Iran in the cross-hairs

Something sinister is in the air.

If the international community’s collision course with Tehran leads to harsh sanctions meant to halt its nuclear program, the spring and summer months will be especially sensitive. It would be impossible to rule out a scenario in which the increasing tension leads to all-out open war. Tehran and Jerusalem regularly exchange threatening messages via various channels, but with Beirut, Gaza and Damascus in the middle, the situation is liable to get out of control.

At a time when Iran is deliberately inflaming the situation, the U.S. is seeking to cool things down. Interestingly and strangely enough, the two rivals seem to have a similar read on Israel’s current role in the drama. Both believe Israel could lose patience and implement its policy of “a leadership gone mad” that former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert took great pride in during the Second Lebanon War and Operation Cast Lead in Gaza. This belief serves as the backdrop for Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s remarks implying that Israel is readying for war (which Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has steadfastly denied) and for Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah’s threats to attack strategic infrastructure in Israel.

The possibility of unleashing Israel’s “bull in a china shop” approach is also behind the recent flurry of visits from senior American officials, including the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Adm. Michael Mullen, and U.S. Vice President Joe Biden, who arrives next week. The visits are intended to explain to the Netanyahu government why an attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities is unwanted at the moment and also to clarify what Israel seeks in return for sitting quietly and allowing the Obama administration to build an international coalition to impose sanctions on Iran.

Mullen landed here at the beginning of the week – on the hottest day of Israel’s winter – with an unambiguous warning. His visit opened with a brief press conference at the U.S. embassy in Tel Aviv, to which journalists were summoned on short notice, and that was characterized by something of a culture clash. Some of the Israeli journalists showed up in T-shirts, and Mullen seemed a bit surprised by the casual atmosphere and by the strident tone of the questions.

Despite this, he stuck to the message he was sent here to convey: that he is concerned by the “unexpected consequences” of an Israeli attack on Iran. Mullen’s remarks, made in public even before his first meeting with his Israeli hosts, immediately dictated the tone of Israeli media would adopt to cover his visit.

In recent weeks, especially since its announcement that it has begun production of 20-percent-enriched uranium, Iran has not even bothered to claim its nuclear program is intended for peaceful means, as it had in the past. Iran’s true intentions are clear to everyone from Washington to London to Beijing. China, however, is more concerned about its oil supply than the Iranian threat, and sees its refusal to impose sanctions as an effective means of challenging U.S. power.
It’s possible the concern over an Israeli strike has come too soon. Israel will only attack as a last resort. But if Iran continues its enrichment and the U.S. fails to consolidate sanctions, or if the sanctions are ineffective down the line, the military option becomes more relevant. In this case, Israel also has more legitimacy to act in self-defense and cannot be blamed for the failure of diplomacy.

This week, Nasrallah broadcast another message from his bunker and, for the first time, mentioned the “axis of evil.” He warned of a four-pronged attack against Israel by Iran, Syria, Hezbollah and Hamas ? which those parties have avoided outlining explicitly until now in an effort to maintain the appearance of independence. At the same time, Nasrallah presented Hezbollah’s planned response to Israel’s “Dahiya doctrine” (a term used to describe a conventional army targeting civilian infrastructure used by terrorists) by saying his group would destroy Ben-Gurion International Airport and attack Tel Aviv.