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On Iran, a stark choice


This news story was published on February 16, 2012.
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MCT FORUM – By Benny Morris, Los Angeles Times –

Most people in the Arab world, according to opinion polls, believe that the Holocaust never happened, that it’s a Jewish invention and trick to win the world’s sympathy and support. President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of Iran is similarly minded; he has said so countless times.

In the West, speaking of the Holocaust, most leaders and commentators concede that it did, indeed, occur. But, privately and sometimes publicly, some tell the Israelis: “Get over it.” They mean that the murder of 6 million Jews during World War II should not dominate, or perhaps even strongly influence, Israel’s policies today.

But is this reasonable or even moral? Should Israel set aside the memory and reality of what happened to its people, and conduct its life as a nation as if nothing happened?

The fact is that Israel’s leaders, reflecting Israeli public opinion, take very seriously Iran’s oft-repeated threat to create a second Holocaust, to wipe the Jewish state — “the Zionist entity” or “Zionist regime,” as the Iranians call it — off the map. They take equally seriously Iran’s nuclear program, which the international community, after years of denial or at least skepticism, now accepts is geared to the production of nuclear weaponry. Israelis, at least those who don’t bury their heads in the sand, believe that if the Iranians get nuclear weapons they will, in the end, use them — or at a minimum, cannot be relied on not to use them — and that Israel’s very existence is at stake.

After years of Israeli cajoling and blandishments, the United States and the European community have at last started to impose serious sanctions against Tehran, targeting its oil industries and central bank. But the sanctions have come too late — and, besides, many in the international community, meaning Russia, China, India, Turkey, the Arab states and some other countries, are not on board or are actively subverting these sanctions, rendering them ultimately ineffective. The Iranians have said as much: They will not abandon their nuclear program, even if the sanctions bite into their citizens’ living standards. (According to the Israeli military intelligence chief, Iran suffers from 24 percent annual inflation, 16 percent unemployment; its currency, the rial, has been depreciating by leaps and bounds.)

Yet America’s and Europe’s leaders tell Israel: Wait, give the sanctions time.

But time has almost run out. U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta has publicly stated that if Iran decided to do it, it could have the bomb within a year and the means to deliver it a year or two later. And perhaps Panetta is wrong — perhaps there is less time than he thinks. Or, as Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak put it earlier this month, those who advise Israel to wait till later may end up discovering that “later is too late.”

The choice is clear and stark. Either Iran, led by fanatical, brutal and millenarian leaders, will get the bomb, or it will be prevented from doing so by military assault on its nuclear installations, by America or Israel. If the Americans, who have the capability to do a thorough job, don’t do it — and they don’t seem to have the stomach for it after Iraq and Afghanistan — then the Israelis, with their more limited capabilities, will have to.

How Washington, which has repeatedly and more or less publicly vetoed the idea, would react to an Israeli strike deeply worries policymakers in Jerusalem. But it worries them far less than a nuclear-weaponized Iran. And besides, some Israeli officials believe that in an election year, President Obama would be seriously handicapped when considering anti-Israeli measures.

Of course, Iran, while not as powerful as its rhetoric often suggests, is no paper tiger. It may react to an Israeli strike as Syria did in 2007 when Israel took out its North Korean-designed nuclear reactor — by doing nothing. But a more likely scenario is a worldwide increase in oil prices and conventional and terrorist counterstrikes against targets ranging from Israel to the Gulf of Hormuz to Iraq and Afghanistan to Western installations around the world. And an Israeli or American attack on Iran would likely rile much of the Muslim world, causing wide-ranging political fallout. But the consequences of nuclear bombs hitting Tel Aviv and Haifa — effectively destroying Israel, a very small country — are even more dire, certainly as seen from Jerusalem.

The Israelis may have the capability, using conventional weapons, only to delay the Iranian nuclear program and only by a few years. But any delay is good; perhaps the international community — who knows, maybe even the Russians — will wake up to the danger of a nuclear Iran and take effective measures to halt the Iranian nuclear weapons program definitively.

But one thought obtrudes above all else: If the Iranian nuclear project is not halted now by conventional means, there will be, by miscalculation, Iranian assault or Israeli preemption, a nuclear war in the Middle East.

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