, Israeli vice prime minister and minister of strategic affairs Moshe Yaalon claimed that Iran was developing a new long-range missile that could reach the US eastern seaboard.  The Christian Science Monitor reports that if true, Yaalon's claim would mean Iran's missile program is much more advanced than previously thought. Separately, Israeli chief of military intelligence Gen. Aviv Kochavi said that Israel believed Iran has enough nuclear material to make four bombs.

And Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak told a Tel Aviv conference that the world "has no doubt that Iran's nuclear program is steadily nearing readiness." Bloomberg reports that he also argued that "there is widespread global understanding" that if sanctions do not stop the program, "there will arise the need of weighing an operation” to strike Iran.

The rising chorus in Israel has alarmed Western leaders, who fear that Israel may launch unilateral attacks against Iran that could destabilize the Middle East and shatter the international coalition pressuring Iran to rein in its nuclear program. Washington Post columnist David Ignatius writes that US Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta believes Israel will strike in April, May, or June. (Mr. Panetta has declined to comment on Mr. Ignatius's column.) Similarly, British Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg said, "I worry that there will be a military conflict and that certain countries might seek to take matters into their own hands," according to The Telegraph. 

The Associated Press reports that Israel's allies are working hard to dissuade Israel from such a path. But former US diplomat Dennis Ross,who has a very close relationship with Israeli government, told The Telegraph that Israeli officials may not feel restrained by opposition – even American opposition – to a unilateral attack against Iran. "The Israelis view this [Iranian threat] in existential terms, he said. "If the Israelis feel this is an existential threat it doesn't matter what anybody says to them. They could do it unilaterally."

In a column criticizing recent talk by the Canadian government alluding to Israeli military intervention against Iran, Montreal Gazette columnist Michael Den Tandt argues that it's highly unlikely Iran would ever consider using weapons of mass destruction against Israel.  "The reason for that is simple," he writes. "Were they to do so, they and their country would be destroyed."

Israel possesses an estimated 200 nuclear weapons. The United States possesses thousands, and could within a few hours turn all of Iran into a radioactive pyre. By what logic can anyone assume the Iranians would unilaterally deploy nukes if they had them?

Far more plausible is that, in seeking nuclear weapons, the Iranians intend to forever alter the balance of power in the Middle East, creating for themselves an insurance policy of the kind enjoyed by Pakistan, North Korea, India and others. North Korea, charter member of Bush's axis of evil, went nuclear and was not invaded. Saddam Hussein had no WMD and was deposed and hanged. Gadhafi gave up his WMD and was deposed and shot.

Neither Pakistan nor North Korea can be said to be stable, clearly. Would either country deploy a nuke, knowing the retaliation that would follow?

And why would Iran be any different?

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