A dangerous escalation of tensions in the Middle East could produce a devastating new war there if diplomatic steps are not taken to head it off. The United States and Israel, with the cooperation of some European countries, have been stoking a climate of fear to justify a military attack on Iran's nuclear facilities. At the very least, they seem determined to refer the matter of Iran's nuclear program to the United Nations Security Council as a step toward imposing sanctions.
There has been a tsunami of dramatic public statements by prominent leaders. Vice President Cheney has been darkly hinting for months that a military attack may be in the offing, either by Israel or the United States. In January Jacques Chirac made a highly irresponsible statement that France might resort to nuclear weapons to retaliate for acts of state-sponsored terrorism, a posture that could only persuade Iran to deter such nuclear trash-talk by attempting to get the bomb. On January 22 Israeli Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz told a Jerusalem audience that "Israel will not be able to accept an Iranian nuclear capability, and it must have the capability to defend itself with all that this implies, and we are preparing." This thinly veiled threat recalls Israel's 1981 airstrike that destroyed the Osirak reactor in Iraq, then the core of the Iraqi program. International reactions to that attack were not very damaging to Israel and there were no serious regional repercussions–factors that could encourage Israel, either alone or via the United States, to consider a strike on Iran.
Iran's recent actions lend the attack scenario added plausibility. In January it ordered the removal of the International Atomic Energy Agency's seals on its uranium enrichment plant at Natanz, an indication that Tehran will proceed with its nuclear energy program in such a way as to retain the possibility of developing weapons. Reassurances of purely peaceful intentions regarding nuclear energy have never been reliable. Israel, India and Pakistan all repeatedly made the same promises before they developed nuclear weapons. Israel has never officially acknowledged its nuclear capability and has never been called to international account, although it is generally understood to have an arsenal of somewhere between 100 and 200 nuclear warheads, along with advanced delivery systems capable of targeting any country in the Middle East, including Iran. In such circumstances, it should not surprise us that Iranian leaders may be considering acquiring a nuclear weapons capability.
The atmosphere has been further inflamed by the outrageous fulminations of Iran's new president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Such hostility would agitate the security concerns of any state, especially one that has faced threats throughout its history, as has Israel. Both Israel and the United States have claimed pre-emptive rights when it comes to the pursuit of their strategic interests. Israel initiated pre-emptive wars against its Arab neighbors in 1956 (with Britain and France), 1967 and 1982, and has frequently struck across its borders to destroy or punish adversaries. So when Ahmadinejad insists that the Holocaust is a "myth," and that Israel should be "wiped off the map" or perhaps relocated to Europe, he almost seems to be taunting Israel to respond militarily, certainly a reckless gambit.
And then there is the American dimension. The United States, bogged down ever more hopelessly in Iraq, seems to welcome a showdown with Iran as an opportunity for diversionary diplomacy. Iran, as an original member of the "axis of evil," was always in the cross hairs of neoconservative grand strategy for the region, and rather than be daunted by failure in Iraq, Administration hard-liners are clearly tempted to shift attention to Iran.