To bomb or not to bomb? That is Israel's question.
In truth, neither option is particularly enticing for the Middle East's only democracy. Should it choose to attack Iran's nuclear facilities, there is a better chance of failure than success. Iran's reactors, we all know by now, are hidden deep in the ground; the chance of destroying the entirety of whatever's down there, even with a sustained, multi-day aerial bombardment, is slim, say the experts.
And even if Israeli bombs could get deep enough to take it all out (and assuming Israel knows the location of every Iranian nuke site, which is not entirely guaranteed), you can't blow up knowledge -- the Iranians would be able to rebuild, in deeper, better protected bunkers. And they're certainly determined and crazy enough to do it.
What if Israel sits back then? This also offers a bleak scenario: U.S., E.U., and UN sanctions will most likely not be enough to make Iran's leaders rethink their position -- President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad opened three new nuclear projects this week, just as a new series of sanctions took effect.
Ordinary Iranians will suffer from rising food prices, but based on the violent way it handled last year's citizen uprising, there's no indication that its religious and political leaders hold any compassion for its citizens. If Israel does not act, the end result will almost certainly be a nuclear-capable Iran headed by a group of wingnuts who believe destroying Israel will make their god happy and deliver them eternal grace.
There is, however, a third option that very few people outside Israel's peacenik community are talking about (though to my mind it isn't necessarily a lefty idea), a manouevre that would once again demonstrate Israel's determination for peace and at the same time put the pressure squarely on Iran.
It's called de-nuking.
In this scenario, Israel acknowledges its own collection of nuclear weapons and announces a willingness to get rid of the entire arsenal in exchange for an Iranian promise to stop pursuing the bomb.
How might this plan play out? The best case is Iran agrees -- its leaders save face as resentment to sanctions grows. There is now an even playing field in the Middle East. Peace talks could ensue. Perhaps more Iranians realize they now have no use for a hard-line leader and Ahmadinejad and the Ayatollahs are tossed out in an Arab Spring-style uprising.
Worst case, Iran refuses the offer, continues building its nukes, and we're back to square one. Except that Israel has earned a psychological and moral victory -- it offered peace to its most dangerous enemy whose refusal proves its demonic intentions. Israel is seen as the good guy looking for peaceful settlement -- a positive international image it lost in recent years as it fought terrorists in the Palestinian territories and Lebanon. Plus, it still has its nuclear weapons, and the firepower to bomb Iran.
The only thing Israel gives up in this scenario is admitting possession of nukes, which everyone knows anyways.
It's so crazy that it might just work.
And it leads to an even bigger set of questions: Does Israel even need nuclear weapons? Or is the bomb actually hindering the Jewish state?
Possession of nuclear weapons was supposed to be Israel's main deterrent from its neighbour-enemies' pursuit of the bomb. That hasn't worked -- Iraq and Syria both tried, and now Iran seems destined to acquire a nuclear arsenal within a few years. The only way to stop Iran at this point is to nuke it, and Israel would never do that, nor should it.
So if having the bomb is leading your enemies to get the bomb, and in the meantime you can't or won't use the bomb, why have it at all?
At this point, de-nuking is the only thing Israel hasn't tried to extricate itself from this mess. There is literally no downside, and everything to gain -- yes, it's a longshot that Iran will come on board, but it's a no-brainer that Israel wins in the court of public opinion no matter how the Iranian regime reacts, which is no small feat.
And if, as many claim, Iran's nuclear program is leading the Middle East once again to war, geopolitical goodwill may very well be an even more powerful weapon than a nuclear bomb when the showdown begins.