Paul Greenberg

Gosh, what a surprise: According to the United Nations, Iran seems to be at work on developing a nuclear weapon. I am shocked -- shocked. Goodness, what target do you think the mullahs and their nutcase president, the all too imitable Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, might have in mind?

Speaking at the G-20 Summit, French President Nicholas Sarkozy made a pretty good guess. He warned the nuke-rattlers in Teheran, "If Israel's existence were threatened, France would not stand idly by."

Free translation from the French: If Israel's existence were threatened, France would stand idly by.

It's the first lesson in diplomacy: Some words are for public consumption only. Indeed, they may be taken to mean the opposite of what they say. Some people use language to communicate their intentions; diplomats use it to conceal theirs.

All it takes to interpret M. Sarkozy's words is a little familiarity with the games of French diplomacy -- and with the history of successive French republics, now up to five excluding Vichy. Not to mention the late unpleasantness known as the Dreyfus Affair.

If Israel's existence were threatened, as it regularly is, France would surely not be the only country the world could depend on to stand idly by.

The French would doubtless be joined by the rest of the West, as in 1948, 1956, 1967, 1973. ... Moral support might have been plentiful when war erupted in the Middle East, even military aid, but the world was not about to intervene. At least not on Israel's side. And there is no reason to think the next crisis in the Middle East would be any different from those that have gone before.

Inescapable conclusion: The only people who'll go to war to defend Israel are the Israelis. Maybe that's why they've emerged victorious from every threat (so far). They've learned to depend on themselves. Or should have by now. It's also why they're considering a strike against the existential threat posed to their state by Iran's fast-developing nuclear program.

The mullahs' dream of a nuke of their own becomes closer to reality with every turn of those centrifuges in the vicinity of Teheran. The Iranians have just about completed dispersing and hardening the sites of their nuclear facilities. A little computerized virus like the Stuxnet worm, whether Israeli or American in origin, has been able to delay the threat, not end it. Soon enough it will be too late to end it.

Once the fanatics in Teheran have a nuclear weapon and the means to deliver it, does anyone think they will hesitate to use it against Israel, which they're fond of referring to as a "one-bomb state"? Time grows short. It's passing as quickly as Iran's centrifuges are whirling.

It wouldn't even be necessary for Teheran to use its new nuke to dominate its neighbors. For it would then have a nuclear umbrella, much like Kim Jong-Il in North Korea, under which to carry out its mischief without fear of reprisal. It might even pass a nuclear device to one of its favorite terrorist outfits -- Hezbollah in Syria, or Hamas in Gaza or some new bunch of crazies organized for just such a purpose. The possibilities are as numerous as they are scary.

The Israelis have acted against such a developing threat before. Saddam Hussein's in 1981, when they took out his nuclear reactor at Osirak. Then there was Syria's al-Kibar reactor, which met with a similar "accident" in 2007. But to launch an attack on Iran's nuclear program would be an even more ambitious and dangerous mission, one fraught with consequences of the unintended kind.

If the usual international sanctions, resolutions and general blather prove as ineffectual as they usually do, the Israelis may decide they have little choice but a pre-emptive strike. Or as they put it, nothing has been taken off the table. Including the possibility of military action. And the clock is ticking. Like a time bomb. Think about the repercussions of making such a decision, or of not making it, and either way visions of mushroom clouds begin to form in the mind.

. .

Quick, a little comic relief. This grim scenario could use it. Sure enough, this just in from Paris:

A little off-the-record gossip between the American and French presidents during a light moment at the G-20 made it into the record after all. It seems a French website that analyzes the media (like a patient on a couch) has released some snippets of a conversation between M. Sarkozy, snide as ever, and Mr. Obama, obliging as ever when it comes to standing idly by. These two leaders of the Free World could have been two girls badmouthing a third during a visit to the powder room.

"Netanyahu," said the French president, "I can't stand him. He's a liar." The American president didn't object to that less than flattering description, but neither did he explicitly agree with it. Instead, he appealed for sympathy himself: "You are sick of him, but I have to work with him every day!" Which would seem fair enough. Since the Israelis have to put up with Mr. Obama every day. Much as Americans have to.

It's good to know heads of state can trade gossip like the rest of us around the office water cooler. And that nobody takes it too seriously.

It's a funny world. When it's not terrifying.


Paul Greenberg

Pulitzer Prize-winning Paul Greenberg, one of the most respected and honored commentators in America, is the editorial page editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.