T he brinksmanship between the West and Iran over that country’s nuclear ambitions appeared to enter a new and dangerous phase earlier this month, when the Iranians did not accept the West’s latest offer to set aside further economic sanctions if the Iranians immediately stopped enriching uranium. Representatives of six Western nations had given Iran until Aug. 2 to reply to their offer. Iran allowed the deadline to pass, then responded 48 hours later with little that was new. In the interim it deployed a new long-range weapon it said was capable of striking U.S. ships in the Persian Gulf. In return, the United States and its allies have said that they will pursue additional economic sanctions. Meanwhile, Israel, which fears that a nuclear Iran would wipe Israel off the map, continues to prepare its Defense Forces for a strike against the Iranian nuclear facilities.
Such an attack would be a catastrophe. Among other things, it is impractical, as an attack would likely only delay the Iranians, not stop them. The principal elements of Iran’s nuclear program are spread out among numerous locations and population centers, decreasing the likelihood that an Israeli strike would eliminate the nuclear threat and increasing the likelihood of Iranian civilian casualties. Also, an Israeli attack would invigorate Iranian nationalism, silence the moderate voices in Iranian politics and rally support for the Tehran regime. Lastly, Iran would almost certainly retaliate by striking targets in Israel and U.S. forces in Iraq and Afghanistan and possibly by blockading the Strait of Hormuz, choking off the world’s oil supply. The Bush administration should make it clear to Israel that a military strike would be a perilous and unacceptable escalation.