Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu thinks he has found an ingenious way of dealing with Iran’s programme for nuclear weapons: if Israel launches an air attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities before the election, President Obama will have no choice but to support him for fear of losing the Jewish vote in various key areas.
He might also pick up votes from those who always like to see a hawk in the White House — the John Wayne syndrome.
American popular opinion, it must be said, shows no sign of supporting yet another war in the Middle East.
Any attack by Israel on Iran would be very hazardous militarily. The targeted installations are deep underground, the distance between the two countries is immense, and it poses the usual problem about fighting far from home against vigorously defended targets.
The retaliation and repercussions of such an attack could be appalling, whatever President Obama might say, if the shooting begins.
There is no chance of a neat, brief surgical strike, as some think, leaving Iran’s forces disabled and the country too weakened by decades of sanctions to be a top power in the Gulf.
Israel’s defence minister, Ehud Barak, cheerfully argues that Iranian retaliation would produce minimum casualties in Israel.
In reality, Iran would retaliate against Israel on all fronts, including through Hezbollah in the Lebanon, once more plunging that country into conflict.
If Washington actually gave Israel any support for having attacked Iran, then America and its allies would be dragged into an ever-widening conflict, certainly including the U.S. forces in Afghanistan and those who remain in Iraq.
The danger this poses for oil supplies and prices is all too plain, especially for a Western world faced with a severe recession.
At one level, Iran could close the Straits of Hormuz, through which 40 per cent of the world’s oil tankers pass.
Or, as a senior Iranian general put it, it would allow through only tankers of nations that shared Iran’s interests. That would rule out much of the Western world, regularly tightening the sanctions programme against Iran that has already lasted decades.
The Americans may have its Fifth and Sixth Fleets patrolling the Gulf, which may suggest immense and even glamorous power, but in reality they are as useless as a series of Potemkin villages.
The military initiative would pass to Iran, which needs only its small craft to close the straits.
Netanyahu and his friends, still arguing with the doubters, may like to think that Israel would be seen as at last dealing with Iran’s nuclear ambitions.
But the U.S. military says such an action could only delay — not prevent — Iran shouldering its way into the world nuclear club.
Iran is deeply split today with a majority of voters wanting to end clerical rule. But nothing would unite them more than an external attack.
President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad may even see an attack as usefully prolonging his own position — just as Netanyahu does in Israel. Historians will note the dangerous symmetry of the two leaders’ positions.
Hope of avoiding a cataclysm turns on Netanyahu being dissuaded from his plan by the hostility in the Israeli press and by nagging doubts among colleagues.
In Washington itself, the advice to Obama from the State Department and the military is plain: that Netanyahu’s plans should have no U.S. support. And, as already noted, a clear majority of American voters have no appetite for new military adventures in the Middle East.
Obama must do more than wait and see. He should make a public declaration against military action by Israel before this possible event, not afterwards. We need a pre-emptive declaration before any pre-emptive war.
Britain, for its part, at all costs must avoid waiting to see what lead it gets from the U.S. Our role as the Americans’ lickspittle involved us in Iraq and Afghanistan. Both have had the effect of convincing many Muslims that we are part of a Western war against Islam and thus a logical target for terrorism.
Foreign Secretary William Hague backed both disasters. Now he should make it abundantly clear we will in no way, shape or form, support American backing for an Israeli attack.
In all this, we assume that Iran must be prevented from becoming a nuclear power. But this is arguable.
If Israel ceased to be the region’s only nuclear power, as it has been for 40 years, the way may be opened to greater, not less, stability.
India and Pakistan, both nuclear powers, may hate each other, but no one seriously fears that either side will use the bomb. The rules of nuclear balance still work.
Israel’s attacks on Iraq in 1981 and Syria in 2007 were against the possible development of nuclear power. Neither contributed in any way to stability in the Middle East, any more than the current sanctions do.
A nuclear Iran, however limited its arsenal, might well feel that its new status would make it a proper diplomatic power, not an outcast. We should not ignore this possibility.