It is easy to be skeptical when the alarms start going off about a pending Israeli attack on Iran. They seem to come with the seasons, a geopolitical biorhythm that reminds us never to be too comfortable with one of the world's most volatile relationships. But it is worth remembering that the punch line of the story about the little boy who cried wolf is that ultimately, the wolf shows up.
For all the good reasons Israel might want to show forbearance, seven of which were pointed out by the Atlantic's Jeffrey Goldberg recently, the reasons to attack are also clearly growing more compelling for Israeli leaders, uniting them on this issue to a greater degree than at any time in the recent past. Diplomacy doesn't seem to be working. The Iranian nuclear program continues moving closer to weapons capability. And the Iranians themselves have matched their rhetoric about the annihilation of Israel with direct support for attacks on its people, like the suicide-bomb murder of five Israeli tourists in Bulgaria, which U.S. officials have linked to Iran.
It is often hard for Americans to grasp the idea of an existential threat to a nation. While one existed for Americans during the Cold War, since then the notion that any single actor with any single act could effectively obliterate Americans or their lifestyle is very hard for many people to get their brains around. But that is exactly the threat that Israelis face from even a "limited" Iranian nuclear attack. And though it is reasonable to debate whether the Iranians would actually use such a weapon against Israel given the likely consequences for them, from the Israeli perspective, given Iranian threats and actions, the risks of guessing wrong about the intent of the leaders in Tehran are so high that inaction could easily be seen to be the imprudent path.
This summarizes the carefully worded case made last week in the Wall Street Journal by Israel's ambassador to the United States, Michael Oren. His article was nothing less than a case for war, and, over lunch on Friday, Aug. 10, he underscored to me how much thought and care was put into its drafting. (Oren is, for the record, my longtime very good friend.) The response to the article included the unlikely endorsement of its core points by Khalid Al Khalifa, the foreign minister of Bahrain, who tweeted it with the words "Time Is Short For Iran Diplomacy." It also was seen as one of the most important of last week's signals that Israel's discomfort with the Iran situation is growing greater, signals that included on-the-record statements by Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon and off-the-record statements to journalist Ari Shavit (widely assumed to have been from Defense Minister Ehud Barak) that both underscored and amplified Oren's case for ramped-up pressure on Iran.
It is reasonable to ask what has triggered this recent ramping-up of concern. Oren asserts it is a combination of factors -- none more important than the increasing sense that diplomacy is not working and the sanctions, while taking a clear toll on the Iranian economy, are not doing so either. Iran's nuclear program, meanwhile, is accelerating, and its leaders continue to call for Israel's destruction. He is direct in noting that the broader series of shifts buffeting the Middle East must be seen as adding complexity and risk to the calculus about what Iran may do next.
"Iran's No. 1 ally in the region, Assad in Syria, is on the brink. While Iran is trying to prop him up, it would be a game-changer for them were his regime to collapse," notes Oren. But Oren is a historian, a very good one, the author of two seminal books on the region -- Six Days of War and Power, Faith, and Fantasy: America in the Middle East, 1776 to the Present -- and in discussing these regional shifts, one really gets a sense that as big as the Iran threat may be, it is itself part of a historical sea change that is a source of a massive unease for the Israelis. This unease relates not only to the Iranian issue but to the entire structure of the Middle East as it has been understood to exist for generations.
Oren frames the discussion of this larger issue by going back all the way to the early years of the 19th century. "The Congress of Vienna worked. It worked for 100 years. It provided for a framework -- balance of power -- that worked for Europe until the original ideas behind it were forgotten by subsequent generations. Its principles were abandoned by key players, and the result was World War I," he says.