War Talk on Iran Stirs Deep Concern

As this week’s St. Louis Jewish Light goes to press, alarming news was breaking that Iran’s Revolutionary Guards test-fired nine medium and long-range missiles, including one with a 1,200-mile range. Iranian officials pointedly announced the test-firings and went out of their way to state that the advanced long-range Sahab missile could hit targets in Israel and throughout the Middle East. Only weeks after a major Israeli military exercise over Greece and the Mediterranean was widely interpreted as a “dry run” for a potential Israeli attack on Iranian nuclear facilities, the test firings ratcheted up tensions in the already volatile Middle East.

Even before the latest developments, speculation has been widespread and increasing in the general and Jewish media about a possible “imminent” Israeli strike on suspected nuclear facilities in Iran. The tough talk, test firings and other developments pointing toward a possible war are stirring deep concerns in the Middle East, in the U.S. and worldwide.

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“Even if the tough talk between Israel and Iran never comes to blows, it is already hitting consumers where it hurts — at the gas pump,” Ron Kampeas wrote last week for the JTA (Jewish Telegraphic Agency), adding, “Experts say that talk of an Israeli strike on Iran is a key part of what’s unsettling already volatile oil markets.”

Speculation that Israel might strike at Iran has escalated sharply in recent weeks. At the recent Annual Conference of the American Jewish Press Association, Middle East experts David Makovsky and Yossi Klein Halevi discussed the theory that Israel might strike Iran during the “diplomatic dead zone,” as they quoted Kampeas, between the U.S. presidential election Nov. 7 and the inauguration Jan. 20. A major Israeli Air Force exercise over the Mediterranean near Greece was widely interepreted as either a warning to Iran that Israel was serious about taking action if diplomacy fails or a dress rehearsal for an attack.

Adding fuel to the speculation is the U.S. State Department’s recent confirmation that Israel had destroyed a suspected nuclear weapons facility in Syria in September 2007. That facility was believed to have been staffed by advisers from North Korea, who are allegedly providing technological know-how to the Syrians. The air strike was apparently a success, as the single facility was completely destroyed, but it wasn’t a first. In 1981, an Israeli air strike destroyed the Iraqi nuclear weapons plant at Osirak, a move which former Israeli Prime Ministers Ehud Barak and Benjamin Netanyahu said set back Saddam Hussein’s nuclear weapons program by at least 10 years.

Among the differences between the situation in Iran and those in Iraq and Syria is that the nuclear facilities are believed to be scattered among several locations, and could not be taken out in a single air strike. The risk of failure in Iran would not only be considerably greater, but would also cause serious repercussions for the oil market and for the already war- and violence-torn Middle East.

Kampeas’ JTA report points out that “the effect on markets of attack talk likely was a factor in this week’s efforts by U.S. officials to tone down the rhetoric. (President George W.) Bush said (last) Wednesday that he had made it clear to Israel that diplomacy was still the preferrred option with Iran.”

Israel’s concerns over the possibility that Iran may obtain nuclear weapons is certainly understandable. Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has publicly and repeatedly said that Israel should be “wiped off the map” and hosted a so-called “international conference” of Holocaust deniers in Tehran. While the ultimate political power in Iran rests with the Ayatollah Sayyed Ali Khameini and other hardline mullahs, who are considered more cautious and pragmatic than the president, their rhetoric and threats are no less harsh than Ahmadinejad’s.

In addition, Great Britain, France and Germany have all failed to persuade Iran to stop its program of uranium enrichment, and Iranian officials have adamantly refused to do so despite the threat of United Nations and European Union sanctions.

Another high-risk and major war in the already explosive Middle East should be avoided if there is any possibility that diplomacy can halt Iran’s push toward nuclear weapons. We hope the U.S. — along with its allies in NATO, the European Union and the United Nations — will exhaust every opportunity to prevent the twin threats of a nuclear-armed Iran and another major war in the Middle East. We urge our readers to write to the White House, Congress and the United Nations to stress the importance of urgent action to stop Iran’s race towards nuclear madness.