Nobody knows better than the Israelis what a mortal threat a radical Iranian regime will be when it is armed with the nuclear weapon it pretends it is not devising and the ballistic missiles it does not even bother to conceal. The combination will give the people of Israel 10 to 12 minutes' warning that they are faced with extinction.
Aggressive regimes tend to be hypocritical, professing peace while planning war. (The classic case is Hitler and his nonaggression pact with the Soviets.) But the Iranian leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, having wrecked his own country, is open in his manic obsession with Israel: "From now onward, we will support and help any nations, any groups fighting against the Zionist regime across the world. ... The Zionist regime is a true cancer tumor on this region that should be cut off" and "it definitely will be cut off."
As Shimon Peres, the president of Israel and architect of the Oslo peace agreements, has pointed out, Iran already has such huge oil and gas reserves that there can be little doubt its nuclear endeavors are aimed at constructing a bomb rather than producing energy. Iran, as he dryly added, is also the only country in the world threatening to wipe out another country. Not just to hurt it, or to damage it, but to wipe it off the face of the Earth. And while no other country was threatening it, Iran chose to become a center for global terrorism. It sent—and is still sending—both munitions and money to murderous outfits, first and foremost such radical groups as Hamas and Hezbollah, also intent on killing Israelis. This clearly suggests that the Iranians would also be willing to transfer nuclear materials to their terrorist allies. Of course, Iran doesn't scruple at assassinating its own citizens and goes abroad in search of perceived enemies.
Wiping out Israel is but one objective. If successful in its nuclear efforts, Iran would wield power as the dominant force in the energy-rich Persian Gulf region. By terror and proxy warfare, it would undermine and seek to destabilize moderate regimes, embolden the radicals, and bring an end to any possibility of Middle East peace.
What can stop Iran's palpable determination to be a nuclear-armed power? Only the threat of military action against its weapons sites. Iran has shown continual contempt for any kind of negotiation regarding nuclear energy for a peaceful purpose. Sanctions, too long delayed, create hardship for its people, but the regime reckons it can keep the lid on unrest until it is too late. It bars U.N. inspectors and continues its deadly work, calculating to give the world a nasty shock. The possibility of a pre-emptive strike is now the only credible deterrent. It's crucial for the whole region, the whole world, but if the United States forswears military intervention, or seems to forswear it, the Israelis and everyone else can only conclude that nothing will stand in the way of Iran becoming a nuclear power. Except Israel.
What may happen is that one day the Israeli defense minister will telephone the White House and the Pentagon to inform them that the prime minister has just ordered the Israeli Air Force to fly east toward Iran with the intention of dealing with the gravest menace since Hitler to the physical survival of the Jewish people. For a country as small as Israel, even a small-scale nuclear attack would be an existential catastrophe. The Israelis believe that if they make a pre-emptive strike they have a reasonable chance of at least delaying the Iranian nuclear program for three to five years. They will reasonably assert that Israel was left with no choice.
Nobody can expect Israel to sit back and do nothing substantial to defend itself when it alone stands between its people and a potentially apocalyptic Islamic regime. Otherwise, Israel's status as a safe haven for the Jewish people would evaporate and with it the core raison d'être of the Zionist state. This time, the Jewish people at least have the power to attempt to save themselves; they could not when Hitler's war machine rolled over Europe. For the Jews, the balance of risks is grotesquely lopsided. The Iranian demand is not "Money or your life!" It's just "Your life!"