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How And When To Confront Iran

How And When To Confront Iran

Gary Rosenblatt is The NY Jewish Week's editor at large.

Another year of Ahmadinejad at the United Nations, another protest rally attended by the same small segment of the Jewish community, and the clock is still ticking, with Iran rushing to develop a nuclear program that threatens Israel and the West.

Republican vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin may not know what the Bush Doctrine is, but be assured that the political and military leaders of Israel are well aware of the Begin Doctrine, and thinking about it every day.

Its principle is based on Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin’s decision to destroy Iraq’s Osirak nuclear reactor plant in 1981, in a lightning-swift, bold and successful air attack that was universally condemned at the time. The doctrine maintains that Israel will never allow an enemy
to develop nuclear weapons that could be used to destroy the Jewish state.

After listening to and speaking with a number of well-informed Israelis in recent days, I am convinced that Jerusalem remains committed to the Begin Doctrine. And while there are a host of compelling reasons for Israel not to take military action against Iran at this time, including strong opposition from the Pentagon and a fear of the consequences (including counter-attacks on Israel, international condemnation and astronomical oil prices), the sense is that if Israel feels it has no other options, it will do what it deems necessary.

“Israel can’t allow Iran to have a nuclear bomb,” Maj. Gen. (Ret.) Isaac Ben-Israel told some 350 participants of an annual conference this past weekend of the center-right Washington Institute for Near East Policy at a Virginia resort.

He spoke at a panel called “Bombing Iran or Living With Iran’s Bomb?” None of the three featured speakers called for bombing Iran now, and none said the world should tolerate living with a nuclear Iran.

The discussion focused on the slippery middle ground between acceptance and attack.

Ben-Israel said that most experts believe Iran will be able to go nuclear within two to five years, and that if it does, Tehran will represent a greater threat to the “moderate” Arab states than does Israel, with its assumed nuclear military capabilities.

Agreeing with most experts, Ben-Israel asserted that military action against Iran should be an act only of last resort, and pointed out that, at best, it might only delay Iran’s nuclear plans by a few years. (He should know, having directed the ‘81 Israeli attack on Iraq’s reactor; he noted that despite the setback, a decade later Saddam Hussein was close to achieving a nuclear bomb.)

The immediate goal, Ben-Israel said, is to persuade powerful countries like Russia and China to back U.S. calls for tougher economic and diplomatic sanctions against Iran, and to do it now.

Another panelist, Kassem Jaafar, a Mideast security and diplomatic analyst, said the question is whether the world, not just Israel, can allow Iran to become a nuclear power. If so, he said, Iran will fulfill its goal of becoming a regional superpower, and states like Saudi Arabia, Egypt and others will seek nuclear arms as well, creating an untenable situation in the volatile Middle East, with terror groups increasingly likely to get their hands on, and use, such weapons.

Jaafar, a former diplomatic adviser to the government of Qatar, stressed that the moderate Arab states are “desperately scared” of Iran acquiring a nuclear bomb, given its ideological motivation to impose Islamic rule throughout the region. The feeling was that these states would be deeply supportive of any effort to weaken Iran, whether or not they would condemn Israel publicly if it acted.

Anthony Cordesman, a national security analyst for ABC News and former Defense Department official, spoke of the many complicated factors in assessing Iran’s capabilities, and emphasized that an attack would be most difficult to carry out. There could be 30-40 separate nuclear sites scattered around Iran, he said, and a military effort would require aerial “re-strikes” that could take up to seven days to complete.

“It’s a fantasy to speak of a two-day war,” he said, adding that the attacks would resemble “a chainsaw more than a scalpel.”

Cordesman said the effort to defeat or modify Iran should be thought of not in terms of months or years, but decades, and he was highly skeptical of accomplishing the goal militarily.

Several experts at the two-day conference emphasized that Iran will not be deterred from its nuclear goal unless and until it is convinced that the world is united against its actions, a condition Tehran does not believe exists now.

Ronen Bergman, an investigative journalist with Yedioth Ahronoth, the Israeli daily, spent 10 years working on a compelling and frightening book, “The Secret War With Iran,” just published in the U.S. It depicts Iran as Israel’s most determined and sophisticated of enemies, and Hezbollah as a most capable quasi-military force to be reckoned with, dedicated and not prone to corruption.

Still, Bergman favors dialogue with Iran, unless it is clear that Tehran’s purpose is to stall. “We should try to exhaust all possibilities [short of military conflict] and hope the results are like Libya, not North Korea,” he said in an interview.

Despite being a prime target, Israel has tried, wisely, not to be at the forefront of the effort to stop Iran’s nuclear program. But it has found it difficult to convince some of the world’s most influential countries that what is at stake here affects everyone.

At issue is not just how much damage can be inflicted on Iran in a given military conflict, but how to navigate a diplomatic course between prevention and deterrence. The time for momentous decisions is drawing near. We can only hope that the U.S., Israel and other countries will have the vigilance, strategic insight and wisdom required to know precisely when and how to act.

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