Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's hardline government is secretly making preparations for a military strike. "It is 1938, and Iran is Germany," Netanyahu said a few years ago, thereby indirectly equating Ahmadinejad with the former German dictator Adolf Hitler -- and offers to negotiate with Tehran with the appeasement of the Nazis.
The Israeli military's fighter jets have attacked proven or presumed enemy nuclear facilities twice in the past. In June 1981, in "Operation Babylon," they bombed the Osirak reactor near Baghdad, and in September 2007, in "Operation Orchard," they destroyed a complex of buildings at al-Kibar on the Euphrates River in Syria.
But experts say that to destroying Iran's nuclear weapons program, or at least dealing it a decisive blow and setting it back by several years, will require a bombing campaign that would last several weeks and involve more than 1,000 air strikes against about a dozen targets. Even this would not be a guarantee that all key facilities had been struck and the nuclear components the Iranians have hidden in tunnels were eliminated.
Nevertheless, Israeli experts claim that a "military solution" is feasible, even without the help of Israel's extremely skeptical big brother, the United States. Several of Israel's Arab neighbors fear the Iranian bomb and the resulting power shift in the Middle East almost as much as they fear Israel. According to intelligence assessments, Saudi Arabia is even willing to provide the Israelis with flyover rights for an attack from the south.
The Costs of a Strike
The consequences of such a campaign could prove to be fatal. Iran's options include more than a conventional retaliatory missile strike. The Iranian leadership would likely organize a terrorist campaign in Iraq, and it would encourage two groups funded by Tehran -- Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in the Gaza Strip -- to launch strikes against Israel. This could lead to a potential conflagration in the Middle East, which could spread to the rest of the world, or at least the global economy.
Besides, almost all experts agree that a bombardment by Israeli fighter jets would encourage the Iranian people to close ranks the Tehran leadership, which is currently extremely unpopular, and weaken the "green" opposition movement. Is it possible that the Iranians are in fact provoking such a strike to achieve precisely this outcome? And would this lead to their withdrawing from the IAEA and moving full speed ahead with their bomb development plans, this time with the full support of the people?
On the quiet, politicians and defense experts have already begun discussing whether and how the world could come to terms with Iran as a nuclear power. Martin van Creveld, a military historian and Jerusalem professor who is the author of "Living with the Bomb," argues that a nuclear Iran would ultimately not be a greater threat to world peace than a nuclear Israel. But this is a minority opinion in the Jewish state, where opinion polls indicate that more than half of the population supports a preventive strike against Tehran if negotiations remain ineffective.
In Washington, the prospect of a world "After Iran Gets the Bomb" -- the title of a cover story in the influential magazine Foreign Affairs -- is now being discussed relatively openly. Experts propose political "containment" of Iran to limit the potential damage.
One thing is certain: Since US President Obama came into office, the Americans are on board when it comes to possible negotiations with Tehran, and they are no longer delegating everything to the Europeans. New York Times writer David Sanger, cites a US diplomat in his book "The Inheritance: The World Obama Confronts and the Challenges to American Power," saying: "There are some things in life that don't work when you have other people do them for you. Among them are sex, drinking and negotiating with Iran."
A senior Israeli military official says that he's familiar with the quote, but that he would modify it slightly at the end: "... They include sex, drinking and bombing Iran."
Act 6: What the Persians Really Love -- and Who They Hate
Isfahan on the "Day of the Atom." The city is the pride of the nation, the jewel of Persia, Nesfe Jahan, "Half of the World." It is a city with religious tolerance and intercultural tradition. But on this day in April 2009, the city's facades are spoiled by signs like the one displayed on its downtown Imam Square, which reads "Death to the Zionists." Less than a kilometer away, on Palestine Square, of all places, the faithful gather in a synagogue for prayers. There are about 1,200 Jews living in Isfahan, and about 25,000 in all of Iran.
"We would forget all of our reservations about the theocracy and fight the intruders," says an old man with a face ravaged by time, looking as if he had just emerged from the Old Testament. He carefully straightens his skullcap as he walks into the synagogue. He is quick to add, however, that he doesn't want to be misunderstood, and that his words have nothing to do with any affection for that man Ahmadinejad.
Persia is a puzzle hidden inside a puzzle made of question marks.
If the Israeli Air Force or the US Air Force were to bomb Iran, it's a safe bet that the Iranian nuclear facility near Isfahan would be at the top of its list of targets. The complex, less than 20 kilometers (12 miles) from Isfahan, a city of 1.5 million people, is buried in a dramatic desert landscape. A launching pad for anti-aircraft missiles juts into the sky on one of the hills surrounding the valley. Behind the pad, a series of fences, armed guards and then more barbed wire protect the center of the top-secret facility and its uranium conversion plant, which was dedicated by President Ahmadinejad, an event at which SPIEGEL journalists were, uncharacteristically, permitted to accompany the Iranian leader -- into the inner sanctum of Iran's nuclear program.
Here, too, the contradictions are surprising. It goes without saying that first-rate nuclear physicists work at the Isfahan complex. But immediately prior to the presidential visit, a technician is seen cursing as he searches for a wrench while repairing the roof of the high-tech plant.
The president's visit is a solemn one, as if he were attending a religious ceremony. Afterwards, he returns to the city in his convoy. Curious young people crowd into the square where Ahmadinejad is speaking, and when they get bored, they disappear into the bazaar to shop around for the true objects of their desire: Nikes instead of nukes.