IT'S like playing with matches in the fireworks factory. The deputy commander of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards, Gen. Mohammad Baqer Zolqadr, said last week that if Israel is thinking about carrying out an attack on Iran's nuclear facilities, Israel should be prepared to kiss its own Dimona nuclear center good-bye.
The Iranian minister of defense, Vice Adm. Ali Shamkhani, also added unhelpfully that since Iran assumed that Israel wouldn't carry out such an attack without prior United States approval, Iran would consider an Israeli attack on it to have U.S. backing and would act accordingly against the United States.
Then, putting the icing on a very nasty cake, the Iranian defense minister referred to the Bush administration's use of the military for "preventive operations" and said that Iran would not rule out taking pre-emptive action itself against Israel and the United States if it felt that an attack on it was in preparation.
This Iranian talk could be put aside as just more hissing by one Middle Eastern country at another except for two facts. The first is that Israel did, in fact, carry out a pre-emptive strike against Iraqi nuclear facilities at Osirak in 1981. It is beside the point that the attack did not eliminate Iraq's nuclear ambitions.
The second is that there has been talk periodically in American political circles that perhaps the best way to deal with Iran's nuclear development program is to ask, or to let, the Israelis take it out the way they did in Iraq.
Unless one subscribes to some sort of "crush the serpent in its egg" approach to Iran's nuclear program, an Israeli attack on its nuclear facilities would be a very bad idea, risking another dangerous war in a region already at war. Iran may not have nuclear weapons yet, but it certainly does have missiles capable of reaching Israel, although not the United States.
Development at Iran's Bushehr nuclear facility is proceeding with cooperation between Russia and Iran. Under intense, sometimes bitter, discussion at present is the question of resuming International Atomic Energy Agency inspection of Bushehr and Iran's other nuclear development sites, which Iran claims are entirely dedicated to developing nuclear energy capacity, something that is probably not true.
What is badly needed at this point is the lack of any public response by the U.S. or Israel to what the Iranians said.
If there exists a decent, private dialogue somewhere between the United States and Iran, a message should be delivered to the effect, first, that the United States would neither condone nor support any attack on Iran, including on its nuclear facilities
The second point should be that the United States thinks it would be helpful if the Iranian government in the future kept people like Admiral Shamkhani and General Zolqadr from making provocative statements about an explosive subject like an exchange of military attacks between Israel, Iran, and the United States.
Given Israel's current internal political turmoil, it would be hard for the United States to suggest that no one in Israel dignify the Iranian threats with a response, although that would, in fact, be the least inflammatory approach to them that Israel could take.
Apart from that, U.S. and world efforts to arrive at an agreement with Iran to renew inspection of its nuclear facilities on an urgent basis are very much needed. A strong IAEA presence at Bushehr and other facilities would serve also as a deterrent to anyone thinking of attacking them.
In other words, snuff out the matches now.