The specter of a military attack by Israel against Iranian nuclear installations is the latest nightmare scenario to spike tensions in the Middle East.
A Jan. 29 New York Times Magazine article by an Israeli journalist quoted Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak and other Israeli military and intelligence officials on the looming possibility of Israel bombing Iran's clandestine nuclear enrichment facilities. While Iran insists the work is energy-related, Israel and international inspectors suspect the Iranians are developing nuclear weapons.
Not all those Israelis interviewed favored airstrikes, but the article concluded that such an attack would occur in 2012. Its publication has provoked intense speculation by professional Middle East-watchers in South Florida.
In the article, Moshe Ya'alon, Israel's vice prime minister, said bombing Iran was a last option, but he aligned himself with Israeli hawks.
"One way or another, Iran's nuclear program must be stopped,' he was quoted as saying. "It is a matter of months before the Iranians will be able to attain military nuclear capability. It is up to the international community to confront the regime, but nevertheless Israel has to be ready to defend itself. And we are prepared to defend ourselves in any way and anywhere that we see fit.'
If attacked, Iran would retaliate against Israel and its principal ally, the U.S., Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei implied this month when addressing new U.S. economic sanctions against Iran.
"In response to threats of oil embargo and war, we have our own threats to impose at the right time," Khamenei said .
Any discussion of Israeli -U.S. relations with Iran opens a hornets' nest of issues: Israel's tensions with Iran, but also with its other neighbors in the region; Iran's Shiite Muslim majority and the friction with its Sunni Muslim neighbors; Iran's ruling ayatollahs and their fears of regime change engineered by the West, in particular the U.S.; and the crucial interests of China and Russia in the region.
Elections are due in the U.S., Israel and Iran in the next two years and hawkish rhetoric is rumbling in all three countries.
'Nightmare for Israel'
Florida Atlantic University Middle East expert Robert Rabil visualized a worst-case scenario .
"Israel is the only country in the region currently with nuclear weapons capacity," he said. "By Iran developing nuclear weapons, that could change the entire political equation. Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Jordan would follow - the domino effect. The Israeli establishment isn't sure as to the timing and consequences of what could happen. This is a nightmare for Israel."
Iran's missiles cannot reach U.S. shores, but they can reach U.S. targets in the region.
"If Israel bombs, Iranian missiles would fly," Rabil said. "We have troops in the Persian Gulf within range of those missiles. We are trying to get out of Afghanistan and (Iran) could cause troubles for us there. And they will smuggle more missiles to Hezbollah and create much more trouble for Israel. They could create problems throughout the Gulf. The flow of oil could be affected and the world economy could tank."
FAU professor of international law Jeffrey Morton agreed the U.S. would be targeted. "If it happens we should batten down the hatches everywhere that is reachable by Iran," he said, although he wasn't sure Iran is developing a weapon or that bombs will fly.
For the moment, Israel appears to have opted for covert action against Iran. At least five Iranian nuclear scientists have been assassinated or died in mysterious circumstances since 2007. Computer worms have infected Iranian technology and other acts of sabotage delayed Iran's projects. The Iranians blame the Israeli intelligence service, Mossad.
Reportedly, some Israeli leaders want to stick to that strategy and not bomb Iran.
"What the military is concerned about is the day after a strike," Rabil said. "You have no way of stopping the retaliation that will come, not on your own terms. Terrorism will be employed. Not knowing what is going to happen next, that is the danger."
Even Israelis favoring an airstrike don't think that would end Iran's nuclear ambitions, only delay them.
"The only way to end those ambitions would be full-fledged invasion and occupation, a regime change," said Russell Lucas, a Florida International University professor of international relations. Such an invasion is apparently not on either the Israeli or U.S. agenda.
Morton suggested two possible reasons for the recent Israeli public statements.
"Maybe they are preparing their own people and the world for military action," he said. "But maybe they are talking about an increased likelihood of war to get Iran to slow down. It's a way to get third parties involved. One frustration for Israel is, whenever the world starts talking about Iran, something happens to cause a distraction. This puts it back on the front burner."