Crossing the Rubicon

Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, recently visited Israel and called for greater engagement between our two countries. Given the fact that it’s difficult to find a closer political bond between two countries anywhere in this galaxy, one would surmise that there’s little distance to travel to cement the relationship between our two democracies. After all, we share similar values, ideals and interests. 

There exists, however, a singular and important difference within this triangle of bonded friendship. Israel lives in a neighborhood that is far more unstable than that enjoyed by the United States. The geographic proximity of those whose stated goal is to vanquish the state of Israel — and who could soon have the capacity to do so — causes the Israelis to view threats through a different prism. 

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Patience and diplomacy might be the virtues of statecraft, but when an avowed enemy is close to placing a nuclear knife on your throat, well, the demands for action are likely to override the pleas for restraint.

Iran has used deceit and obfuscation to paint over the window into their activities. The world is left to speculate whether Iran is a year or more away from putting a nuclear genie into the head of a missile or into the headquarters of a pharmaceutical production facility. 

So what is Israel, or the United States, to do? President Obama has intensified former President George W. Bush’s policy of imposing economic sanctions against Iran, and the European Union could cut off future purchases of Iranian oil. Yet many question whether the international community’s imposition of economic hardship on the Iranian oil sector will be sufficient to persuade Iran’s leaders to alter their current uranium-enrichment activities. 

In the past, Israelis have not hesitated to attack those whom they believed posed an existential threat to their state. The destruction of Iraqi and Syrian nuclear plants offers proof enough of their determination never to face the threat of a second Holocaust. 

Iran, however, presents a far more difficult challenge than those once posed by Saddam Hussein and Bashar al Assad. The elements of Iran’s nuclear program are dispersed over a large geographical area. Many of its research and development facilities are buried underground. Israel might decide to launch an attack against Iran’s facilities, but such an operation would quickly lose the surprise advantage and would likely take many days, not just hours, to complete. 

As we assess the threat that a nuclear-armed Iran would pose to Israel, it’s important to remember that Iran’s leadership is not entirely irrational. It’s possible, but I believe unlikely, that they would consider conducting a nuclear strike against Israel. The real danger, I think, that a nuclear-armed Iran would pose is that other countries in the region would feel compelled to either develop or purchase nuclear weapons as a deterrent. With more countries joining the nuclear fraternity, the risk that an extremist group would acquire one of these weapons is greatly enhanced. If this were to happen, there is a good chance that Armageddon would play at a theater near you. 

Although Israel remains on the front line of nightmare scenarios, it’s important to be mindful that it is not the only nation that would face both the predictable and untoward consequences of a military attack against Iran. 

If such a strike were carried out, it would probably succeed in rallying virtually all of the Iranian people to the defense of their country. Any hope that the West might hold for the ripening of Iran’s Green Revolution would quickly dissipate, as Iranian citizens would turn red with hatred for those who supported such an attack. American military and civilian personnel deployed throughout the Gulf region would likely be victims of those who are masters in the dark art of terrorism. 

President Obama has asked Israel not to take preemptive, unilateral action. According to news reports, the Israelis have chosen to remain silent. Fair enough — no country is required to disclose to others the place and timing of its military options should a decision be made to exercise them. 

Privately, however, the Israelis have an obligation to keep American leadership fully informed of its plans. Israel’s actions have consequences for the United States, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and other countries in the region. A regional conflict would affect much of the industrialized world. 

Israel’s defense minister, Ehud Barak, has offered public assurances that any plans to take military action against Iran are very “far off.” But “far off” is a relative term and can easily become “lift off” if the Israelis decide that diplomacy has failed and they have no other option. But Israel also must understand that if it resorts to military action, it will be taking its friends across the Rubicon with them.

Cohen is a former senator from Maine and secretary of Defense under President Clinton. He is currently the chairman and CEO of The Cohen Group, an international business advisory firm.