Nuclear Options

“I swear I believe Armageddon is near,” Ronald Reagan confided to his diary on June 7, 1981. He had just learned that the Israelis had bombed an Iraqi nuclear reactor at Osirak.

Rather than consult with the Americans in advance, Prime Minister Menachem Begin had informed the United States only “after the fact,” Reagan noted tersely, and was insisting that “the plant was preparing to produce nuclear weapons for use on Israel.” Begin felt he couldn’t risk waiting until the French, who had sold Iraq the reactor, actually shipped uranium to power it, “because of the radiation that would be loosed over Baghdad.”

“I can understand his fear but feel he took the wrong option,” Reagan wrote. “He should have told us & the French, we could have done something to remove the threat.”

But there was no question of condemning the assault. “We are not turning on Israel—that would be an invitation for the Arabs to attack,” Reagan continued. “It’s time to raise H--l world wide for a settlement of the ‘middle-east’ problem. What has happened is the result of fear & suspicion on both sides. We need a real push for a solid peace.”

Armageddon did not arrive, of course, and neither did peace. A few months later, assassins gunned down President Anwar Sadat of Egypt. (Sadat, who led the 1973 war against Israel, died because he’d had the courage, in 1979, to sign a peace treaty—with Begin, as it happens.) Then, the following June, Israel reacted to the shooting of one of its diplomats in London by invading Lebanon. In early August, Israel unleashed such a brutal bombardment that Reagan lost his cool with Begin. “I was angry,” he wrote. “I told him it had to stop or our entire future relationship was endangered. I used the word holocaust deliberately & said the symbol of his war was becoming a picture of a 7 month old baby with its arms blown off.”

Like so much of the drama in the Middle East, it all sounds a bit familiar: Israel, beset by enemies, striking out preemptively; the United States supporting Israel, but frustrated by the measures Israel deems necessary to ensure its security; the word holocaust deployed, maybe a little too casually; Armageddon pacing in the wings; peace in the role of Godot.

But things do change in the Middle East: in fits and starts, the pattern, since the collapse of the Oslo peace talks more than 10 years ago, has been for them to get worse.

It is hard to imagine any Israeli prime minister accepting the responsibility, in the sweep of Jewish history, of standing by while a sworn regional enemy devises nuclear weapons. As Jeffrey Goldberg reports in our cover story, this prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, intends to act against Iran if sanctions fail and the United States does not strike. As Iran approaches the nuclear threshold, will it be in the American interest to act, or to press the Israelis to stand down, or to let the Israelis attack first, and then act later if necessary? Those are among the questions looming for President Obama and his advisers. Every answer is bad. Robert D. Kaplan argues in this issue that containing a nuclear Iran is the least-bad option. Even so, he warns, if we go down that path, we will still be faced with the prospect of fighting limited wars, possibly against a nuclear opponent.

An American administration that was grappling seriously with these options would be doing everything possible, short of war, to curb Iran’s nuclear ambitions, if only to be able to credibly request world support for eventual military action. It would also be pushing very hard for progress toward Middle East peace. It might, for example, be seeking a freeze on settlement construction, recognizing that it is in Israel’s interest to make painful concessions in advance of anyone’s act of regional war.

The Obama administration, in other words, shows signs of preparing—even raising some “H--l”—to contain the coming turbulence, and to possibly wrest some gains from it. But the Americans can do only so much. It will be up to the Israelis, the Palestinians, the Iranians, and their neighbors to show that, like Begin and Sadat, they can still take chances, not just on Armageddon, but on peace.