Iran may have to learn a lesson the hard way, but what Mahmoud Ahmadinejad won't have to worry about is a Pearl Harbor.
George W. Bush, taking flak 24/7 for the war in Iraq, continues to warn the Iranian president that he may pay a fearful price if he continues to build a nuclear arsenal.
Ehud Olmert, the prime minister of Israel, the only other country regarded as a credible threat to Mr. Ahmadinejad's bullying, says the same thing.
Neither Mr. Bush nor Mr. Olmert are rattling sabers or, more to the point, bunker-busting bombs and both Washington and Jerusalem take considerable pains to say that diplomacy and economic pressure are their weapons of choice. But diplomacy, as nice and quiet as governments try to make it, is ultimately toothless if soldiers are not at the ready to back up the diplomats and their teacups.
Both Washington and Jerusalem offer nuance and caveat to accompany the hard words, and prefer to talk about the diplomatic and economic messages they send to Iran diplomacy in the form of meetings and soothing words in public, and economics in the form of tightening the screw of sanctions. But nobody much pays attention to diplomats, and sanctions are held together by a sieve.
Naturally, nobody in Washington or Jerusalem will say when they've had enough nuance and caveat, that it's time to put military muscle behind the diplomatic mumbling. Sallai Meridor, the new Israeli ambassador to Washington, went to an on-the-record lunch yesterday at the Nixon Center with a group of diplomats, analysts and journalists to talk about "Israel's challenges." The world must make Iran understand that it intends to take "any action necessary" to prevent a nuclear-armed Iran. There's no scarcity of nuclear scientists who know how to enrich uranium. Assembling the weapon is the hard part. One of the journalist guests asked the crucial question: "Will you know when that moment comes?"
The ambassador replied slowly and deliberately. "I don't have a definite answer," he said. "We believe they have not crossed that threshold. We should work on the assumption that it will happen soon." Perhaps, he said, in 18 months to two years.
Given the American technology and ability to produce bombs powerful enough to break open bunkers buried deep in the ground, and given the ability Israel has amply demonstrated to accomplish difficult feats of arms, a sane and logical man would expect even Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to take reality into account. A religious culture that preaches that it values death, not life, has difficulty understanding the West.
Mr. Ahmadinejad seems to imagine that it is he, and not the leaders of the West, who holds the best cards in his high-stakes poker game. "It is in your own interests to distance yourself from these criminals," he warned the Europeans in a typical speech at a rally in Tehran not long ago. "We have advised the Europeans that the Americans are far away, but you are the neighbors of the nations in this region. We inform you that the nations are like an ocean that is welling up. If a storm begins, the dimension will not stay limited to Palestine, and you may get hurt."
This kind of talk may be enough to make the French sell cheese to the Iranians and throw in nuclear technology as a bonus, like a bank offering toasters to depositors of new accounts. Ali Larijani, Iran's top nuclear negotiator, aimed similar threats at the Israelis. "Iran has prepared itself," he said. "They will get a crushing response if they make such a mistake [as taking out Iranian nuclear capability]. If there is truth in such talk, Israel will suffer greatly. It's a very small country within our range."
Big talk, not oil, is the chief export of Arabia and the region. The big talkers could usefully spend a little time reading between the lines of what certain others say. When retribution arrives, they can't say it sneaked up on them.