Let he who is without sin cast the first stone. Christ and the Woman Taken in Adultery by Nicolas Poussin, 1653

Horse race coverage isn’t limited to the Republican primary. Foreign policy coverage has its own, exemplified by the title of an article by Ronen Bergman in last Sunday’s New York Times magazine, Will Israel Attack Iran? Bergman says yes. Israel will attack Iran sometime this year, before Iran enters the “immunity zone”, the point at which Iranian knowledge, skill and material will be so great that an attack will not derail their progress towards construction of a bomb. Iran denies that it is building a nuclear weapon, but no one seems to believe that. Bergman says that there are three preconditions to the attack, and that some Israeli leaders believe that all three conditions have been met.

1. Does Israel have the ability to cause severe damage to Iran’s nuclear sites and bring about a major delay in the Iranian nuclear project? And can the military and the Israeli people withstand the inevitable counterattack?

2. Does Israel have overt or tacit support, particularly from America, for carrying out an attack?

3. Have all other possibilities for the containment of Iran’s nuclear threat been exhausted, bringing Israel to the point of last resort? If so, is this the last opportunity for an attack?

Then the NYT reported that Tamir Pardo, the Chief of the Israeli intelligence service Mossad, was in Washington last week, where Bergman’s article was the subject of extensive discussions. The Times also reports that a senior Israeli official corrected point 2. All that is needed is a sympathetic view towards the concerns of Israel among the international community, not outright support.

Other writers weigh in on the big horse race question. For example, Steve Coll writes in the New Yorker that between steadily increasing sanctions, and the costs of an attack, compared with the benefit of delaying Iran’s weapons program for a few year, it doesn’t make a lot of sense to attack.

Time Magazine says that an Israeli attack would not derail the Iranian program, though it could do “significant damage”. The article makes even that assessment questionable, and another article in the dead tree version available only to subscribers discusses the difficulties in detail. Other people think Israel is just saber-rattling, because it has no decent military option; that’s the view of Kenneth Pollack, whose main claim to fame was his book arguing for the invasion of Iraq.

Of course, people have been predicting an attack on Iran for some time. Here is a long article from September 2010 by Jeffrey Goldberg in predicting an attack, and calling President Obama weak and indecisive for wanting to engage with Iran at all. Goldberg gives a sympathetic portrayal of the Israeli point of view.

The costs of an attack on Iran are obvious and horrific. No doubt there would be attacks on Israel by Hezbollah from Lebanon, and possibly Hamas from Gaza, and attacks from Iran. The Iranians are said to have sleeper cells that would carry out terrorist attacks in Israel and against Israeli targets in other countries. There are concerns that the Iranians would try terrorist attacks in the US according to Israeli sources, and according to James Clapper, the Director of National Intelligence . If the Iranians carried out their threat to close the Straits of Hormuz, the price of oil would skyrocket, and that might well lead to a world-wide recession. And so on.

It’s harder to see the benefits. The most optimistic view is that an attack would delay the Iranian program by 5 years, but most observers think that a three-year delay would be a good outcome, and some say even a shorter period. It is hard to see the value of delay. No one says there would be an increased probability of détente, let alone peace in the region, in the aftermath of an attack by Israel.

Ronen Bergman appeared on NPR’s Talk of the Nation last week, where host Neal Conan asked why Israel’s estimated 300 nuclear warheads would not work as deterrence. Bergman said he doesn’t think that Iran would launch a nuclear weapon at Israel. He thinks that the leaders of Iran are not suicidal. So, if Iran wouldn’t launch a nuclear weapon at Israel, wouldn’t that suggest that aggressive Western responses are overreacting?

Bergman says that if Iran had a nuclear bomb, it would narrow Israel’s military options. He describes an interview he had with Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak. Suppose, Barak said, Hezbollah attacks, and we decide to take them out. Iran shows up and tells us an attack on Hezbollah is an attack on Iran, and threatens Israel with that nuclear bomb. It isn’t that Israel wouldn’t act, but it would have to think twice.

Then he says:

And also – and this is something that you need to live in Israel (unintelligible) put some time to understand. If Iran declares a successful nuclear test, people in Israel are going to be, I would say – I think I’m not exaggerating if I say in a hysteria. This would change the – some of the society of Israel, and it would damage the economy of the country.

The idea is that the smart people in Israel would leave, or their children would, because no sane person wants to live under the threat of nuclear attack, or even the possibility of nuclear blackmail. That would harm the idea of a Jewish State.

The other major thread in explaining why Israel should attack is the view of Israeli leaders that the Iranian government is evil and morally corrupt. You don’t have to look far to find others joining that chorus, like this person, and this one. Of course, it’s possible that even evil and morally corrupt leaders can figure out the dangers of provoking a nuclear attack by a nation as heavily armed as Israel, let alone its staunch ally, the United States.

If people really thought that Iran would attack Israel with a nuclear weapon, it would be a matter of obvious concern. As it is, we are asked to expend enormous time and resources to deal with the possibility of hysteria in Israel, or to punish the morally corrupt Ayatollahs.

The US was under the threat of nuclear attack from the Soviet Union for decades, and we lived through the Cuban missile crisis. Maybe the Israeli people could think about that. Instead, we get foolish pieces like this one by Cliff Freilich, a meditation on the terrible decision to be made by one great man, Benjamin Netanyahu.

President Obama continues to say directly and through members of his administration that no options are off the table in the great effort to prevent Iran from building a nuclear weapon. He has yet to explain why that is, in Defense Secretary Leon Panetta’s words, a red line. If Israel attacks Iran, the US and the rest of the world will pay a steep price. What do we get for that price? And don’t tell me about ending an evil empire. The US and its allies have been attacking one evil empire after another for decades, including the evil empire of Mohammed Mosaddegh, the scary Red Menace in Iran, in 1953. We have nothing to show for any of them. Someone needs to explain why this time things will be different.



I read a lot of books.