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By Howard Hein
Conflict and strife continue to mar the Middle East and the African Levant, occupying the headlines now for seemingly countless months. On the receiving end of every news story emanating from the region is the average American citizen, who is at risk of becoming desensitized to the growing turmoil.
Unfortunately we, as a nation, may not have the luxury of tactically ignoring this latest round of troubles. I'm not speaking of the direct attack on U.S. diplomats either, which is looking more now like a carefully disguised terrorist assassination. No the issue that looms the largest in that corner of the world now is the unchecked development of nuclear weapons by the state of Iran.
Americans remain at a fixed distance from the Iranian nuclear issue, geographically and psychologically. As a nation, we have been through a great deal of pain and anguish over the last decade. The specter of 9/11 still looms large in our psyche and the subsequent loss of some of our best and brightest overseas continues to scar us. Straight-faced, our government asserts that sanctions will alter Iran's strategic path.
Israel is blessed with neither this naive optimism, nor the safety of geographic detachment from the threat. Israel has defended itself capably when attacked, but cannot absorb a first strike from a nuclear Iran, however it is delivered. Israel's very survival is at stake.
As a trusted ally, we know this, yet the current administration merely supplies supportive rhetoric whilst the Israeli prime minister is on the clock. And when his predetermined alarm goes off, you can bet that the security calculus for the region will be changed instantly. At that point it will be impossible for us not to be drawn in.
One would think that we would apply lessons learned from the previous century to counter this emerging threat; the parallels are so very similar. But we are a war-weary nation at present, trying to stimulate an economy that is in historic depths. Our will for confronting yet another evil thousands of miles from home is bedeviled by a military that has itself been taxed to its limits, and a public that is deadened to other peoples' problems. The timing of the Iranian initiative simply could not be worse; yet the stakes could also not be higher.
Not risking the wrath of the electorate, neither political party is willing to announce more drastic, potentially unpopular, measures as the coveted election draws nearer. Thus a dangerous waiting game continues as Iran progresses toward its stated goal to join the nuclear club. No word yet on how close that will bring Iran to another stated goal of wiping Israel off the map. Rest assured that Israel will act decisively when, and if, it becomes necessary. And we may be left to wonder whether we could have stopped the madness.

Howard Hein of Clarence is a retired Navy commander with a master's degree in national security affairs from the Naval Postgraduate School.