published Wednesday, November 9th, 2011

Saber-rattling in the Mideast

It could be a well-calculated ploy to sway world opinion. Or, Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak’s thinly veiled warning Tuesday that his country might launch a pre-emptive military strike against Iran’s nuclear program could be the real thing. Trouble is, there’s no way to know what Israel may or may not do in coming days.

What’s certain is that neither the timing nor content of Barak’s radio broadcast is accidental. It was timed to precede today’s expected announcement from the International Atomic Energy Agency that Iran’s nuclear energy program is designed to produce weapons, not energy as claimed. It’s content is a not so subtle reminder that Israel views such a program as dangerous to its well-being, and that it will take action to reduce or eliminate that threat.

That’s because Israel sees Iran as its greatest current menace. Iran’s nuclear activities, its missile capability and Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s oft-stated desire to destroy the Jewish state give credence to that belief. It’s hard to disagree with the Israeli view, though negotiation remains a better avenue for reducing or dissolving the threat than armed conflict.

Israel says, correctly, that it has sought peaceful resolution. So has the United States and the United Nations. The U.N., for example, has imposed several rounds of increasingly strict sanctions on Iran. Many nations support the sanctions, but the edicts have had little tangible effect. Iran’s nuclear ambitions remain unchecked, according to those knowledgeable about the content of the U.N. report to be released today.

That’s stirred Israeli worry. Barak suggested another sanction Tuesday — a blockade to choke off Iran’s oil exports, a step that might not find lots of U.N. support. The saber rattling on Tuesday is viewed in many quarters as a way to convince world leaders to accept the Israeli view of Iran’s nuclear ambitions. Call it diplomacy by brinksmanship.

If such diplomatic action doesn’t work, Barak made it clear that Israel would not “take any option off the table.” The mention of options, those familiar with the Israeli political mindset say, is shorthand for military action.

Israel’s message, then, is straightforward. Either the U.N. does something about Iran’s nuclear buccaneering or Israel might take care of the problem on its own. Whether it will launch an admittedly risky military attack is unknown, but history suggests such action is possible.

In 1981, the Israeli Air Force destroyed an unfinished reactor in Iraq, ending Saddam Hussein’s nuclear program. Israel is widely suspected of taking out a secret Syrian nuclear reactor in a 2007 airstrike, but it has never acknowledged that it did. Experts agree that Israel is capable of mounting similar attacks on Iranian nuclear targets now.

World leaders should keep that in mind as they formulate their responses to the forthcoming atomic energy agency’s report on Iran.

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