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The Iran Conundrum

August 19, 2010
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The media is once again rife with speculation over if and when Israel or the United States might attack Iran to quash its nuclear ambitions.

The latest debate was sparked by a lengthy cover story in the September issue of The Atlantic by Jeffrey Goldberg. After speaking to a number of senior U.S. and Israeli officials, Goldberg reaches this conclusion: There is better than a 50 percent chance that Israel will launch a strike by next July.

If he's right -- and that's a big if, as evidenced by the huge debate his article set off -- his numbers also suggest that there's nearly as great a chance that such a strike won't happen.

The uncertainty over whether such a strike will occur is matched only by the uncertainty of what will happen if it does. And therein lies the conundrum for Israel's leaders.

It's a damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don't situation, which is why even Israel's top political and military officials are divided about the wisdom of launching an attack. They know that the military and diplomatic fallout could be immense, yet they don't know how successful such a strike would be.

Still, even as Israelis find reason to argue over just about everything, there is near-consensus that a nuclear-equipped Iran could pose an existential threat to the Jewish state.

Even if Iran never actually deployed its arsenal against Israel, the very fact that it possessed such weapons would change the balance of power in the Middle East and greatly increase the likelihood that nuclear arms would find their way to regional terrorists, including Iran's proxies, Hamas and Hezbollah. Beyond the very real potential for physical annihilation, the mere threat of a nuclear attack against Israel could cause huge psychological damage, setting off a wave of emigration and a concurrent halt to immigration.

Of course, a big question mark in this remains the position of the United States. Again, pundits are full of predictions about whether the Obama administration will decide to strike on its own -- because it concludes that a nuclear Iran poses too great a threat to world security (not to mention American influence). By all accounts, it is in a better position militarily and politically to do it. The U.S. factor both complicates and informs the Israeli assessment.

With all the difficult challenges the Jewish state has faced since its creation, the decision about what to do about Iran counts among the gravest. It's clearly not a simple proposition. If it was, Israel would have struck long ago.

The issue is far too delicate for us to presume to have the answer. We can only wish upon Israel's leaders the ability to act wisely. As we ask God each Shabbat in the Prayer for the State of Israel: "Send your light and your truth to her leaders, ministers and advisers, and help them with your good counsel."

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