In 1981, Israeli leaders sent bombers to destroy Saddam Hussein's nuclear reactor at Osirak. Rafael Eitan, then Israel's Army Chief of Staff, is said to have explained the motivation succinctly: "The alternative is our destruction."
Three decades later, the militant jihadist regime in Iran is developing nuclear weapons and the missiles to deliver them. It is also, not just coincidently, supporting terrorists groups abroad, facilitating the killing of U.S. troops in Iraq and Afghanistan, vowing to wipe Israel off the map, and promising, in the longer term, "a world without America." It's a plan -- one that we will find a way to stop if we have learned anything from history. Both Presidents Bush and Obama have said it would be unacceptable for Iran's current rulers to have their fingers on nuclear triggers. The reality, however, is that the Bush administration took no serious steps to prevent Tehran from making progress toward that goal, and it remains to be seen whether the Obama administration will bring change on this critical issue of national and international security.
Israel's attack on Saddam's nuclear facilities resulted in a chorus of international condemnation. Over time, however, minds changed. "[W]hat the Israelis did at Osirak in 1981 ...in retrospect, was a really good thing," President Bill Clinton later said, articulating what has become the consensus view on both the moderate left and the moderate right.
Still, does history need be repeated? Must it come down to the United States and the "international community" doing nothing, and Israelis deciding whether to use military force against Iran's nuclear weapons facilities -- which have been dispersed and hardened in a way Saddam's were not?
There is one other possibility, one non-military tool that has not been utilized: serious economic sanctions, or as Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has phrased it: "crippling sanctions." If sanctions were to cause Iran's rulers to worry whether their drive for nuclear weapons is weakening -- rather than strengthening --- their hold on power, that could lead to a breakthrough. Or, if the discomfort caused by the sanctions were to prompt Iranians to rise up even more strongly against their oppressors, that also might bring a positive result - for Iranians and for the rest of the world.