National Review Online

The Coming Israel–-Iran Confrontation

National Review Online

Senior Fellow and Trustee

Events are conspiring to precipitate a cataclysmic confrontation with Iran. Time has nearly expired for international sanctions — even the so-called tough and crippling ones — to keep Iran from acquiring deliverable nuclear weapons. The U.S. soon will not be able to avoid making a choice: Will it meet the challenge of the coming confrontation or shrink from it? Either way, there will be consequences for U.S. interests abroad and at home.

During last Friday's prayers in Tehran, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said Iran would continue its nuclear program. His remarks were broadcast on Iranian state television. In these remarks to worshippers, Khamenei reiterated Iran's threat to wipe Israel — "a cancerous tumor that should be cut and will be cut" — off the map, and averred that Iran will aid any nation or group that attacks Israel. The Associated Press reports that he explicitly acknowledged that Iran has supported and will support Hezbollah and Hamas attacks.

The gravity of the supreme leader's remarks is underlined by Iran's inexorable progress toward acquiring nuclear weapons and the means of delivering them. Iran already has missiles that could deliver a nuclear weapon throughout the Middle East and parts of Europe. It also has made great progress on technology for long-range missiles that could carry nuclear weapons and that could reach North America, as evidenced by three successful launches of orbiting satellites, the most recent last week.

Also last week, U.S. Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta and high-level Israeli officials said what many have been predicting — that Israel is going to attack Iran's nuclear weapons facilities unless Iran verifiably eliminates its nuclear-weapons program immediately. Mr. Panetta even gave a time frame. He predicted that the Israeli attack will be launched sometime in the April-to-June period.

For Israel, the risk of waiting is immense. As has been said, Israel cannot take a 10 percent chance of 100 percent annihilation. In addition, Iran is fortifying the defenses of its nuclear sites, and they may soon be nearly impossible to destroy. It will have reached an "immunity zone," as Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak has described it.

The supreme leader's vitriol at last Friday's prayers was not restricted to Israel. It was targeted at the U.S. as well. This should be no surprise. Iran since 1980 has declared the U.S. to be its enemy. It has attacked the U.S. through proxies repeatedly — e.g. the 1983 attack on the Marines barracks in Lebanon that killed 241 American servicemen, the 1996 Khobar Towers attack in Saudi Arabia that killed 19 U.S. Air Force personnel, continuing Iranian support for attacks on U.S. troops in Iraq and Afghanistan since 2003, and last October's foiled plot to assassinate Saudi Arabia's ambassador to the U.S. on U.S. soil.

A nuclear-armed Iran with the hegemonic ambitions Supreme Leader Khamenei also acknowledged in his Friday prayer remarks would view itself as free to step up its aggression against American personnel and assets. It would also step up aggressive action and intimidation of the U.S.'s Arab allies in the Middle East. And, of course, it might well try to make good on its threat to wipe Israel off the map.

A failure on America's part to support an Israeli attack on Iran's nuclear facilities would have serious consequences for the U.S. at home and abroad. The inevitable Iranian counterattack would doubtless include attacks on American citizens and property, just as if the U.S. had participated in the attack directly. American blood would be spilled and American treasure expended. A failure to support Israel would have additional consequences that may be less obvious but also are grave. If the U.S. failed to support Israel in its hour of need, America's position of influence in the world would take a crippling blow.

Failure to support Israel likely would be the end of U.S. influence in the Middle East. Saudi Arabia and other Arab countries, already unsure of America's reliability, will accelerate their efforts to obtain their own nuclear deterrents. It would be the height of irony if Arab countries that refrained from pursuing their own nuclear-weapons capabilities for the almost 50 years that Israel has had nuclear weapons would be impelled to do so by American failure to support an Israeli attack on Iranian nuclear facilities — an attack Arab leaders will applaud privately even if they criticize it publicly. They would reason that a U.S. that failed to aid Israel in this effort would be highly unlikely to make good on promises to protect them from the same evil.

A failure to support Israel would also affect our allies and friends beyond the Middle East. Just as American resolve to help friends and allies has helped deter would-be aggressors in the past, the perception that the U.S.'s support of its allies may not match its promises will have the opposite effect. Nowhere would this be more evident than in Asia.

Taiwan and China surely would view the U.S.'s abandonment of so close an ally as Israel as evidence that the U.S. would similarly shrink from coming to Taiwan's assistance should China take military action against it. Similarly, the U.S.'s failure to support its Israeli ally would not go unobserved by North Korea, South Korea, Japan, and other Asian countries.

Would North Korea be tempted to step up aggression against South Korea? What would South Korea do? Would Japan become more accommodating of China's ambitions in the Pacific? Would Japan decide that it needed to become a nuclear power itself? Exactly what each of these countries would do is difficult to predict. But America's abandoning of one of its closest allies in its hour of need plainly would affect each Asian country's assessment of the reliability of American promises, and the assessments would not be favorable to U.S. interests.

The time for the use of military force to slow or end Iran's march toward the nuclear-weapons club is nearly upon us. Iran's achievement of its nuclear-weapons goal would threaten Israel's existence. It would also result in a change in the international environment that would severely undermine America's national security. It must be prevented. When Israel decides it must act, the U.S. must be politically and militarily supportive from the outset.