Postscript: Obama's dilemma on Iran

Is US president facing same dilemma that perplexed Menachem Begin when he decided to bomb the Iraqi nuclear reactor shortly before elections?

US President Barack Obama smile 311 (R) (photo credit: REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque)
US President Barack Obama smile 311 (R)
(photo credit: REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque)
There are those who argue that this is the time for the US to deal fundamentally with the Iranian nuclear threat, which, in any language, means bombing Iran’s nuclear facilities.
The assassination of a scientist here, or sabotage there, is not going to solve the problem, they say. While even a military attack may not do the job completely, the Iranian nuclear program would never fully recover. For the Iranians, just living with the knowledge that if they start up again, they may be attacked again, one can assume would be a major lesson in itself.
The timing has never been better, they say. With the Americans now out of Iraq, Iran’s options for revenge are much more limited.
They can’t hit back by attacking American forces and interests in Iraq through surrogates, for example.
Also, with its forces out of Iraq, and not yet fully demobilized, America has a significant pool of battle-tested, highly trained, fully equipped and rapidly deployable reserves, that it could use to further punish Iran if it reacts to the attacks on its nuclear facilities.
The second wave would, by definition, be much more destructive than the first, which would be limited to Iran's nuclear facilities. It would be aimed at the sources of power, the economic and military assets of the Revolutionary Guards who make it possible for the ayatollahs to continue to rule, and other targets that would hurt Iran far more than not having a bomb.
This, one suspects, the Iranians know and understand. America is no longer encumbered by its war in Iraq; its forces are no longer exposed, far away from home.
America is no longer overextended.
On the contrary, it has instantly available reserves at its disposal that could be used to settle a long open account with the Iranian regime, and this, some say, should be incentive in itself for bombing Iran's nuclear facilities. Perhaps, if the Iranians act injudiciously, there is an opportunity here to bring the entire house down on the heads of the regime, and not just the “kitchen,” where the nuclear bomb was being cooked up.
Then there is something else to be taken into account, those who arguing for an American attack argue. US President Barack Obama cannot automatically assume that he is going to be reelected. If he loses, it will take time for the next president to catch up, to understand the technicalities involved and, crucially, have the self-confidence to make a decision that could drag America into another unwanted war. We have all been told 2012 is a crucial year, that after this the program will be so well concealed it will be impossible to effectively attack with conventional weapons, that it will have passed the point of no return.
If this is indeed the case, Obama is faced with the same dilemma that so perplexed Menachem Begin when he decided, in 1981, to bomb the Iraqi nuclear reactor shortly before a general election in Israel: to bomb and do what you have to do, or worry that people will accuse you of cheap electioneering.
Yes, if America does attack Iran’s nuclear facilities in the coming months, Obama will be accused by some of cheap electioneering. If he allows this consideration, however, to determine whether an attack on Iran is warranted or not, he will have missed the point. If in 2012 Iran does indeed pass the point of no return, if other methods such as sanctions don’t set back the program, what has to be paramount in Obama’s mind is his legacy, not what people say of his election tactics.
If 2012 is indeed a critical year, the voice of those calling for an American attack on Iran's nuclear facilities gains credence. To do nothing would give the Iranians exactly the window they need to complete their program.
Things have changed dramatically, and not to Iran’s advantage. The US is back in the saddle, and has the power to both attack Iran’s nuclear facilities and to hit back hard if Iran is not deterred from reacting. Obama knows the score better than anyone. He knows that if he does attack, America’s allies will applaud, the world will heave a sigh of relief, his Republican foes will shout hurrah, and he will go down in history as a true and courageous leader.
If 2012 is not a critical year, as all have claimed, then better not to do anything at all. If the Iranians are about to pass the point of no return, there is no real option other than to attack. If they are not, put the idea aside. Wars are to be fought only when there is no alternative, and not because this or that strategic constellation is currently in place. You know where wars start and not where they end. That is always a risk, but nothing as risky to the general welfare of the world as the specter of a nuclear Iran,
The writer is a Senior Research Associate at the Institute for National Security Studies at Tel Aviv University. His most recent book is The Anatomy of Israel’s Survival published by Public Affairs, New York.