The extreme Islamist president of Iran has lobbed all sorts of verbal bombshells at Jews and Israel in recent weeks: President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad repeatedly reiterated his desire to wipe Israel off the map, and he implied that the Holocaust is a myth.
All of this was bad enough, but there's also the matter of actual bombshells, and the fact that Iran's hardline regime may be perversely fervent enough to lob a few of those -- at Israel, at U.S. forces abroad, or at any other real or perceived enemies.
And with a little bad luck, those bombshells could even be nuclear.
Some experts and Israel government officials fear that Iran may be just months away from being able to produce a nuclear bomb, and a fierce debate is raging in Israel over how to react.
The critical date could come in March, when a series of developments will converge:
• It will be too late to stop Iran from making a bomb, according to Israel's chief of military intelligence, Maj. Gen. Aharon Farkash-Ze'evi.
• The International Atomic Energy Agency is due to issue a report that month on Iran's nuclear drive that could lead to sanctions against Teheran or highlight the international community's inability to act in concert on the issue.
• Israeli elections are scheduled for March 28, with the Iranian nuclear threat already shaping up to be a hot campaign issue.
As if to underscore that things are coming to a head, the London Sunday Times reported this month that Israel has ordered elite forces to be ready by late March for a possible strike against Iranian nuclear facilities.
Both Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's office and Israeli defense officials dismissed the Sunday Times story as a "baseless fabrication."
At the same time, Sharon says Israel will not be able to tolerate a nuclear Iran and that the Jewish state has the capability to act to prevent it.
"We have the ability to deal with this and we are making all the preparations to be ready for such a situation," he declared in an early December news conference.
But does Israel really have a military option against the Iranian nuclear threat? And can it go it alone, as it did against Iraq's Osirak nuclear reactor in 1981? Most leading Israeli pundits are skeptical. And some fear election rhetoric could compromise Israeli policy, hurt Israel's international standing and generally prove counterproductive.
Iranian statements over the past few months underline just how dangerous the threat to Israel could be.
In October, Iran's hard-line President Ahmadinejad said Israel should be "wiped off the map," and earlier this month he said Israel should be dismantled and re-established in Europe.
He followed that up with his assertion about the Holocaust.
"Today, they have created a myth in the name of the Holocaust and consider it to be above God, religion and the prophets," Ahmadinejad said in a speech in the southeastern Iranian city of Zahedan. Officials of the regime, instead of backing down through a "clarification," stood firm.
"Westerners are used to leading a monologue but they should learn to listen to different views," Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Hamid Reza Asefi said over the weekend. "What the president said is an academic issue. The West's reaction shows their continued support for Zionists."
Israeli officials say a bomb in the hands of leaders with ideas like these adds up to a rogue regime with a predisposition and the means to destroy Israel.
Israel's dilemma is acute: how to get the international community to act without seeming to be goading it into action; or alternatively, how to act itself without incurring international opprobrium or aggravating the situation.
Powerful voices in the international community are cautioning Israel against attacking. In Norway to receive the Nobel Peace Prize over the weekend, the IAEA's director, Mohammed ElBaradei asserted that force simply wouldn't work.
"You cannot use force to prevent a country from obtaining nuclear weapons," he told the Oslo-based Aftenposten. "By bombing them half to death, you can only delay the plans. But they will come back, and they will demand revenge."
It is precisely because of the complexity of the issue that Sharon has been keen to put it on the election agenda. His message is plain: Labor leader Amir Peretz is too inexperienced to handle it, and Likud nominee Benjamin Netanyahu too unreliable.
Indeed, Netanyahu seemed to play into Sharon's hands by declaring that if he became prime minister, he would bomb Iran's nuclear facilities the way had bombed the Iraqi reactor under Menachem Begin. This drew a sharp editorial response from the Israeli daily Ha'aretz: "Whoever publicly recommends an Israeli military option sins doubly. He incites the Israeli public unnecessarily; presents Israel as pushing the U.S. into a major new war; drags this sensitive subject into the overheated rhetoric of an election campaign; and invites Iranian threats and various anti-Israel reactions."
Official Israeli policy remains deliberately vague.
On the one hand, Israeli officials insist that for now the policy is to help mobilize international pressure on Teheran, but they refuse to rule out a future Israeli military strike.
"At the moment, in the current phase, the focus is in the sphere of international diplomacy," Amos Gilead, head of the Defense Ministry's strategic policy team, explained on Israel TV. But then, commenting on the Sunday Times story, he said he denied "the specifics" of the report, including the timetables and the Israeli intelligence operation in northern Iraq. But, he added, "it's impossible to say in advance that all the options will be ruled out."
Leading Israeli pundits, however, doubt whether Israel really has a military option. Writing in the Ma'ariv newspaper, analyst Ben Caspit pointed out the chief difference between Iraq in 1981 and Iran today: Whereas Iraq's nuclear capacity was concentrated in one weakly guarded reactor, Iran's fuel enrichment program is via centrifuges housed in several well-protected sites across the huge country.
"To attack, we would need a lot of intelligence, multiple strikes, the ability to hover over Iran for long periods and in large numbers, lots of luck, lots of bunker-busting bombs, and with all that, the chances of success would be slight," Caspit wrote.
The former commander of the Israeli air force, reserve Maj. Gen. Eitan Ben-Eliyahu, said that if there is an attack some time in the future, Israel would only be part of a larger force -- partly because the job is just too big for Israel to handle alone.
There would be too many targets, each target would need several fighter-bombers, protected by fighters, accompanied by rescue planes to pick up crew members who might be shot down.
"Maybe," Ben-Eliyahu said, "there will be a joint decision for joint action one day, involving countries like the U.S., Britain, Germany and Turkey."
Reuven Pedatzur, a strategist at the Netanya Academic College, said he doubts that any such joint action will ever materialize. Nor is it likely that Israel or any of the other players will take action to stop Iran alone.
"Iran may well come to possess nuclear arms," he said. "And if that happens, Israel will have to learn to live with the Iranian threat and to neutralize it by means of credible deterrence.:
Israel's deterrent capacity is impressive. Its Arrow anti-missile defense system is the most advanced of its kind in the world. Israel, according to foreign sources, also has an impressive second-strike capability: F-15 fighter bombers that can reach Iran without refueling, Dolphin submarines that can launch nuclear weapons from the sea and long-range missiles of it own. Theoretically, an Iranian nuclear attack on Israel could be blocked by the Arrow system, while an Israeli second strike could destroy Iran.
That equation, strategists like Pedatzur believe, should be enough to deter Ahmadinejad and the ayatollahs who effectively rule Iran, if or when they do finally manage to produce a bomb.
Additional reporting by Journal staff.