Another War in the Middle East?

Why Israel and the U.S. must not launch a preventive strike against Iran

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Oliver Munday and Jason Arias for TIME

President Obama has been trying to cool down the war fever that suddenly gripped Washington early this month. But Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's visit and the flurry of statements surrounding it have created a dangerous dynamic. It is easy to see how things move toward war. It is difficult to see how they don't.

The pressure is building on Iran, but there are no serious discussions of negotiated outcomes. Israel has been ever more explicit in saying it may launch an attack by summer. Obama has amped up his threats of military strikes too, limiting his room to maneuver. And Republican presidential candidates will instantly denounce any negotiated solution--no matter how comprehensive the inspections it requires--as a sellout.

So either Iran suddenly and completely surrenders--and when have countries done that under foreign pressure?--or Israel will strike. And the Israeli government knows that the window presented by the U.S. political season is closing. If it were to strike between now and November, it would be assured of unqualified support from Washington. After November, the American response becomes less predictable. The clock is ticking.

Before we set out on a path to another Middle East war, let's remember some facts. First, Iran does not have nuclear weapons. And the evidence is ambiguous as to whether it has decided to make them. The U.S. intelligence community has twice concluded that there is no evidence that Iran has made a decision to build a nuclear weapon. London's International Institute for Strategic Studies released a report in February that concurred. On the other hand, the International Atomic Energy Agency recently suggested that Iran could be working on some military aspects of a program.

What if Iran does manage to develop a couple of crude nukes in several years? Obama says a nuclear Iran would set off an arms race in the Middle East. But a nuclear North Korea has not led the two countries directly threatened by its weapons--South Korea and Japan--to go nuclear. Saudi Arabia and Egypt did not go nuclear in response to Israel's developing a large and robust arsenal of nuclear weapons. After all, Egypt has gone to war with Israel three times. By contrast, it has not been in a conflict with Iran. Were the U.S. to provide security guarantees to Iran's neighbors, as Hillary Clinton has proposed, it is highly unlikely that any of them would go nuclear.

Obama has explained that a nuclear Iran would be a problem like India and Pakistan with their nuclear weapons. But India and Pakistan went to war three times in 30 years before they had nuclear weapons. Since they went nuclear, they have been restrained and have not fought a war in 40 years. That case shows the stabilizing, not destabilizing, effects of deterrence. If Israel genuinely believes that deterrence doesn't work in the Middle East, why does it have a large nuclear arsenal if not to deter its enemies?

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