WITH oil prices at their present highs and Iraq at last making tentative progress towards stability, the last thing anyone wants to hear is that conditions in the Middle East could be about to take an abrupt turn for the worse. Unfortunately, they could. Recent weeks have brought a spike in chatter about the prospect of an Israeli military strike on Iran’s nuclear installations. Israel has conducted ostentatious long-range air exercises over the Mediterranean, and one former chief of staff has called an attack inevitable if Iran continues its nuclear work. This noise might be just a bluff designed to signal to Iran that it would be wise to stop enriching uranium, as the United Nations Security Council ordered it to a full two years ago. Then again, it might not.
Until recently, fears of an Israeli or American attack on Iran had been receding. The prospect of an American strike diminished after America’s intelligence services published their inconvenient finding last December that Iran had stopped trying to design a nuclear weapon in 2003. At the same time, diplomats have been able to point to the sort of progress diplomats point to: a series of Security Council resolutions, supported by Russia and China as well as the West, telling Iran to stop its uranium-enriching centrifuges. Sanctions have been applied as well: in the latest, the European Union decided this week to freeze the assets of Iran’s biggest bank, Bank Melli. Slowly but surely, you might conclude, the normal tools of diplomacy are being brought to bear, removing the need for anything worse. Besides, in November Americans may elect Barack Obama as president. Doesn’t he promise to sort out Iran by means of direct talks at the highest level, a necessary step that George Bush could never quite bring himself to take?
If those were your reasons for ceasing to worry, think again. Despite that American intelligence finding, neither Israel nor many other governments believe that Iran has given up its interest in nuclear weapons. Yes, the UN has passed resolutions and imposed some mild sanctions, but Iran has spent two years disregarding them, continuing to spin its centrifuges and to call for the destruction of Israel. It may well be true that Mr Bush is disinclined to bomb Iran now that he is a lame duck, but the possible advent of a President Obama might just make Israel more inclined to do so itself. As the hawkish John Bolton, a former Bush administration official, said this week, Israel may think the best time to attack would be during America’s presidential transition—too late to be accused of influencing the election and before needing a new president’s green light.
Don’t do it
Such an attack would be a mistake. Even if it did not turn the region into a “fireball”, as Mohamed ElBaradei, head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, the world’s nuclear watchdog, has predicted, it would certainly provoke retaliation. Given Iran’s size and sophistication, it would at best delay rather than end whatever plans the Iranians have to become a nuclear military power. Even if Iran did get the bomb, it would probably not use it for fear of Israel’s bigger, existing stockpile. And in the (admittedly improbable) event that Iran is telling the truth when it denies having any such ambition, nothing would change its mind faster than an Israeli strike.
The trouble is, this logic looks different from Tel Aviv. Given their history, a lot of Israelis will run almost any risk to prevent a state that calls repeatedly for their own state’s destruction from acquiring the wherewithal to bring that end about. Till now, the world has talked a lot and applied some modest sanctions to stop Iran’s dash to enrich uranium. It is time to apply much tougher ones, in the hope that it is not already too late.