Is an Israeli attack on Iran in the offing? Recent weeks have been rife with renewed speculation about the possibility of a military strike on Iran's nuclear program. Most famously, Washington Post columnist David Ignatius reported recently that no less senior an official than Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta thinks Israel could bomb Iran's nuclear facilities by this summer.
That more and more people, both inside government and outside of it, are raising that possibility is a telling indicator of growing international concern over Iran's nuclear ambitions - and the lengths to which it might be necessary to go in order to stop them. It also is a testament to the West's strategic failure to prevent a nuclear Iran. For, while rhetoric about serious sanctions against the Islamic republic has reverberated for years, real economic warfare capable of crippling the regime in Tehran has materialized only very recently.
Since the start of the year, the United States and its allies have passed a flurry of new sanctions against the Islamic republic. Those include U.S. penalties against Iran's Central Bank, a European ban on future imports of Iranian oil and, most recently, massive multilateral pressure to further proscribe transactions by Iranian financial institutions.
These steps, moreover, seem to be working. In recent weeks, as sanctions have begun to bite, the Iranian rial has plummeted, Iran has begun to experience serious problems paying for food imports, and it has begun switching to barter in its dealings with foreign suppliers such as Malaysia and India. Inflation is rising, too, thanks to sanctions, and now officially stands at about 21 percent and rising. (Unofficial tallies, meanwhile, put the number much, much higher.)
But so far, this pressure has not succeeded in spurring a serious strategic rethinking in Tehran. Despite expanding fiscal pain and mounting domestic discontent, Iran's ayatollahs show no signs of backing away from their nuclear endeavor. To the contrary, new technological advances unveiled in recent days by Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad provide a telling indicator that the Iranian regime remains undeterred in its efforts to get the bomb - and is making significant progress toward it.
That leaves the United States and its allies on the horns of a familiar strategic dilemma. During the 2008 presidential cycle, then-candidate Barack Obama's Republican counterpart, Sen. John McCain, famously noted that the only thing worse than the idea of bombing Iran was the prospect of a nuclear Islamic republic.
That is still the basic strategic choice confronting the West. Over the past three years, the Obama administration has been desperately attempting to avoid it - first through "engagement," then stern diplomacy and, finally, financial sanctions. None of those measures has succeeded in stalling Iran's nuclear drive. And as Tehran gets closer to crossing the nuclear Rubicon, the understanding that more serious measures might be needed has gained ground steadily.
Chances are, however, it won't be the United States that implements them. Politically, the Obama administration is fast turning the page on the Middle East. Recent months have seen the administration "pivot" toward Asia in pursuit of much-needed foreign-policy victories. America's strategic footprint in the region, too, is fast receding. With the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq complete, Washington shows little interest in the type of extended political and economic engagement necessary to secure our long-term interests there. The same situation is playing out in Afghanistan, where Mr. Panetta's recent revelation that the U.S. plans to depart Afghanistan in 2013, a full year ahead of schedule, has sent fatigued coalition allies scrambling for the exits. Against this backdrop, repeated pledges by White House officials that "all options are on the table" in dealing with Iran's nuclear ambitions ring hollow to everyone - and to the Iranians most of all.
That leaves Israel. For years, officials in Jerusalem have cautioned that Iran's nuclear ambitions and its expanding strategic arsenal make it a global - rather than local - problem. For just as long, they have opted to take a back seat to the West, hopeful that a multilateral consensus to seriously confront Iran would emerge. Such a consensus, however, has been exceedingly slow in coming, and today - while they continue to hold out hope that sanctions might cause Iran to reverse its current destructive course - they clearly are contemplating other options.
That they have been forced to do so is a reflection of the flaws in our approach to Iran, which relied on diplomacy too heavily and for too long and embraced serious economic pressure far too late. That an Israeli strike on Iran is an increasing probability is a product of the West's failure to lead on one of the most pressing strategic challenges of our time.