On the front cover of this week’s New York Times magazine are the words “Israel vs Iran” in smoldering, ashen lettering, the implication being that a fiery, devastating war between them is on the horizon. Inside the magazine Israeli journalist Ronen Bergman, the political and military analyst for Yedioth Ahronoth, Israel’s best-selling daily newspaper and the author of a book about Israel’s secret war with Iran, discusses the current thinking inside Israel’s national security establishment about whether Israel should carry out a unilateral military strike against Iran’s nuclear facilities. Although there is an ongoing debate over this question among Israeli policymakers, military and intelligence officials, Bergman’s conclusion is unequivocal: “After speaking with many senior Israeli leaders and chiefs of the military and the intelligence, I have come to believe that Israel will indeed strike Iran in 2012.”
Coming from Bergman, a highly respected analyst, this conclusion should be taken very seriously. Of course, previous predictions about an Israeli strike against Iran, also based upon first-hand access to Israeli decision-makers, proved to be wrong, or at least premature. Jeffrey Goldberg, in a much discussed piece in the September 2010 issue of the Atlantic Monthly, predicted that Israel was going to strike Iran by the summer of 2011. He now claims that this didn’t occur because the Stuxnet virus, which destroyed many Iranian centrifuges, set back Iran’s nuclear program and thus extended the time-frame for a possible Israeli attack.
Is all of this speculation about an imminent Israeli war with Iran just sensationalist punditry, designed to attract readers, or is it well-founded and credible?
Israeli leaders are undoubtedly deeply concerned about the threat from Iran. This perceived threat has come to eclipse all other problems for Israel including the Palestinian problem. There is almost no public debate in Israel over the threat from Iran. Only a small number of leftwing Israelis criticize what they regard as the over-emphasis on the Iranian threat (what one author has described as Israel’s “Iranophobia”) and argue that Israel should focus on peace-making with the Palestinians. But the vast majority of the Israeli public is far more worried about the threat from Iran than about the ongoing conflict with the Palestinians (repeated references to the Holocaust by Israeli politicians—claiming Iran is like Nazi Germany and Ahmadinejad is like Hitler—have no doubt fuelled Israeli anxieties). The slow death of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process is, at most, of secondary concern for them.
Although the consensus in Israel is that the advent of a nuclear Iran would pose an unprecedented threat to Israel, there is less agreement among Israelis on exactly how serious a threat to Israel a nuclear Iran would be. Is a nuclear-armed Iran an existential threat to Israel? While Prime Minister Netanyahu has occasionally said or implied this, other Israeli leaders have disputed it. For instance, Ehud Barak, Israel’s minister of defense, has said: “I am not among those who believe Iran is an existential issue for Israel. Israel is strong, I don’t see anyone who could pose an existential threat.” Similarly, the current opposition leader and former foreign minister Tzipi Livni and former Mossad chief Efraim Halevy have also suggested that a nuclear Iran is not an existential threat to Israel and insisted that Israel could protect itself under any circumstances.
Many officials within the Israeli military and intelligence establishment believe that Israel can deter a nuclear-armed Iran, for the same reasons that deterrence worked during the Cold War (though the world came very close to a nuclear war during the Cuban missile crisis)—both Moscow and Washington understood the concept of ‘mutually assured destruction’ (MAD). Likewise, the threat of massive Israeli retaliation will deter a nuclear Iran. According to this view, it is extremely unlikely that Iran would attack Israel with nuclear weapons because Iranians are aware of the catastrophic consequences of such an act. Iran, like all other countries, believes that Israel has a large stockpile of nuclear weapons and also has a second strike capability. Therefore, Iran must take into account that if it uses nuclear weapons against Israel, Israel will use the same means against Iranian cities, and this would mean the death of millions of Iranians. The Iranian regime is radical, but not suicidal. It is, in the language of deterrence theory, a ‘rational actor.’
But how sure can Israel really be that deterrence will work? Just a small risk that it won’t may be too much for Israel to bear. Even if Iran were deterred from launching a nuclear attack against Israel, a nuclear confrontation between Israel and Iran might arise from misperceptions and miscalculations during a conventional crisis. This risk is exacerbated by the fact that there is no direct and almost no indirect communication and no dialogue between Israel and Iran. Such a lack of communication was not the situation in the Cold War between the Soviet Union and the US. Israel must also consider the possibility (however low) of an accidental or unauthorized nuclear launch by Iran. There is also the risk of terrorist organizations acquiring nuclear weapons or material from Iran.
In addition to these nuclear risks, there are a number of very negative potential consequences for Israel of a nuclear-armed Iran:
- It would be the end of Israel’s nuclear monopoly in the region.
