- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Massoud Ali-Mohammadi, an important Iranian nuclear scientist, was killed yesterday by a bomb planted outside his home. Iran has accused Israel and the United States of assassinating Mr. Ali-Mohammadi in an attempt to disrupt Tehran’s nuclear program. If true, such short-of-war methods could be seen as a means of preventing a larger conflict or paving the way for more deadly operations.

The Obama administration’s diplomatic outreach effort is dead, too. The mullahs met President Obama’s outstretched hand with an extended middle finger. Iran announced in November that it planned to construct 10 new uranium enrichment facilities, a development former International Atomic Energy Agency chief Hans Blix called “puzzling” because “even big countries don’t have ten enrichment plants.” Last month, top-secret technical notes from Iran’s nuclear program were leaked that detailed research on a neutron initiator, the triggering mechanism for an atomic bomb.

It is increasingly difficult to claim that Iran’s nuclear effort is intended for peaceful civilian purposes. The Dec. 31 deadline for Iran to reply to a proposed nuclear deal passed with no response. The debate in Washington has shifted toward how best to target sanctions and whether they should - or can - be crafted in a way to support the reform movement in the country.

But time is running out. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu gave the Obama White House a year to make progress with Iran, and instead, the situation has grown worse. Israel repeatedly has stated that it will not tolerate a nuclear Iran, and the Jewish state is receiving significant behind-the-scenes encouragement from Sunni Arab states wary of the possibility of Iranian regional hegemony.

Preparation for possible conflict is ongoing. This week, a biological-warfare-preparedness exercise is being held in Tel Aviv and other cities. Starting late next month, gas masks will begin to be distributed to every Israeli citizen; similar measures were undertaken before the first and second Gulf wars.

On Sunday, Gen. David H. Petraeus, head of U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM), said in a clear signal to Tehran that it would be “irresponsible if CENTCOM were not to have been thinking about the various ‘what ifs’ and to make plans for a whole variety of different contingencies” with respect to Iran. The next day, it was reported that America was doubling the value of emergency military equipment stockpiled in Israel, which would be available for Israeli use in the event of an emergency. Perhaps this is a signal to Iran as well.

The coming conflict will not be an overnight air strike followed by bellicose language, like the Israeli attack on the Syrian nuclear site in September 2007. Disrupting Iran’s nuclear program will require Israel to undertake a sustained campaign. Iran will launch reprisal attacks through its proxies in Gaza and Lebanon, encourage Syria to respond, foment chaos in Iraq and Afghanistan and potentially order terror attacks on Western targets.

U.S. policymakers are mealy-mouthed about the possibility of conflict with Iran. Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, summed up the conventional view when he said that Iran developing a nuclear weapon is “potentially a very, very destabilizing outcome” but taking military action to prevent it “also has a very, very destabilizing outcome.” Washington prefers the third way, a mix of sanctions and diplomacy, in the hope of somehow preserving stability. But soon, the choice will be made by others, and the real question is what role the United States will play when war comes.