With Russia's ever-helpful policy of assisting Iran to accelerate its reactor program, allied to the millimetrical progress of sanctions on the Ahmadinejad regime and the increasingly hopeless state of negotiations with the Palestinians, there is likely to be no let-up in the speculation about an Israeli "first strike" on Iran's covert but ever-more-flagrant nuclear weapons installations. I have lost count of the number of essays and columns on the subject that were published this month alone. The most significant and detailed such contribution, though, came from my friend and colleague Jeffrey Goldberg in a cover story in the Atlantic. From any close reading of this piece, it was possible to be sure of at least one thing: The government of Benjamin Netanyahu wants it to be understood that, in the absence of an American decision to do so, Israel can and will mount such an attack in the not-too-distant future. The keyword of the current anguished argument—the word existential—is thought by a strategic majority of Israel's political and military leadership to apply in its fullest meaning. To them, an Iranian bomb is incompatible with the long-term survival of the Israeli state and even of the Jewish people.
It would be a real pity if the argument went on being conducted in these relatively narrow terms. A sentence from Goldberg's report will illustrate what I mean:
Israel, Netanyahu told me, is worried about an entire complex of problems, not only that Iran, or one of its proxies, would destroy Tel Aviv.
Why Tel Aviv? It is admittedly the most Jewish of Israel's centers of population, and it was built only in the course of the last century. It is also the most secular and modern and sexually licentious of Israel's cities, which might also qualify it for the apocalyptic wrath of the mullahs. But it is also home to many Arabs and Muslims, as are the coastal towns adjacent to it. And, as I never tire of pointing out, there is no weapon of mass destruction yet devised that can discriminate on the basis of religion or ethnicity.
So why did Netanyahu not say Jerusalem, which he and his party regard as Israel's true capital? Surely because this would immediately raise the question of whether the Iranian theocracy seriously intends to immolate the Dome of the Rock and the other Islamic holy places along with the poisonous "Zionist entity." And that's to say nothing of the number of Palestinians who would be slaughtered in any such assault. There is something sectarian, almost racist, in the way this aspect of the issue is always overlooked.
I tried to raise the same question in print when Menachem Begin ordered the bombing of Iraq's Osirak reactor in 1981. On that occasion, the worst he could find to say about Saddam Hussein's genocidal ambitions was that they, too, constituted a threat to Jewish survival. Yet every knowledgeable person understands that if Saddam Hussein had come into possession of a bomb, he would have used it in the first instance on what his propaganda always defined as "the Persian racists." (This is why the Iranian air force had tried and failed to hit the very same reactor a short time before.) When speaking of the Zionist foe, incidentally, Saddam's most aggressive public speech promised only that with his chemical and other weapons, he would "burn up half of Israel." The late megalomaniac was not notorious for speaking of half-measures. It's possible that even in some part of his reptilian brain he understood that Palestine is not populated only by Jews.
The whole emphasis on Israel's salience in this matter, and of the related idea of subcontracting a strike to the Israeli Defense Forces, is an evasion, somewhat ethnically tinged, of what is an international responsibility. If the Iranian dictatorship succeeds in "breaking out" and becoming a nuclear power, the following things will have happened:
1) International law and the stewardship of the United Nations will have been irretrievably ruined. The mullahs will have broken every solemn undertaking that they ever gave: to the International Atomic Energy Agency; to the European Union, which has been their main negotiating interlocutor up until now; and to the United Nations. (Tehran specifically rejects the right of the U.N. Security Council to have any say in this question.) Those who usually fetishize the role of the United Nations and of the international nuclear inspectors have a special responsibility to notice this appalling outcome.
2) The "Revolutionary Guards," who last year shot and raped their way to near-absolute power in Iran, are also the guardians of the underground weapons program. A successful consummation of that program would be an immeasurable enhancement of the most aggressive faction of the current dictatorship.
3) The power of the guards to project violence outside Iran's borders would likewise be increased. Any Hezbollah subversion of Lebanese democracy or missile attack on Israel; any Iranian collusion with the Taliban or with nihilist forces in Iraq would be harder to counter in that it would involve a confrontation with a nuclear godfather.
4) The same powerful strategic ambiguity would apply in the case of any Iranian move on a neighboring Sunni Arab Gulf state, such as Bahrain. The more extreme of Iran's theocratic newspapers already gloat at such a prospect, which is why so many Arab regimes hope—sometimes publicly—that this "existential" threat to them also be removed.
5) There will never be a settlement of the Israel-Palestine dispute, because the rejectionist Palestinians will be even more a proxy of a regime that calls for Israel's elimination, and the rejectionist Jews will be vindicated in their belief that concessions are a waste of time, if not worse.
6) The concept of "nonproliferation," so dear to the heart of the right-thinking, will go straight into the history books along with the League of Nations.
These, then, are some of the prices to be paid for not disarming Iran. Is it not obvious that the international interest in facing this question squarely, and in considering it as "existential" for civilization, is far stronger than any political calculation to be made in Netanyahu's office?