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What the Mullahs Should Mull

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"I warn you to abandon the filthy Zionist entity, which has reached the end of the line." That, from earlier this year, was but one of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's hysterical verbal assaults on a fellow member of the United Nations. If there is a regime anywhere on the globe whose leader regularly and volubly looks forward to the "destruction" of another nation, I'm not familiar with it. (Ahmadinejad actually anticipates the annihilation of two nations, since he has also spoken of a world without the United States.) In the past several days, Iran has punctuated its threats against Israel and others with a display of missile might, firing intermediate-range ballistic missiles that can reach the entire Middle East and parts of Europe.

In May, the International Atomic Energy Agency issued a nine-page report detailing suspicions about Iran's nuclear program. Accusing the Iranian government of a willful lack of cooperation with international inspections, the report alleges that the Iranian military has had a major role in Iran's supposedly domestic and peaceful nuclear energy program.

Someone should fax a copy of the IAEA's report to our intelligence agencies. Last year, in what will someday be remembered as an infamous National Intelligence Estimate, the spy agencies pronounced that Iran had abandoned its intentions of building nuclear weapons back in 2003. As former U.N. Ambassador John Bolton and others explained at the time, the report was pure whistling past the graveyard, and it was surely one of the low points of the Bush administration that this misleading and irresponsible analysis was not more forcefully rebutted.

Actually, aside from the one-on-one meeting with Ahmadinejad, President Bush's policy toward Iran has not differed much from the one advanced by Barack Obama. In concert with Britain, France, China, Russia, and Germany, we've offered lots and lots of carrots in the form of light water nuclear reactors, commercial aircraft, direct negotiations, and other goodies if Iran would agree to suspend enriching uranium. This offer was first floated in 2004. It was rejected. In 2006, a slightly altered package was offered. It, too, was rejected. And just last week, the Iranian regime reiterated that it would not cease enriching uranium no matter what "incentives" were dangled by the international community. Could it be that they want the weapons, not world approbation?

Incentives and sweeteners were ineffective. And Iran has, correctly in my judgment, sized up the military threat it faces. In a recent interview with the Associated Press, Iranian foreign minister Manouchehr Mottaki said that he does not believe Israel or the United States will attack Iran's nuclear sites. The U.S., he explained, is bogged down in Afghanistan and Iraq, and is suffering a declining economy. "We do not foresee such a possibility at the moment." Nor, Mottaki claims, does his government worry about an attack by Israel, whose government is weak.

And yet, if Iran were to threaten Israel with a nuclear strike, the results might not be as tolerable for Iran as former Iranian president Ali Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani predicted a few years ago. Iran should use its nuclear weapons (when it gets them) against Israel, he said, because one bomb would utterly destroy Israel whereas a counterattack would do "damages only" to Iran.

But Anthony Cordesman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies has analyzed the nightmare scenario of a nuclear exchange between Iran and Israel and comes to a very different conclusion. Obviously, any nuclear attack suffered by any country would be a catastrophe -- particularly for one so small as Israel. But Israel is believed to possess nuclear weapons of much greater power and yield than any weapon Iran is likely to get in the near future. Cordesman estimates that Iran would launch a 100-kiloton bomb, which can inflict third-degree burns at a distance of eight miles. But Israel would use 1-megaton bombs that inflict such burns at 24 miles. Israel's arsenal is also large, estimated to be in the neighborhood of 200 warheads, with multiple delivery methods including cruise missiles launched from submarines. If forced into a nuclear war (God forbid), Israel would probably aim for Tehran, a city of about 15 million situated, Cordesman says, "in a topographical basin with mountain reflector. Nearly ideal nuclear killing ground."

The great unknown is this: How crazy is the Iranian regime?

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