It is becoming clearer every day that Israel and the West may well have to learn to live with the entire Middle East becoming awash with nuclear weapons. While the effort continues to thwart Iran from bringing nuclear weapons on line, reasonable voices of all sorts are beginning to realize that even if they are stopped now, Iran as well as Egypt, Turkey, and Saudi Arabia—at a minimum—likely will have nuclear weapons within a matter of a few short years. Admittedly, it is unclear how they will use such weapons and even if they would ever use them or whether they only seek to maintain them strictly for deterrence purposes, but members of the nuclear club they will all be—sooner rather than later. It is fair to assume that when the time comes Obama will prevent Iran from going nuclear and that will be the right strategy. No one, however, should delude themselves, including the Israelis, that a Romney Administration will act more quickly against Iran than would Obama.
So that brings up the question of not only whether to act but when to act. Anthony Cordesman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, one of the most astute analysts military strategy in Washington, while accepting the fact that the U.S. must accept the responsibility to intervene, lays out three considerations which need to be addressed before any action is taken. As presented briefly by Charles Krauthammer in his Washington Post column last Friday, the American government needs absolute red lines defined, needs to make sure that Iran realizes it has no options, and gives Iran some wiggle room to save face. All of this Cordesman argues should be done with congressional authorization in order to insure that the American people and the Iranians understand America’s unity of purpose to prevent a nuclear Iran.
For Israel there are three problems were this to be the U.S. strategy. First, Israel’s red lines may arrive sooner than those of the U.S., thus conceivably forcing Israel’s hand first. Second, a threat from the U.S. probably will carry much more credibility in Iran’s eyes and may be more successful in forcing Iran to step down than would a similar threat from Israel. Third, a confrontation with Israel probably would spread more extensive regional fighting and destruction, something that the U.S. by dint of its known firepower might well be able to limit.
If indeed, however, the region inevitably will be nuclear, why should Israel and the West make such a vigorous stand here and now and/or why should Israel move first? Beyond the rhetoric which itself is repulsive, does a nuclear Iran pose a greater threat than a nuclear Pakistan does already and Saudi Arabia would? The only rationale, assuming it is inevitable, is that preventing Iran from going nuclear might save the region from becoming a true nuclear tinderbox whose rulers could ignite the area in flames. It might succeed in preventing more maniacal rulers from trying their hand at the Iranian gambit. It also might accomplish nothing positive.