Someone whispered into Jim Hoagland's ear that Washington is worried about the possibility that Israel will attack the Iranian nuclear facility in Bushehr. Hoagland, a Washington Post columnist, wrote the American concern was the result of a conversation between Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and President George W. Bush two weeks ago. At the meeting, Major General Yoav Galant, Sharon's military secretary, presented satellite photos and other evidence showing Iran will be able to enrich uranium or produce weapons-grade plutonium within a year or two. Sharon made clear to Bush that Israel will not be able to put up with the risk of an Iran capable of perpetrating a "nuclear holocaust" on Israel.
Indeed, Iran is working energetically to complete its development of nuclear weaponry, and it is possible that the intelligence assessment Sharon presented Bush was accurate. But if the air force attacks the nuclear facility at Bushehr, it will not only be a strategic mistake; it could also be an operation that does not achieve its goal.
A nuclear Iran is not an Israeli problem, but a problem for the entire West. It is a mistake to present a nuclear Iran as a danger aimed only at Israel and to put it at the center of an Iranian-Israeli conflict.
Since the war in Iraq, the U.S. administration has been emphasizing that Iran is one of the coming targets in the American campaign against weapons of mass destruction. Bush has explicitly stated that the U.S. will not tolerate Iran being equipped with nuclear arms. Meanwhile, the administration has not managed to halt the Iranian nuclear program, but there has been some encouraging progress over the last year. Russia, which is supplying know-how and equipment for the Bushehr reactor, has joined a U.S. statement vehemently criticizing Iran for not allowing effective international inspections of Tehran's nuclear program.
Germany and France recently blocked shipments of aluminum tubing destined for the Iranian uranium enrichment effort, and one of the Iranian nuclear program chiefs has recommended to the Tehran leadership that they sign the additional protocol of the nuclear non-proliferation treaty, which would grant UN inspectors far more leeway when they inspect nuclear facilities. Therefore, Israel should allow the U.S. to continue its current policy. Attacking the Bushehr reactor could put an end to the American efforts and to any future cooperation by other countries against the Iranian nuclear program.
Furthermore, it is worth emphasizing that it is a major mistake on Israel's part to highlight the Iranian threat. There's no doubt the Tehran regime is a tough and bitter foe, but that is far from depicting a nuclear Iran as an existential threat to Israel. Iranian involvement in terror in our region is bothersome, but a distinction should be made between readiness to finance terrorists and readiness to launch missiles at Israel. Even if Iran has nuclear weapons, Israel's own deterrent capabilities are enough to prevent any Iranian ruler from even considering launching a nuclear weapon at Israel.
It is time to stop waving the scarecrow arms of existential threats and it is time to stop making combative statements that sometimes create dangerous dynamics of escalation on their own. If statements can be unnecessary and damaging, attacking the Bushehr reactor would be 10 times worse.
However, even if it is decided not to count on Israel's deterrent capabilities, and the inherent risk of the Iranian threat requires a military response, unfortunately, it cannot be achieved. Even if air force F-15s made their way to the reactor in Bushehr and destroyed the reactor, that won't stop the Iranian nuclear project.
The Iranians decided - among other reasons because of the lessons they learned from the Israeli attack on the Osirak reactor outside Baghdad - to vary their nuclear projects. They are developing their enriched uranium project with a secret centrifuge plant in Natanz. They built a heavy water plant at Arak, and built secret labs at their nuclear research center in a Tehran suburb, where most of the facilities are underground, well-protected from any air attack.
In other words, even a successful attack at Bushehr might at best only postpone the development of nuclear weapons, but it is doubtful that would justify the political price Israel would be made to pay for the military action, the escalation that could be expected in the region and the elimination of American diplomatic pressure on Iran. In addition, even if Iran completes its nuclear development program, it will still take a long time for it to miniaturize the weapon to fit as a warhead into the payload of a ballistic missile that can reach Israel. Therefore, there is no need for urgent action.
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