Jeane Kirkpatrick, who had been a close friend of mine, revealed to me what she thought was one of the most difficult days of her professional life. That was when she was U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, and President Ronald Reagan had just learned of the secret operation Israel had conducted to bomb Iraq’s nuclear reactor in Osirak on June 7, 1981. In those days, the United States was trying to work with Iraq against Iran. She was instructed by Reagan to give a speech condemning Israel’s actions “in no uncertain terms.” She followed his instructions and likened the attack to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.
The U.N. Security Council then voted unanimously to censure Israel.
Many years later, she told me, when the United States entered the 1991 Persian Gulf War, and again, in the war against Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein in 2003, she had wished she could eat her words.
America has what I like to call “two liquid assets”—the Atlantic Ocean to our east and the Pacific Ocean to our west—and two benign neighbors on our northern and southern borders. Until now, that has helped to keep the continental United States relatively safe, with the sole exception of Sept. 11, 2001.
We have periods of foreign-policy entanglements, fluctuating with periods of retrenchment and isolationism. After our long wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the United States is in no mood for further quagmires. And no one can blame us.
However, Israel is in no such position. A quote generally attributed to former Prime Minister Golda Meir is: “We cannot afford to make a single mistake.” Nor can they afford the luxury of “waiting it out” while Iran has accelerated its nuclear program to near breakout.
As of last week, breakout time was a matter of perhaps two to three months.
Then a series of mysterious, clandestine attacks began to occur.
No one knows for sure who is behind the spate of explosions at nuclear facilities throughout Iran, but we know that the mullahs are not happy about it.
This sequence began on June 26 with a tremendous explosion lit up the skies at the Parchin military base. The site housed a missile factory that also designs nuclear warheads in an intricate web of underground tunnels and nuclear facilities.
On June 30, a gas leak was suspected to be the cause of an explosion in a medical clinic in Tehran, killing 19 and injuring six.
On July 2, an explosion destroyed the new underground centrifuge facility in Natanz, about 50 miles south of Tehran, where more advanced centrifuge machines had been intended to be built there. A specified number of advanced centrifuges were part of the 2015 nuclear deal the Obama administration had inked with Iran, though the Iranian regime has far exceeded their production.
On July 4, a fire broke out at the Zergan power plant in the city of Ahvaz in southwestern Tehran.
On July 9, an explosion rocked several office buildings in western Tehran, severely damaging one that was home to several underground chemical-production facilities, as well as a military production site.
On July 11, an explosion took place in northern Tehran in a two-story building containing gas cylinders.
On July 13, another explosion was reported in a gas-condensation plant in easterrn Tehran.
And as I write, another mysterious fire was discovered on three ships at the Iranian port of Bushehr.
In typical Iranian fashion, the government at first denied that there was a problem or even an obvious pattern. Its leaders went as far as to quote a former mayor of Garmdareh as saying that Saturday’s explosion was at “a factory making gas cylinders,” only to later admit that that mayor has been dead.
Why is this happening now?
There are two reasons. According to David Albright, founder and president of the Instituter for Sconce and International Security, “the Iranians had become extremely close to nuclear breakout, perhaps two to three months away, and these incidents might have set them back a year or perhaps even years.”
For America, it remains a theoretical issue, although it shouldn’t be. Iran is working on intercontinental ballistic missiles, and it doesn’t need those missiles to reach Tel Aviv. Hezbollah has developed a hub right under our noses in the Western hemisphere—in Venezuela.
For Israel, the issue is an existential one.
The Israelis (or whoever might be responsible) are correct to be worried—and to know that there’s no time like the present. The U.S. presidential elections are almost four months away with no guarantees of a Trump victory. Nor are there guarantees that a Biden presidency would give them “the green light” for such attacks.
It’s true that the Obama administration did help participate, together with the Israelis, in Stuxnet—that malicious computer “worm” that targeted the computers of the Iranian nuclear program (although neither of them would openly admit it).
However, it is also true that the vast majority of Democrats tends to believe that negotiations are the penultimate objective of foreign policy. As one Democratic congressional staffer told me, “As long as they are in the room, talking, they are not on the battlefield, fighting.”
That argument might hold some water in certain cases.
However, we have also learned from our sorry experience with the nuclear deal that the Iranians are unsurpassed as “bad faith” negotiators.
In the meantime, Israel (or whoever is responsible) must do what it must do to survive. In this era of American foreign-policy retrenchment and isolationism, they might have to ultimately go it alone.
Perhaps America, Europe and the Sunni Arab nations will once again vote to censure Israel at the United Nations.
It seems, however, that only the plucky Jewish state is the one member in the community of nations that has the courage to do what has to be done against the fierce Iranian menace.
And I would not hold my breath for the world to say thank you.
Sarah N. Stern is founder and president of the Endowment for Middle East Truth (EMET), a pro-Israel and pro-American think tank and policy institute in Washington, D.C.