At The Motley Fool, we try to confine ourselves to opining on business news in general, and those affecting investors in particular. But every once in a while, an event -- or in today's case, the threat of an event -- looms so large that it affects not just the Great Game of world politics, but business, investing, existence itself. At that point, even "investors, writing for investors" can't fail to take note.
In today's news, Britain's Sunday Times newspaper raises the alarm of a possible nuclear strike in the Middle East.
I could stop this column right here, and I think all of you would still understand the import of the news. But let's flesh it out with a few details, anyway. The Sunday Times cites unnamed persons within the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) as its sources. As with any "anonymous" story, that raises the possibility right away that this "news" is but a rumor, a bogeyman tale, a total non-story. But what if it isn't?
If it isn't, here are the details. Concerned over Iran's persistent efforts to build a nuclear bomb (Iran's hollow denials to the contrary notwithstanding), frustrated with the UN's apparent inability to do anything to stop Iran, and with a well-founded belief that the U.S., bogged down in Iraq, will take no action on its own, Israel is developing plans to attack Iran's nuclear program. Much like the IDF's historic raid on Iraq's Osirak nuclear facility on June 7, 1981, the attack would be conducted by air. Entirely unlike that raid, Israel would employ nuclear-tipped "bunker-buster" bombs in its assault.
Stop. Read that again.
Yes, you read it right. Israel is planning a nuclear first strike on Iran.
What's more, this report isn't coming from some isolated blogger typing away in a Bay Area loft. This is Britain's paper of record making the allegation. The same paper that, in 1986, provided the world credible evidence that Israel itself had joined the community of nuclear-armed nations. And it's saying that two Israeli air force squadrons are currently training for a planned 2,000-mile round-trip raid on a uranium enrichment plant in Natanz, a heavy water plant in Arak, and a uranium conversion plant in Isfahan, Iran.
For the record, official Israeli sources categorically deny the story, using words such as "rumors," absurd," and "incorrect." For its part, Iran is already turning the story into a propaganda campaign, and promising that Israel will rue the day it attacks Iran. Lovely. Now enjoy your daytrading.
Speaking of trading
Although it's almost passing contemplation, contemplating the implications of news like this is what we do at the Fool. So let's take a broad brush and sketch them out for you:
- Israeli investments: If war were to break out, you can expect the stocks of Israeli-based companies like Koor Industries
(NYSE:KOR), Nice Systems (NASDAQ:NICE), Partner Communications (NASDAQ:PTNR), and Teva (NASDAQ:TEVA)to fall on the news.
- Beneficiaries of the news are just as obvious. Additional hostilities on top of the oil-soaked sands of the Middle East can't be good for prices at the pump. Oil prices would skyrocket, and with them, the value of investments in oil majors like ExxonMobil
(NYSE:XOM)and ConocoPhillips (NYSE:COP). Further abroad, you might expect players less reliant on Middle Eastern oil for their supplies -- such as Canada's Suncor (NYSE:SU)and Russia's Gazprom and Lukoil -- to do even better.
- Uncertain times call for "defensive" investing. Whether the U.S. gets involved in the aftermath of an Israeli raid on Iran or not, I'd expect to see defense stocks like General Dynamics and Lockheed take off.
- But more generally, a nuclear strike -- anywhere, but especially in the Middle East -- is going to rile the markets more than any of us can imagine. And if nuclear war were to break out, God forbid, investing will become a very discomforting business.
The good news
Yes, there is some good news amidst all this bad: The pundits are wrong. I'm referring to those who argue that the "new" members of the nuclear club are more inclined to use nukes than are nations such as Russia and the U.S., who spent decades contemplating such happy subjects as nuclear winter and mutually assured destruction.
The good news is that this theory did not hold up in 2002. In the "first nuclear crisis of the 21st century," newly-nuclear-armed Pakistan and India decided not to go to war, even after the latter's own parliament was attacked by a terrorist group. Further evidence that the nuclear option is off the table worldwide can be found in the U.S.'s non-nuclear response to the Sept. 11 attacks, and in the firestorm of criticism the U.S. government faced when it floated the possibility of using nuclear-tipped bunker-busters in Iran and elsewhere. Everywhere you look, reason still prevails -- for now.
In short, I suspect (and hope) that Israel's leaked "plans" to nuke Tehran are a threat and nothing more. But I hope even more that the threat of war might goad the EU, Russia, and the U.S. to redouble their efforts to find not just a non-nuclear, but a peaceful solution to Iran's quest for nuclear arms. The time for European skittishness, Russian great-gamesmanship, and UN ineffectuality is past. It's time to get together and end this before it starts.
The big picture
Which brings us to the real reason that the prospect of a nuclear shooting war between Israel and Iran upsets people so: It's out of our control. We have no idea how reasonable these people are, or whether they're more or less amenable to diplomacy than were the Indians and Pakistanis five years ago. It's that uncertainty, and our lack of control over the situation, which so terrifies us.
But I've got news for you, people: The future is always uncertain, and we've never had real control over nuclear war. Ever since the Soviet Union tested its first atomic bomb in 1949, the situation has been out of our hands. For those of you counting, that's been nearly 58 years of uncertainty -- and not a single nuclear weapon has been used in anger over all that time.
A nuclear strike, however, may occur in the Middle East. It could break out in Pakistan. It could break out here in the U.S. -- but that's a threat we've lived with for going on six decades. With that wealth of experience behind us, I humbly suggest that pulling out of the market, pouring all of your wealth into gold coins, and burying them in a sack in the backyard would have been a terribly costly investing choice in 1949, and it remains so today.
Instead, you should pray for the best, and invest prudently, just as you have always done, in hopes that common sense will ultimately prevail.