Will Israel bomb Iran or not?
Israel says it hasn't decided. But top Israeli figures, including Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak, suggest that the country will have to make a choice soon.
Israel believes Iran will soon have the capacity to make a nuclear weapon. Not everyone shares this assessment, and Iran insists its program is only for civilian purposes.
"The first thing you have to realize is we're past the time in Iran where there's the happy answer that doesn't have consequences," says James Carafano, director of foreign policy studies at the Heritage Foundation. "There are choices between bad answers and really horrible, terrible answers."
As this confrontation unfolds, here are five reasons why Israel might — or might not — strike against Iran.
1. Jewish history. Given the legacy of the Holocaust, no Israeli leader wants to be remembered as the one who let Iran build a bomb and did nothing to stop it. Netanyahu has said repeatedly that he will not let Iran become a nuclear-armed state on his watch. Some Israelis say it would be better to carry out an attack, even if it's not successful, than to not take action against a state that has called for Israel's destruction.
An attack could prove counterproductive for Israel, however. It might cause only limited damage that Iran could repair relatively quickly. A strike would rally support around an unpopular Iranian regime. The Muslim world would be outraged and argue that Israel and its allies in the West have double standards by allowing Israel to hold an undeclared nuclear arsenal.
"If you don't have confidence you can go in and do something significant — you go in and you fail — that's the worst possible outcome," Carafano says.
2. The point of no return? Israel thinks Iran will soon have all the components to build a bomb, even if it hasn't actually done so. And Israelis say it's critical to act before Iran gets a weapon.
"Dealing with a nuclearized Iran will be far more complex, far more dangerous and far more costly in blood and money than stopping it today," Barak said last week. "In other words, those who say 'later' may find that later is too late."
On the other hand, the U.S. still wants to pursue a diplomatic solution and believes sanctions and other forms of pressure are beginning to bite.
"I personally don't think Israel is going to attack Iran in the foreseeable future," says Haleh Esfandiari, director of the Middle East program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. "They see that the sanctions are working and Iran has been isolated or is in the process of being isolated even more."
She notes that the Iranian currency has fallen sharply, contributing to a long list of economic woes. Sanctions have never been tougher. The U.S. has been taking aim at Iran's central bank to make it more difficult for Iran to sell oil abroad. The European Union recently banned the import of Iranian oil, though that won't take full effect until July.
3. The U.S. presidential election could favor Israeli action this year. If Israel is concerned about U.S. opposition to a strike, it may seek to mute any criticism by attacking before the U.S. presidential vote in November. Both Republicans and Democrats express unwavering support for Israel's security. It would be extremely difficult for President Obama or his Republican rival to condemn Israel during the heat of a campaign and over a matter Israel considers of paramount importance.
Meanwhile, the Obama administration has made clear it does not want to be drawn into new military entanglements in the region. The final U.S. troops left Iraq in December, and the U.S. is on a path to pull out of Afghanistan in 2014.
"Any kind of additional military activity inside the Gulf is disruptive and has a big effect on us," Obama told NBC in an interview this week. "It could have a big effect on oil prices. We've still got troops in Afghanistan, which borders Iran."
4. Israel has succeeded before and believes it can again. In 1981, Israel bombed Iraq's main nuclear plant, and in 2007, it destroyed a Syrian nuclear reactor. In both instances, the attacks were great successes from Israel's perspective. Israel caught both countries by surprise and safely brought home all its pilots and planes. Neither Iraq nor Syria retaliated.
Yet this time could be very different. Iran learned from those attacks. Its nuclear facilities are spread around the country, with some built deep underground. The nonstop debate has eliminated any element of surprise Israel would want in carrying out a strike.
And Israel's aircraft have limited range. They would require refueling in the air and would have to fly over hostile territory such as Saudi Arabia or Iraq before reaching Iran. Even if the attack goes as planned, most analysts estimate that Israel would only be able to set back Iran's nuclear program by a few years at most.
5. Iran is unlikely to voluntarily halt its nuclear program. Israel argues that Iran has so far withstood diplomatic pressure, economic sanctions, a sophisticated computer virus and the killings of several nuclear scientists. Despite this price, Iran remains defiant and has not engaged in serious negotiations in years. In Israel's view, only military action can deliver a decisive blow.
But judging the exact status of Iran's nuclear program has long been a mystery. Israel has been raising warnings since the 1990s, yet the Iranians have been plagued by technical problems and delays.
Iran's political scene is deeply unsettled with multiple factions jockeying for power. President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad completes his second and final term next year, and it's unclear who will succeed him in the 2013 presidential election. The 2009 election, widely judged as fraudulent, touched off widespread protests and offered a vivid demonstration of discontent, particularly among the young.
So where does this leave things? No one seems to know for sure.
"Do we know all of the dynamics inside of Iran? Absolutely not," Obama said. "Iran itself is a lot more divided now than it was. Knowing who is making decisions at any given time inside of Iran is tough."
Alan Greenblatt contributed to this report.
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