- It would change the regional balance of power as Iran’s power would increase. Iran’s status as the leader of the radical forces in the Middle East would be strengthened. US power in the region would be weakened.
- Possession of nuclear weapons could lead Iran to adopt an even more aggressive foreign policy vis-à-vis its neighbors in the Gulf, and against Israel (for example, by encouraging Hezbollah to attack Israel).
- Hamas and Hezbollah would be emboldened.
- It would trigger nuclear proliferation and maybe even a nuclear-arms race in the Middle East. Turkey, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia could seek their own nuclear weapons. If so, the risks of nuclear war, accidents, theft of nuclear material, and technology sharing grow exponentially.
- There is also concern in Israel about the social and psychological impact that a MAD-like balance of terror with Iran might have on immigration to Israel and emigration from Israel. Some Israeli public figures (such as former Deputy Minister of Defense Ephraim Sneh) have argued that the mere existence of the Iranian bomb might lead Israelis to leave Israel for a safer place where their existence is not threatened. Israel’s raison d’être as a ‘safe haven’ for Jews will also be undermined diminishing the willingness of Jews in the Diaspora to move to Israel. Personally, I think that this concern is exaggerated. Very few Israelis will leave Israel because Iran has a nuclear weapon and those who do would probably have left anyway. Nor will it have a big influence on the willingness of Diaspora Jews to move to Israel. Israel is hardly a safe haven today and the vast majority of Diaspora Jews who immigrate to Israel do so for religious-Zionist reasons.
In sum, for Israel, the Iranian nuclear threat is not just that Iran may one day drop the bomb on Israel. The nuclearization of Iran has many other negative, and much more likely, consequences for Israel. Faced with this real and growing danger, what will Israel do? For now, Israel is encouraging the international community to enact ‘crippling sanctions’ against Iran. While this approach is certainly bearing fruit (most notably, the EU’s newly imposed ban on Iranian oil), Israeli leaders are highly skeptical that sanctions will persuade the Iranian regime to completely abandon their nuclear ambitions. If sanctions fail and the U.S. doesn’t carry out a military strike itself—both of which seem likely—will Israel attack?
If Israel does decide to attack Iran, it will almost certainly have to do so this year. The window of opportunity for a successful Israeli strike will not stay open forever. Iran is steadily improving its air defenses, dispersing its nuclear research and production facilities, and making them impregnable (by burying them deep underground and protected by reinforced concrete). Within a year, its nuclear program may effectively become immune from a military attack.
Thus, Israel is soon likely to face a stark choice between either taking preventive military action by itself against Iran or trying to deter a nuclear-Iran. Even if it does attack, Israel could not completely eliminate the nuclear threat posed by Iran. At best, it would delay Iran’s nuclear program by a few years (and much less if Iran also has secret nuclear facilities). Would this really be worthwhile given the harsh retaliation against Israel that Iran can be expected to unleash if it were attacked (this could include Iranian missile attacks on Israel, encouraging Hezbollah to strike Israel, and also supporting terrorism aimed at Israeli and Jewish targets around the world)?
The fact that an Israeli military strike cannot ultimately stop Iran from going nuclear, and could well result in a devastating war between Israel and Iran, and probably create a lot of regional and even global instability, leads me to believe that the possible costs of an Israeli attack outweigh the possible benefit—the amount of time a successful strike would buy. Will Netanyahu and Barak make a similar cost/benefit calculation?
One final factor that will surely affect their calculation will be the US attitude toward an Israeli attack. If Israel attacked Iran without first informing the US the impact on the US-Israeli relationship would be very damaging, especially if the US then got dragged into a war with Iran. Israel needs a ‘green light,’ or at least an amber one (that is, tacit acceptance) from the US before attacking Iran. I doubt the Obama Administration will provide this (allegedly, the Bush Administration didn’t when asked to by Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert in 2008).
Israel could still decide to attack Iran without getting American permission, perhaps only informing the US just before they carry out the attack. This way, they could prepare the US for the fall-out of the attack, while maintaining their freedom of action. If Israel does end up choosing this option, the best time for it to do so would probably be just before the US presidential election in November. With Obama coming up for re-election and with his domestic support still weak (unless the US economy miraculously quickly recovers), Israel could hope that President Obama would not be in a position to condemn and punish it for attacking Iran and would have to support it.
My own conclusion, therefore, is that Israel probably won’t attack Iran, and will hope instead that the United States will eventually do so. If I am wrong, however, we’ll know this year, most likely before the November election. Will there be an ‘October Surprise’?