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Opinion: It has become more difficult to bomb Iran

People power has upset Israel’s careful calculations about the pros and cons of air strikes against Iran’s nuclear facilities

Israelis of Iranian descent take part in a rally outside the U.S. Embassy in Tel Aviv, showing solidarity with anti-government protesters in Iran June 23, 2009. (Gil Cohen Magen/Reuters)

NEW YORK — In the weeks since moderate Iranians threw down the gauntlet to the conservative clerics who run their lives, Israel has watched the unfolding drama with trepidation.

Since the discovery of a serious Iranian nuclear program at Natanz in 2003, trepidation has laced Israeli views of Iran. Already an enemy by virtue of its support for Hezbollah in Lebanon and terrorism against Jews generally, suddenly Iran loomed as a potential source of the ultimate nightmare — a nuclear attack.

But the discomfort caused by the the dramatic clashes between Iranian moderates and the regime is of a different nature. As long as the vacant stare of Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and the Hilterian rants of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad embodied "Iran," Israel could avoid thinking too seriously about what military types call "collateral damage." Many suspected Iranian nuclear facilities were located in busy suburbs, some beneath busy cities.

Now, however, Iran has donned a very different face — not just that of Neda, the young protester whose tragic death has been watched by millions on YouTube. The new face Iran has turned to the world is a composite. Yes, the mullah and Ahmadinnerjacket are still in there, but so are hundreds of thousands of people risking their skin to repudiate them.

This is not a minor issue for Israel, nor for American military planners who might have harbored hopes of reviving the idea of a preemptive strike on Iranian nuclear sites. A former head of Israel's Mossad intelligence service, Meir Dagan, let slip the dilemma facing anti-Iranian hawks when he told journalists recently: "If the reformist candidate Mousavi had won, Israel would have had a more serious problem because it would need to explain to the world the danger of the Iranian threat, since Mousavi is perceived internationally arena as a moderate element."

In effect, Dagan said, Ahmadinijad was Israel's choice because it would have been a lot easier to send a wave or two of F-15s to bomb Iran if the world knew that Iranians had, indeed, overwhelmingly reelected such a cretin.

Now, images of street protests vastly complicate that calculus. Imagine the revulsion if such air strikes, as they regularly do in Afghanistan, led to the unintended deaths of dozens or more of the very Iranians who are being cheered in the streets today?