It is remarkable how quickly discussions about Iran's pursuit of nuclear weapons turn to Israel. "Well," worriers are reassured, "Israel will never permit Iran to go nuclear. Remember Osirak?"
Very well. In 1981, Israeli planes streaked across the desert at low altitude and destroyed the Iraqi nuclear reactor at Osirak, a facility built by the French and partially manned by Italians. The world's response was volcanic. "An unprovoked attack" and a "grave breach of international law" declared the British Foreign Office. The French called it "unacceptable" and pointed out that Iraq had signed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. Then U.N. Secretary-General Kurt Waldheim (not yet unmasked as a former Nazi) called the Israeli raid a "clear contravention of international law." The Soviet Union denounced the "barbarous attack." And the U.S. State Department spokesman called the air raid ''a very serious development and a source of utmost concern.'' Israel was condemned by the U.N. Security Council with the U.S. voting aye. (Though at a press conference, President Reagan could not resist defending Israel's actions, pointing out, for example, that Iraq had maintained a state of war with Israel since 1948.) The New York Times called the Israeli attack "an act of inexcusable and short-sighted aggression . . . Israel risks becoming its own worst enemy."
Israel's explanation -- that it was acting defensively because it believed Iraq was attempting to obtain nuclear weapons -- was rejected by nearly everyone.
Yet today, many seem to hope that the world's favorite scapegoat will again take matters in hand and destroy a looming threat. Perhaps they plan to denounce Israel again and sleep soundly thereafter.
But there is a problem with this tidy scenario. The Iranians have learned from Iraq's mistake -- they've thought of little else -- and have hardened and dispersed their nuclear facilities all over the vast territory of Iran. The sites are buried deep and well disguised.
In other words, from the world's point of view, there is no easy fix. "Let the Israelis do it" won't work.
For more than two years, the Europeans, with America's blessing, have been exhorting the Iranians to forego nuclear weapons. Shocking though it may seem, this has not worked. Last week, Iran announced that the country is removing the seals from its Natanz plant -- a direct violation of an agreement with Britain, France and Germany.
The prospect of a nuclear-armed Iran was made even more terrifying with the ascent last June of the Holocaust-denying, religious vision-seeing Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as president. Ahmadinejad reportedly believes in the imminent return of the righteous descendant of the Prophet Mohammed, the 12th Imam, whose appearance on Earth will be presaged by war and chaos. A previous Iranian leader mused that only one nuclear bomb would be sufficient to completely obliterate Israel and the largest Jewish population on Earth. A return salvo by Israel could destroy only a fraction of the world's Muslims. Would this madness be within the realm of the conceivable to Ahmadinejad? Even apart from his hysterical rantings about Israel ("a disgraceful blot" that "should be wiped off the face of the Earth"), consider what he said to his own countrymen when a plane crashed into a Tehran building killing 108. "What is important is that they have showed the way to martyrdom which we must follow."
Ahmadinejad and the sick mullahs who run Iran may be crazy, but they're not fools. They know that between fighting al Qaeda and building a durable democracy in Iraq, we're hardly in a mood to deal with Iran at the moment. But we cannot avoid it. The current state of play suggests that Iran will be referred to the U.N. Security Council by the International Atomic Energy Agency. But sanctions against Iran will probably be vetoed by Russia or China.
That leaves us with no painless options. If we, together with a coalition of the willing, impose the only sanction that will truly pinch -- an embargo on Iranian oil -- oil prices will rise, probably by a lot. But that cost will have to be weighed against the cost of military action, which would be far higher. In the meantime, as the far-sighted Michael Ledeen has argued for years, we ought to be supporting the democratic opposition within Iran for all we're worth. The vicious Iranian regime sits atop a population that detests it. Revolution would be redemption -- for all of us.