The year 2010 will be the year of Iran. Granted, we have said the same thing every year since 2005. But stopping the Iranian nuclear program will continue to top Israel's priorities during the year that begins in two days' time. The major powers are expected to announce soon that diplomacy has failed to persuade Tehran to freeze its nuclear project. And Western intelligence services believe the Iranians have already accumulated enough enriched uranium to build a nuclear bomb or two.
In the meantime, Israel is striving to develop a military option. Judging by certain leaks and remarks emanating from Jerusalem, the use of force seems to be a real possibility. Such preparations are necessary: The Israel Defense Forces must have a military plan in case other measures fail. The defense establishment needs to improve its protection of the home front, which would be hit by thousands of rockets and missiles even in the event of a limited war with Hezbollah or Hamas.
Military preparations are also essential to prod the United States and Europe to exert maximum pressure on the Islamic Republic. This will not happen unless Western states come to believe that Israel Air Force planes are starting to rev up their engines.
This date with destiny has caused some Israeli leaders to adopt a messianic tone. Some even see a tempting opportunity to change the wider strategic reality in the region. Yet opinions are divided: Air force pilots, as they have stated on several occasions, are confident in their own abilities should the order to strike be given, but senior defense officials are describing their primary mission as preventing any foolish acts in the coming year. The IDF General Staff, as it did during the Gaza offensive, is likely to behave as an operational subcontractor, content merely to present the government with various military scenarios and their possible implications.
It must be stated plainly: Israel does not have independent strike capability against Iran - not in the broad sense of the term. The air force is capable of delivering a certain amount of explosives to a given target and bringing most of its aircraft back home intact. But it is doubtful whether Israel can allow itself to act against the wishes of the United States - to stand alone against an Iranian response and begin an open-ended operation against a nation of 70 million people.
An attack must be the last resort, not just another option placed on the table. It is best to disabuse ourselves of illusions about our ability to dictate a new Mideast order. That is the lesson learned, in blood, by Menachem Begin and Ariel Sharon in Lebanon in 1982 and by George W. Bush in Iraq in 2003.
This week, new protests erupted against the Iranian regime. It is difficult to predict whether the demonstrations will ultimately topple the government or simply strengthen it, along with the Revolutionary Guards. Maj. Gen. (Res.) Aharon Ze'evi-Farkash, formerly the head of Military Intelligence, recently compared the two most significant developments in Iran - the demonstrations and the nuclear program - to two trucks: "Both of them moved up a gear in the past six months, but it is unclear which will reach its destination first. The regime is losing its legitimacy with so much blood spilled on the streets. Israel must now show caution and patience."
Over the past year, the Obama administration has provided the world with ample reason to criticize it for its naivete, its overblown confidence in the power of the spoken word to tear down walls and its impotence on North Korea. On the Iranian front, however, it has acted exactly as it should. Its pursuit of dialogue has pushed Tehran into an uncomfortable corner, created unanticipated common ground between the United States and Russia and could even lead to harsh sanctions against Iran.
What Israel needs now is a responsible adult, one who knows how to pull the emergency lever should the need arise. If such an adult cannot be found in Jerusalem, we must hope there is one sitting in the White House.