Last year, the Middle East dodged the danger of an Israeli attack on
Iran's nuclear facilities and the inevitable spread of hostilities.
Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Mike Mullen was sent to tell the Israelis that the United States would not support such an attack, and after the fiasco in Georgia, the Russians too sent stern warnings to Tel Aviv.
But now the specter of an Israeli strike has reappeared. Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel's incoming prime minister, is far more committed to an attack on Iran than his predecessors.
Remember when Joe Biden told supporters of Barack Obama last October that Obama would be tested in his first six months in office?
There is good reason to believe he was referring to the likelihood that Netanyahu would become prime minister after the February 2009 Israeli election, and that he would waste little time finding a pretext to attack Iran.
Netanyahu has been laying the groundwork for such an attack for years, constantly repeating that Tehran is "preparing another Holocaust" a la Germany in the Thirties.
He keeps hammering home the "existential" threat that would be posed to Israel (with its 200-300 nuclear weapons) if Iran had just one.
Netanyahu has made no bones about the fact that his preferred solution to the problem is a massive air attack on Iranian nuclear facilities and other military targets, and that he would not wait for any evidence that Iran had actually manufactured a weapon before doing so.
It would be, you see, a Bush-type "preventive" war. Netanyahu would fully expect Iranian retaliation of some kind and knee-jerk U.S. intervention on Israel's side.
If such adventurism were to prevail, it would be a tragedy not only for Iran and the United States but for Israel as well. And it would bring to Israel more serious risk than at any time since its implantation in Palestine.
It is also completely unnecessary. There has never been a shred of evidence that Iran has any intention of committing suicide by attacking Israel.
Nor is it clear that Iran has irrevocably decided to seek nuclear weapons. The U.S. intelligence community determined unanimously in its most recent National Intelligence Estimate on Iran, completed in November 2007, that Iran had abandoned the nuclear weaponization part of its nuclear development program in 2003 and had not resumed such work.
Largely forgotten is the fact that this estimate also concluded that Iran would extend the halt to its nuclear weapons program if the United States were to offer "credible" opportunities for Iran to achieve its "security, prestige and goals for regional influence."
In other words, the way to avoid an Iranian nuclear weapon is not the threat of an attack - which is very likely to have the opposite effect - but to give Iran additional reason to continue the halt in weaponization.
Unfortunately, it is far from clear that President Obama understands that he must draw a hard line against an Israeli attack. Some of his old-think advisers believe the threat of an attack should be part of his overall strategy.
The President's adviser on proliferation, Gary Samore, declared last September, "We...want the Iranians to believe that if they actually try to make nuclear weapons, or if they build secret facilities that we detect, they run the risk of being attacked."
What needs to happen: President Obama needs to order an update of the 2007 intelligence estimate on Iran.
Then he should ask for a briefing by intelligence analysts able to think outside the box, including the ones who concluded in 2007 that Iran needs positive incentives to continue to forego work on nuclear weapons.
Obama should encourage his diplomats to pursue talks at a senior level with their Iranian counterparts, with the objective of reaching agreements that will give Iran just the kind of incentives the intelligence analysts had in mind.
And he must tell Netanyahu that the U.S. will not support an Israeli attack on Iran. Indeed, the U.S. will not tolerate it.