What the U.S. must now state unequivocally.
If Iran is indeed behind the spate of recent bombings and foiled attacks that have targeted Israeli and Jewish civilian institutions in India, Georgia, Azerbajan and Thailand—as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has alleged—then it has become crystal clear that Iran is at war with Israel, Zionism and Jewish communities throughout the world. The Rajah news website, which is identified with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmedinajad, has expressly threatened to “take the war beyond the borders of Iran, and beyond the borders of the region.” A recent Iranian News Agency headline declared that, “Israeli people must be annihilated,” and a strategist close to Iran’s Supreme Leader Khamenei has released a report providing a religious and legal justification for a final attack against Israel and the Jewish people by 2014. Over the past week, news reports have circulated that Jewish and Israeli institutions in the United States have been placed on high alert over intelligence reports that Iran or one of its proxies may target them. Iran’s supreme Khamenei himself has also recently promised that “the Zionists and the Great Satan (America) will soon be defeated.”
These and other recent threats and attacks have led Israeli and American authorities to believe that Iran is preparing attacks against Israeli embassies and consulates as well as Jewish houses of prayer, schools, community centers, restaurants and other soft Jewish targets.
This is not the first time that Iranian agents have bombed or attacked Israeli and Jewish targets in distant countries. Back in 1992, Iranian agents blew up the Israeli embassy and a Jewish community center in Buenos Aires, killing and injuring hundreds of civilians, many of whom were children. The Argentine government conducted a thorough criminal investigation and indicted several Iranian officials. But these officials were well beyond the reach of Argentine legal authorities and remain at liberty.
If Iranian agents were to attack Israeli or Jewish soft targets in the United States, the United States should deem any such action as an armed military attack on the United States. It should not treat it the way the Argentine authorities did, merely as a criminal act. Under international law, an attack on an embassy is an attack both on the embassy’s country and on the country in which the embassy is located. An attack against a nation’s citizens on its territory is also an act of armed aggression under the United Nations Charter that justifies retaliatory military action.
In light of the deliberately provocative statements recently issued from Iran, the United States should now publicly announce that any attack by Iranian agents against any American citizen, institution or religious group will be considered a military attack by Iran against the United States and that the United States will—not may, but will—retaliate militarily, at a time and place of its choosing. An attack on an American synagogue is no different than an attack on the World Trade Center or on American aviation. We correctly regarded those attacks as acts of war committed by the Taliban and facilitated by the government of Afghanistan and we responded militarily. Similarly, an attack by Iranian agents on a Jewish (or any other) American target should be deemed a military attack requiring retaliation. All American citizens, regardless of their religious affiliation, are equally entitled to the protection of the American military.
U.S. retaliation could take the form of a military action targeting Iran’s nuclear facilities. Any such attack, though it might be preemptive in its intention, would be reactive as a matter of international law, since it would be in response to an armed attack by Iran. It would not require Security Council approval, since Article 51 of the United Nations Charter explicitly preserves the right of member nations to respond to any armed attack. An unambiguous public statement by the United States would send a powerful deterrent message to Iranian Authorities who may be contemplating “criminal” attacks on soft American targets. It would also provide an advanced justification for a U.S. military attack on Iranian nuclear facilities.
This is not to argue against such an attack if Iran decides not to go after soft American targets. It may become necessary for our military to target Iranian nuclear facilities if economic sanction and diplomatic efforts do not succeed and if the Iranian government decides to cross red lines by militarizing its nuclear program and placing it in deep underground bunkers. But the legal justification for such an attack would be somewhat different. It would be predominantly preemptive or preventive, though it would have reactive elements as well, since Iran has armed our enemies in Iraq and has caused the death of many American soldiers.
If Israel were to be compelled to act alone against Iran’s nuclear program—which is designed to accomplish the task of “annilat[ing]” the “Israeli people”—it too would be reacting as well as preempting, since Iran has effectively declared war against the Jewish state and its people. Hezbollah leader, Hassan Nasrallah, recently confirmed Iran’s role as Hezbollah’s active partner in its war against Israel, claiming that it “could not have been victorious” in its 2006 war without the military support of Iran. Iran’s ongoing military support of Hezbollah and Hamas coupled with its direct participation in the bombing of the Israeli Embassy constitute sufficient casus belli to justify a reactive Israeli military strike against the Iranian nuclear program.
The best outcome, of course, would be to deter both immediate Iranian aggression and continuing Iranian development of nuclear weapons by making the cost too high for even the most zealous or adventurous Iranian leaders. But for deterrence to succeed, where sanctions and other tactics appear to be failing, the threat of military action must be credible to the Iranians. Right now it is not, because Defense Secretary Panetta and other administration officials are sending mixed signals, not only with regard to the U.S., but also with regard to Israel. The administration must speak with a clear, unambiguous and credible voice that leaves no doubt in the minds of Iranian leaders as to America is resolve not to tolerate attacks on our citizens or a nuclear armed Iran. As George Washington wisely counseled in his second inaugural address, “To be prepared for war is one of the most effectual means of preserving peace.”
A slightly shorter version of this op-ed appeared in the Wall Street Journal on February 13, 2012.
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