04 September 2006

Worst-case scenario

As time passes, I feel an increasing fear that the worst possible eventuality is actually going to come to pass in the Middle East -- that is, that the United States will fail to take action to prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons.

The reality of the situation is stark. Sixty years ago, after the enormity of the Holocaust became clear, the civilized world said, "Never again." But today we have another thuggish regime controlling a major country, which openly proclaims its intention to do it again, and is working single-mindedly to acquire the technology needed to carry out its avowed aim. The president of Iran has publicly declared that Israel must be destroyed ("wiped off the map"), an action which would result in the deaths of millions of Jews. Just like last time.

If we allow this to happen, we will quite rightly never be able to forgive ourselves. Will we be able to claim that we thought Iran's rhetoric was mere hyperbolic bluster, or that we could not believe the regime would really be capable of such a horrific act? No. We already know, from what we saw sixty years ago, that sometimes dictators actually mean what they say, and that human beings are indeed capable of staggering evil, even in one of the world's most civilized countries.

So what will the United States do? Will we continue for months fiddling around with UN resolutions and economic sanctions, or will we actually do something about this problem?

Taking action would be far from simple. The prospect is daunting. The Iranian nuclear program is dispersed in many different sites around the country, some of them in cities. The destruction of even only the most critical ones would require a massive airstrike. A secondary strike would also need to destroy conventional missiles with which the enraged mullahs might retaliate against Israel, Persian Gulf oil shipping, or our troops in neighboring Iraq. Some argue that the Natanz nuclear facility is so large and so deeply buried that it could not be completely destroyed except with a small "bunker-buster" nuclear bomb -- though I assume US planners would make every effort to minimize harm to nearby civilian populations on the surface.

Certainly such an attack would kill many innocent Iranians. But the alternative, most likely, is millions of dead Israelis -- to say nothing of the possibility of further millions of Iranians being killed by a Samson-in-the-temple nuclear counterattack by what was left of the IDF. Some fear that a US airstrike on Iran would lead to retaliation against us by Iranian-backed terrorists (though I think it likely that the airstrike would also try to bring down the mullahs' regime at the same time it disarmed them). But the alternative is that someday those Iranian-backed terrorists might be supplied with nuclear bombs -- something we cannot risk, no matter how remote the possibility.

An odd thread in this story is the role being played by Russia, which is not only diplomatically obstructing US efforts to confront Iran, but has even supplied the mullahs with much of their equipment. Even if the Russian government is indifferent to the fate of Israel, it can hardly be comfortable with the thought that people like those who carried out the Beslan atrocity might someday get their hands on Iranian nuclear bombs. I suspect a rather subtle game based on expectations of American action. Why not make money by selling technology to the mullahs, knowing that the US will eventually destroy the threat before it materializes (and suffer all the inevitable opprobrium from certain quarters for doing so) and get the Russian government off the hook?

I'm not impressed by claims that the problem is not urgent because Iran is "years away" from actually building a bomb. Intelligence services have a very poor track record of estimating the exact status of technological development projects in unfriendly countries. The first Soviet nuclear test took us completely by surprise, just as the first Sputnik did.

One encouraging sign may, oddly, be presented by the recent ceasefire in Lebanon. Observers familiar with the history of Israeli military strategy were baffled when Israel accepted a ceasefire which left the goal of its Lebanon operation -- the crushing of Hizbullah -- only half-accomplished. The most widely-accepted explanation (even among the Israeli people, apparently) is simple incompetence on the part of the Olmert government. But it has occurred to me that accepting the ceasefire would also make perfect sense if the date of a strike against Iran had been fixed -- for the fall of the mullahs' regime (if that could be accomplished) would leave Hizbullah to wither away without its sponsor, just as most Communist insurgencies around the world withered away after the USSR broke up.

That is conjecture. The indisputable fact is this: we are about to find out whether "Never again" was mere empty words or a true commitment.

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