Last week Israeli cabinet minister Moshe Yaalon reasserted the danger of the Iranian nuclear threat, noting that a pre-emptive military strike might be necessary. Of course, such remarks have been made before, but given the steady advance of Iran’s nuclear program and the abiding menace of Iran’s president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the situation grows more urgent every day. Ahmadinejad is a holocaust denier and has gone on record as desiring that Israel be wiped off the map (or “vanish from the pages of history,” as his statement is sometimes translated).
So at what point, if ever, will a pre-emptive strike against Iran justifiable? One of the criteria for a just initiation of war is that of “just cause.” There must be sufficient grounds for a military attack, the paradigm case being that of self-defense. But, of course, just what counts as “self-defense” is disputable. Should this be limited to instances where a nation has already suffered military attack? What about other forms of “attack,” such as cyber-terrorism or economic attacks? And what about imminent threats? How likely must the coming attack be? And how severe? These latter questions are the salient ones when it comes to the Iran question. It does appear the threat is imminent. Moreover, the severity could hardly be greater, since we’re talking nuclear attack, the occurrence of which could result in the elimination of Israel envisioned by Ahmadinejad. But just how likely this attack is, once Iran is nuclear-ready, well, that’s not at all clear. Perhaps only Iran’s president himself knows. Of course, the civilized world could take a wait-and-see approach. But at what potential cost?
These are hard questions, as hard as they get when it comes to international affairs. We now know that President Obama agonized over the decision to send a Navy Seal team in to Pakistan to take out Osama bin Laden. As difficult as that decision was, it doesn’t compare to the agony Obama faces when it comes to the Iran question.