History sometimes repeats itself in the Middle East, but not always. Twice before, Israel has attacked Arab nuclear reactors before they were loaded with the fuel rods that could have produced plutonium Pu 239 for an atomic bomb. Both strikes against Iraq's Osirak reactor in 1981 and Syria's North Korean-built reactor in 2007 were surprise attacks. In neither case did Israel receive Washington's blessing. In the case of Iraq, Israel didn't even warn its close friend, Ronald Reagan, in advance.
This pattern has led two former Bush administration officials – John Bolton and Michael Anton -- and a very well-connected journalist to warn that Israel might attack Iran's nuclear installations soon if sanctions fail and Washington does not strike.
Jeffrey Goldberg argues in the Atlantic that Israelis think such a determination is likely to be made by spring of 2011. Bolton added fuel to the nuclear fire this week, so to speak, by arguing that if Israel does not strike before Russia is scheduled to load nuclear fuel rods at Iran's nuclear reactor at Bushehr this Saturday, it will lose the chance to stop Bushehr. Attacking a nuclear plant once it has gone "critical," warns Anton, would risk the release of a radioactive plume that might kill civilians and poison surrounding areas, causing what he calls in what is surely the week's understatement "a P.R. uproar."
No one really knows what Israel's military and political elite or President Obama, for that matter, intends to do about Iran next year, after sanctions have a chance to bite.
Avner Cohen, whose new book "The Worst Kept Secret: Israel's Bargain with the Bomb," is being published in October, tells me that "any pretense to predict or even to assess the likelihood of war against Iran is really the pretense of knowing something we truly do not know." He fears, as I do, that a confrontation with Iran might start inadvertently, over a non-nuclear issue.
But I also doubt that Israel is likely to move against Bushehr before it goes critical -- or anytime soon, for that matter.
First, and not foremost, Israel and America are both far more concerned about Iran's nuclear enrichment facilities than the Bushehr reactor. Why? Because Moscow is not only supplying, but charged with removing the spent, or used fuel rods at Bushehr and getting them out of Iran. This agreement, plus monitoring by the International Atomic Energy Agency, the nuclear watchdog, gives some modest assurance that the reactor's nuclear fuel won't be secretly diverted to make a bomb.
Also, as Anton notes, even if Iran manages to divert some spent fuel, it's not clear Teheran has the technology, or the capability, to extract plutonium from spent reactor fuel rods for a bomb.
No, this is not perfect. Russia's behavior, too, leaves much ground for suspicion. But altogether, it suggests that Bushehr is not as grave a danger as Iran's dogged determination to develop an independent fuel cycle with a nuclear enrichment capability at existing and planned new facilities, despite more than a dozen United Nations Security Council resolutions warning it not to do so.
For better or worse, the Obama administration does not see the Bushehr reactor as a grave proliferation risk. In fact, as The Wall Street Journal reported last week, the administration agreed not to oppose Russian help to Bushehr to help secure Russia's vote for the latest round of U.N. sanctions in June.
Second, attacking Iranian nuclear facilities is obviously a far tougher military challenge – to say nothing of the likely political ramifications -- than demolishing a single nuclear reactor in Iraq or Syria. Iran's facilities, as we have been repeatedly told, are widely dispersed, buried, and hidden.
Third, Iran has the ability to strike back – using its proxy, Hezbollah to Israel's north, and Iranian-assisted Hamas in Gaza, to Israel's south. Nor would such retaliation likely be directed solely at Israel. Hezbollah has long tentacles and has previously struck in South America, Europe, and even Egypt. As American intelligence agencies have also warned, it also has a network of agents and supporters inside the United States.
Fourth, the Obama administration thinks that its sanctions, though nowhere nearly as tough as those imposed against Iraq, are already hurting Iran. Even Iranian economists complain that sanctions are making it more expensive and difficult for Iran to do business abroad, modernize its nuclear and oil sectors, and attract foreign investment. No one knows, however, whether sanctions will bite sufficiently to change Iranian behavior.
Fifth, Israeli leaders still suspect that Washington will strike Iran so that it doesn't have to, when and if it becomes clear that Iran is not changing its nuclear policies. This may be a false hope. Many Obama officials agree with Robert Kaplan, who argues, also in The Atlantic, that containing a nuclear Iran is the least-bad of all the bad policy options available.
Finally, putting aside the wisdom (or dangerous folly) of such a military strike, conservatives and liberals alike tend to agree, Israeli military action against Iran before Washington concludes that its sanctions policy is not working IS likely to poison already tense U.S.-Israel relations, which as John Bolton acknowledges, "are more strained now than at any time since the 1956."
A rupture with the U.S. may not be an existential threat. But as Anton writes, "it would be dire enough that it's not worth risking unless the consequences of inaction truly are existential. That's a hard and unenviable call to have to make."
For all these reasons, history may not repeat itself in the Middle East. Israel may not strike Iran as it did Iraq and Syria.
But other indicators suggest an increasingly perilous Middle East, with or without such Israeli military action. The Arab-Israeli peace process appears deadlocked. America's withdrawal from Iraq and its losses so far in Afghanistan create the perception throughout the region, rightly or wrongly, of American weakness and exhaustion.
Israel is being subjected to a fierce campaign to delegitimize its right to exist.
And Iran, after the failure of its Green Revolution, is in ever more dangerous hands. As Gary Sick, whose website hosts a fierce debate about Gulf policy, wrote recently, Iran increasingly resembles "the corporatist states of southern and eastern Europe in the 1920's and 1930's that we call fascist."
Yes, things do change in the Middle East, but as Atlantic editor James Bennet warned in the introduction to his dueling articles on what to do about Iran, "in fits and starts," and since the collapse of the Oslo peace talks over a decade ago, not for the better.