Facing an Iranian Winter

Israel is not as hollow and degenerate as Mahmoud Ahmadinejad believes. But to face Ahmadinejad, Israel must come to its senses.

Here is the wild scenario: In November, after Senator Barack Obama becomes the president-elect of the United States, outgoing President George W. Bush will launch a strike at Iran. The strike might be a naval siege, a military show of muscle or a comprehensive aerial assault on the Iranian nuclear program.

In reasonable times, reasonable people would dismiss this wild scenario out of hand. The American public is not in favor of opening a second front in the Middle East. The political establishment, the military establishment and the intelligence establishment are all worried. A combative move, even a semi-combative one, by a president who is about to leave office is an act without precedent and without legitimacy. It will be perceived as the final, delusional trumpet blast of a raving religious administration.

But the times are not reasonable ones, and the men involved are not reasonable men. The logic that guides Bush and Dick Cheney is one that Western public opinion and its shapers cannot always understand. That logic might lead the president and his second-in-command to the conclusion that if they do not act, neither will Obama. If Obama does not act, Iran will become a nuclear power. And if Iran goes nuclear, evil will win.

Therefore, the dialogue that the present administration has with history might cause it to do what only few people believe it really will do. There is a genuine possibility that Bush will end his miserable presidency not with a whimper, but with a bang. The scenario is a wild one.

If John McCain is elected, it will be unnecessary. Obama has committed himself to preventing such a scenario, and if he is elected, the chances of its realization will lessen. The powers-that-be in Washington D.C. may also block the thwarting of Iran's nuclear power. Bush and Cheney may ultimately get cold feet, give it up and dissolve into oblivion.

This wild scenario, therefore, is low-probability. But low probability is not zero probability. When it comes to fateful issues, even unlikely possibilities need to be addressed.

In the long run, the wild scenario is good for Israel, as it is good for the United States. A nuclear Iran will endanger Israel's existence, the stability of the Middle East and the welfare of the West. An Iran stripped of nuclear ability will allow the Middle East to become more moderate; it will enable the West to uphold its values and perpetuate its way of life for a long time to come. In the short term, however, the wild scenario is multi-risk. There might be an intelligence failure or a military one. In any case, the Iran of the ayatollahs is a sophisticated and strong religious power. If it is backed into a corner, Iran, too, will prefer to go out with a bang and not a whimper. No one today knows for sure what the nature and impact of such a bang would be.

A serious state must regard seriously any scenario liable to shape its future, for better or worse. When so much is at stake, even low-probability scenarios must be given solemn consideration. It is far from certain and far from likely that the coming winter will be an Iranian winter. But Israel must treat this summer as though the possibility of an Iranian winter were not a distant one.

On the political level, the implications are clear - a swift decision. Israel cannot risk the chance of having a leader deprived of his moral authority be in charge at a moment of supreme national trial. Nor can Israel take the chance of having such a trial catch it in the midst of an election campaign. The decision, therefore, must be sharp and clear: elections now, or an alternative government now. We must ensure that before November, Israel will have a new and responsible leadership that enjoys the public's trust.

A new leadership, however, is not sufficient. Israel also needs a new agenda. An agenda of preparation and fortification, of reconciliation and unity. In order to face the unlikely, wild scenario, Israel needs to mend itself. But even to face less wild, more likely, scenarios, Israel needs to mend itself. The road to a better future is lined with difficult trials; the road to peace may prove to be bloody. The concluding tone of the Olmert era must therefore be that of a new beginning.

After two years of spin, it is time for action. After two years of bile, it is time to extinguish hatreds and bandage wounds. Israel is not as hollow and degenerate as Mahmoud Ahmadinejad believes. But to face Ahmadinejad, Israel must come to its senses.