It is difficult to imagine Israel attacking Iran.
It is, however, more difficult to imagine Israel not attacking Iran.
Consider three questions:
First, does Iran mean what it says about destroying Israel? When its leaders repeatedly call for Israel's annihilation, after referring to it as a cancer and using other rhetoric not heard on a national level since the Nazi regime's depiction of Jews, is this just rhetorical flourish? Or do they really hope and plan to destroy Israel?
Second, can Iran do it? One can hope and even plan to do something outrageous, but that does not necessarily mean that one can accomplish it. So, the second question is whether Iran can destroy Israel or at least murder a high enough percentage of its population and destroy enough of its infrastructure to enable surrounding Arab states to invade and do the rest of the job that the majority of Arabs favor (even if some of their governments have a peace treaty with Israel).
It seems to me that the answers to the first two questions are so obvious that any burden of proof rests on those who argue otherwise. Do they think Iranian leaders are bluffing? Why would these leaders bluff? And why would one think they are bluffing given their faith-based hatred of Israel? I write "faith-based" not to argue that Islam necessarily demands the destruction of the Jewish state, but because that is what the Iranian leaders believe Islam demands.
Iran is ruled by people who believe it is God's will to destroy the Jewish state. It is also a country rapidly acquiring the ability to use nuclear weapons to achieve this goal -- through direct attack, handing nuclear weapons to terrorists or both.
There has never been a hatred as deep as Jew-hatred nor is there one today. And hatred of the Jewish state is similarly unparalleled. The depth of Iran's hatred for Israel was made evident again last week in a story from the Olympic swim trials in Croatia. The Iranian government ordered its athlete not to participate when it learned that one of the other swimmers was a Jew from Israel. There are no nationals other than Israeli Jews with whom nationals of another nation would refuse to enter a swimming pool.
This unique hatred explains why the forms of deterrence that have worked in the past do not seem applicable to the Iranian regime. The most obvious one, the one that rendered nuclear war highly improbable during the Cold War, was MAD, Mutually Assured Destruction. MAD was so simple a child could understand it: You bomb me; I bomb you. Our people die en masse; your people die en masse. No matter how vile the Soviet regime was, MAD worked because Soviet leaders wanted to live.
But MAD works only with the sane.
We regard a defining element of sanity as the desire to live. And we regard a defining element of morality as the valuing of human life. Neither applies to Islamists such as those who govern Iran. Their motto, as so often expressed by its Hamas and Hezbollah allies, is "We value death as much as you [Jews, Americans, Westerners in general] value life." For people like Iran's President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the vision of millions of Iranian Muslims dying from a counterstrike while Israel burns is not frightening; it is a necessary sacrifice.
If the answers to the first two questions are as clearly in the affirmative as I have argued, the only remaining question is whether Israel or anyone else can stop these plans from materializing.
The one nonviolent way of doing so is sanctions. A worldwide vise of economic, social and political sanctions against the Iranian regime should be tried and might work. That is certainly my first choice and, one presumes, Israel's as well.
But it now appears unlikely that the world is willing to suffocate the Iranian regime as it did the South African apartheid regime. Iran has oil; South Africa had none. Iran has worldwide support from Muslim regimes, which do not threaten a fellow Muslim regime, especially over its being too anti-Israel; South Africa had virtually no such allies. Iran has almost automatic support from at least two Security Council members, Russia and China; South Africa had no equivalent support. And much of the world is more exercised about white racism against blacks than about genocidal threats against Jews.
Therefore, if the world does not unite in ostracizing the Iranian regime, there remains only one other way to stop it from attempting to destroy Israel -- destroy its nuclear facilities.
There are strong arguments against Israel doing so. But if Israel believes that Iran will soon have the ability to attack it with nuclear weapons, and that Iran will do so, it is difficult to argue that Israel wait and run the risk of experiencing another Holocaust.