A good read, well timed for a day when news is slow and you can spare the attention. Somehow it manages to be both harrowing and mundane: No matter what Obama and Netanyahu end up doing or not doing, the Middle East is sure to be a more dangerous place in a year or two than it is even now — and yet we’ve been headed towards that Catch-22 for years, dating well back into the Bush administration. As dire as they are, the strategic calculations have become sufficiently familiar — a bombing run might not disable the program, might only postpone it for a year or two, might touch off a regional war with America in the middle — that I bet most readers will either glance at the piece or pass on it entirely as old news. The Iranian program is like having a bomb in your lap knowing that any wire you cut will detonate it, so you sit there and fidget with it in hopes that it’ll just sort of fizzle out on its own. Sit there long enough and even a situation as dangerous as that will start to seem boring. Until the bomb goes off.

Tick tock:

When the Israelis begin to bomb the uranium-enrichment facility at Natanz, the formerly secret enrichment site at Qom, the nuclear-research center at Esfahan, and possibly even the Bushehr reactor, along with the other main sites of the Iranian nuclear program, a short while after they depart en masse from their bases across Israel—regardless of whether they succeed in destroying Iran’s centrifuges and warhead and missile plants, or whether they fail miserably to even make a dent in Iran’s nuclear program—they stand a good chance of changing the Middle East forever; of sparking lethal reprisals, and even a full-blown regional war that could lead to the deaths of thousands of Israelis and Iranians, and possibly Arabs and Americans as well; of creating a crisis for Barack Obama that will dwarf Afghanistan in significance and complexity; of rupturing relations between Jerusalem and Washington, which is Israel’s only meaningful ally; of inadvertently solidifying the somewhat tenuous rule of the mullahs in Tehran; of causing the price of oil to spike to cataclysmic highs, launching the world economy into a period of turbulence not experienced since the autumn of 2008, or possibly since the oil shock of 1973; of placing communities across the Jewish diaspora in mortal danger, by making them targets of Iranian-sponsored terror attacks, as they have been in the past, in a limited though already lethal way; and of accelerating Israel’s conversion from a once-admired refuge for a persecuted people into a leper among nations.

If a strike does succeed in crippling the Iranian nuclear program, however, Israel, in addition to possibly generating some combination of the various catastrophes outlined above, will have removed from its list of existential worries the immediate specter of nuclear-weaponized, theologically driven, eliminationist anti-Semitism; it may derive for itself the secret thanks (though the public condemnation) of the Middle East’s moderate Arab regimes, all of which fear an Iranian bomb with an intensity that in some instances matches Israel’s; and it will have succeeded in countering, in militant fashion, the spread of nuclear weapons in the Middle East, which is, not irrelevantly, a prime goal of the enthusiastic counter-proliferator who currently occupies the White House…

[B]ased on my conversations with Israeli decision-makers, this period of forbearance, in which Netanyahu waits to see if the West’s nonmilitary methods can stop Iran, will come to an end this December. Robert Gates, the American defense secretary, said in June at a meeting of NATO defense ministers that most intelligence estimates predict that Iran is one to three years away from building a nuclear weapon. “In Israel, we heard this as nine months from June—in other words, March of 2011,” one Israeli policy maker told me. “If we assume that nothing changes in these estimates, this means that we will have to begin thinking about our next step beginning at the turn of the year.”…

America, too, would look complicit in an Israeli attack, even if it had not been forewarned. The assumption—often, but not always, correct—that Israel acts only with the approval of the United States is a feature of life in the Middle East, and it is one the Israelis say they are taking into account. I spoke with several Israeli officials who are grappling with this question, among others: what if American intelligence learns about Israeli intentions hours before the scheduled launch of an attack? “It is a nightmare for us,” one of these officials told me. “What if President Obama calls up Bibi and says, ‘We know what you’re doing. Stop immediately.’ Do we stop? We might have to. A decision has been made that we can’t lie to the Americans about our plans. We don’t want to inform them beforehand. This is for their sake and for ours. So what do we do? These are the hard questions.” (Two officials suggested that Israel may go on pre-attack alert a number of times before actually striking: “After the fifth or sixth time, maybe no one would believe that we’re really going,” one official said.)

Much of the piece is devoted to thumbnail psychological analysis of Netanyahu, Obama, and Israel itself as a way of discerning how much of a threat they consider Iran to be (a new Holocaust or something less?) and how they might act as a consequence, so if you’re inclined to skim rather than read, skim those parts. As for the strategic considerations, I wonder what sort of groundwork-laying we might see in the next few months by the U.S. and Israel to prepare for the fallout from a raid on the reactors. Pay attention to the part near the end where Goldberg writes about Iran keeping Hezbollah in reserve for a counterattack in case Israel strikes. According to an Arab newspaper, Israel nearly launched a large operation against Lebanon just last week, ostensibly as a reprisal for the recent border incident in which an Israeli soldier was killed. I wonder if there’s more to it than that, though, in light of the Atlantic piece: Clearly, the IDF will want to do something about Hezbollah’s missile cache before making its move on Iran. If the threat of a new Lebanese civil war breaking out over the findings in the UN’s Hariri probe are as real as some Lebanese leaders think, that may be the entry point for Israeli intervention against Hezbollah. Meanwhile, Obama will have to plan for the risk of Iranian attacks on U.S. troops in Iraq and Afghanistan in the wake of an Israeli strike. Whether that means accelerating withdrawal later this year or forcing some sort of change in tactics to better protect troops in the field I’ll leave to military readers to opine on, but counterinsurgency will be that much harder to do with Iran trying to meddle in newly aggressive ways.

One other thing to note while reading: How insane the calculations about “optics” are in all this, capped by the surreal Israeli agonizing about when and whether to tell the White House that they’re planning to strike. The Sunni leadership in the region quite rationally wants to see the Shiite menace disarmed, but they can’t act because their populations aren’t about to side with the Jews against a Muslim nation that’s a greater threat to them than Israel is. So we get the usual games about whose airspace they can *wink wink* “violate” on their way to Iran to preserve plausible deniability, along with the less usual games of faking out Obama so that he can genuinely claim to have been surprised when something happens. And the punchline, of course, is that no one but no one will believe that The One and the Sunnis weren’t in on it the whole time, no matter what pains are taken to protect them. Oh well.