The guessing game continues.  Will Israel act unilaterally and strike a military blow against Iran’s nuclear production facilities — perhaps in the next few weeks, and before the November elections in the U.S.?  Despite mounting skepticism about the wisdom and efficacy of such a move in Israel’s own military and intelligence community — and polls highlighting that a large majority of Israelis oppose such a strike — the jury remains out. Many who counsel strongly against such a strike also maintain that Iran must not be permitted to acquire nuclear weapons.  But they believe either that now is not the time, or that Israel’s military, acting alone, would not inflict damage sufficiently serious to justify the repercussions of the attack – including both dire diplomatic and counter-attack consequences.  Hence, they opine that if military action is needed to stymie Iran’s nuclear weaponization, it should be the U.S., with or without other international players, that leads the assault.

In support of this view, they cite President Obama’s vow to ensure that Iran is prevented from developing the bomb.  While the Administration insists that ratcheted-up sanctions – and diplomacy – need more time to work, the President has repeatedly announced that all options are on the table, and that “containment” of a nuclear Iran is not acceptable.  Candidate Romney has been even more strident in his rejection of an Iranian bomb. 

Hence – assuming Israel doesn’t act unilaterally – the U.S. could face the real possibility a failure of sanctions and diplomacy, coupled with clear evidence of an Iranian move to weaponize.  U.S. leadership will need to consider what to do should that unhappy circumstance materialize.  Is military attack – essentially war on Iran – the unavoidable choice? 

Perhaps it is, but before the U.S. ventures into that minefield, our leaders – whoever they might be if and when we reach a decision-point — need to assess the respective risks and rewards of all reasonable options.  The potential dangers of a nuclear Iran have been well-catalogued, foremost among them the existential threat to Israel and further de-stabilization of the Middle East, including the threat of uncontrolled proliferation and a new and perilous arms race among the various regional players. 

Of course, launching a pre-emptive military assault is also fraught with peril.  It could well play into the hands of the current regime: setting back its weaponization program, but only temporarily, providing Iran with clearer justification for a bomb, causing certain civilian casualties, likely galvanizing Iranian nationalist sentiment otherwise hostile to Ahmadinejad and the ayatollahs.  Military and terrorist counter-attacks would result in loss of life in Israel and casualties for American military personnel and civilians. The price of oil would inevitably spike, potentially throwing the world economy into a nosedive.  Anti-American and anti-Israel sentiment would be inflamed throughout much of the Muslim world and beyond, and a new spate of global anti-Semitism likely ignited.  These are relatively certain – and not trifling — consequences.

To be clear: a nuclear Iran would threaten and de-stabilize the region, dangerously and unpredictably.  It’s an outcome sanctions and diplomacy are designed to avoid.  But if these methods don’t work, it’s also an outcome that a military option would postpone, but not with any certainty prevent.  Indeed, a pre-emptive military strike might increase the chances that if and when Iran subsequently reached weaponized status, it would use the weapon in reprisal.  Given this possibility, coupled with the predictable and very high costs of military intervention, it may be that tolerating an Iran with a weapon — that is, “containing” it, by making clear that if it uses the weapon, its civilization will effectively be destroyed – is the more acceptable lesser-of-two-evils strategy.  U.S. military experts who have expressed this view include General James E. Cartwright, USMC (Ret.) and Admiral William J. Fallon, USN (Ret.), along with U.S. intelligence experts like Paul Pillar (28-year CIA veteran and National Intelligence Officer for the Near East and South Asia from 2001-2005).  According to Pillar, in the March-April Washington Monthly: “Fears of a bomb in Tehran’s hands are overhyped, and a war to prevent it would be a disaster.”

Also illuminating: both the former and current heads of Mossad have opined that the threat a nuclear Iran would pose to Israel is exaggerated.  A December 29, 2011 article in Haaretz, covering a talk Mossad chief Tamir Pardo gave to 100 Israeli ambassadors, noted: “According to three ambassadors present at the briefing, the intelligence chief said that Israel was using various means to foil Iran’s nuclear program and would continue to do so, but if Iran actually obtained nuclear weapons, it would not mean the destruction of the State of Israel.” Similarly, as reported in Israel Hayom on November 4, 2011, former Mossad chief Ephraim Halevy remarked: “We should worry about a nuclear Iran, but there is a difference between worrying and existential threat.”  In contrast to the threat posed by Iran with a bomb, Halevy claimed “the real existential threat to Israel comes from within, from religious extremism and fanaticism. These pose a greater danger to Israel than Ahmadinejad.”  And former Israeli intelligence chief Uri Saguy told Haaretz in August that while he doesn’t take the Iranian threat lightly, he’s “outraged by the cheapness of the use of the term ‘existential threat,’” and views comparisons to the Holocaust as derived not from rational analysis but from “an ideological school of thought.”

Parenthetically, it’s worth noting the results of the July 2012 “Peace Index” poll conducted by The Israel Democracy Institute at Tel Aviv University.  The survey found that 60% of the Israeli public – including majorities across the political spectrum — have concluded that “Israel should accept the fact that it apparently will be impossible to prevent Iran from nuclearizing, and accordingly, Israel should formulate a new defense strategy based on the assumption that it will not be the only nuclear power in the region.”

To what conclusion does all this lead?  Presumably, first, that sanctions and diplomacy should continue intensively, toward the goal of convincing Iran’s ruling group that it’s in their best interest to desist from developing a nuclear weapon.  Second, that if these measures fail to bear fruit, a military strike against Iran should not be deemed a foregone conclusion; the alternatives need to be amply explored and weighed.  A weaponized but contained Iran, while far less desirable than a non-nuclear Iran, might well be preferable to a state of war and its aftermath, with all they entail.  At a minimum, this option can’t responsibly be dismissed out of hand.

Meanwhile, the only acceptable long view must include a peace agreement between the Israelis, Palestinians, and the broader Arab world, along the familiar lines of the Clinton parameters, the Geneva Accord, and the Arab (and Israeli) Peace Initiatives, coupled with at least a mutual non-aggression deal with Iran.  As Maj. Gen. Saguy puts it: “If we had peace accords today with the Arab countries and with the Palestinians, what exactly would the Iranians’ conflict with us be about?”  A peace settlement could, and should, be followed by an internationally enforced de-nuclearization pact for the whole region. 

Absent strategies designed to achieve those outcomes, the dream of long-term peace and security in the region – and one free from threats of nuclear annihilation — will likely continue to prove illusory.