Will Israel attack Iran?

Last Monday’s meeting between Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and American President Barack Obama at the White House was not as tense as expected. It even appeared that the two leaders were able to arrive at some sort of a middle ground. Just the same, the meeting didn’t produce any assurance that Israel wouldn’t attack Iran. On the contrary, the President uttered words that the Prime Minister had clearly wanted to hear: That Israel has the right to do as it sees fit in order to defend its sovereignty.

Israeli leaders insist that if they don’t attack Iran soon, their opportunity to prevent the Islamic Republic, the President of which has long been calling for the destruction of Israel, from acquiring nuclear weapons would permanently disappear. Israel doesn’t want Iran to be able to enrich uranium. This for them is the red line– the point that calls for exercising the last resort, which is the use of force.

The problem is that the United States has a different idea of where that red line is drawn. The White House merely states that the Islamic Republic should not transform its nuclear facilities into assembly lines for nuclear bombs. The consensus is that it will take around five years before Iran can manufacture its own nuclear bomb, which means that the Americans have a longer time table than the Israelis.

For their part, the Iranians insist that their nuclear program is designed solely for peaceful purposes. Intelligence reports, however, suggest otherwise.

Obviously, a nuclear-armed Iran would have destabilizing effects on the Middle East. First of all, it could trigger Iranian aggression. The world has seen a sneak preview of how this would look like when Tehran tried to flex its naval muscles in the Straight of Hormuz recently. Secondly, it could embolden Iran’s terrorist proxies like the Hezbollah to step up their terror attacks. Thirdly, it would trigger arms races between, on one hand, Iran and Israel, and, on the other hand, Iran and the Sunni Arabs. Such arms races would be doubly dangerous due to the lack of a direct hotline among the involved actors, coupled with their long history of mutual hostilities. Fourthly and perhaps more importantly, it could result in transfer of nuclear technologies to terrorist organizations as well.

But an Israeli attack on Iran would have equally destabilizing effects too.

In the short term, it would invite retaliation from the Islamic Republic. True, the ayatollahs and President Mahmoud Amadinejad have limited linear military options, save for some token missile strikes. But the non-linear attacks from Iran’s terrorist proxies in Israel could be devastating, and so would naval hostilities in the Straight of Hormuz. This would surely bring oil prices up and the global economy down.

In the long term, on the other hand, an attack on Iran would only make its leaders more resolute in acquiring a nuclear bomb, since they would see Israel as a real and direct threat. Indeed, direct Israeli threat could be used as a justification for Iran to leave the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and pursue its weapons program. More importantly, an Israeli attack would strengthen the current Iranian regime domestically. In the face of a foreign threat, the various Iranian factions would surely unite behind the Supreme Leader, the clerics, and the President; thereby undoing the gains of the Green Movement.

I hope somebody in Tel Aviv is advising Prime Minister Netanyahu that an airstrike now would only delay, not destroy, Iran’s nuclear program, and only for a couple of years at most. The costs, on the other hand, would be immediate instability and renewed political capital for the Islamic Republic to carry on its nuclear schemes in the long term.

President Obama understands these, which is why he has been quite anxious to prevent the Prime Minister from ordering the air strikes. Unfortunately, he doesn’t have that much leverage over the Israeli leader, since he is facing a re-election campaign.

Fortunately for the President, the Iranians are stalling. Tehran has responded positively, for instance, to the invitation of European Union Foreign Policy Chief Lady Catherine Ashton to conduct fresh negotiations regarding proposed inspections of its nuclear facilities by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). The proposed talks would involve Washington, London, Paris, Berlin, Moscow, and Beijing. Among these actors, it is China that has real leverage over Iran, and there are analysts who say that Beijing, wary of another Middle East fiasco that might send oil prices skyrocketing, might soon pull some levers over Tehran.

But will this show of goodwill from the Islamic Republic dissuade Prime Minister Netanyahu? Or would he merely call this phony and order the attacks anyway?


5 thoughts on “Will Israel attack Iran?”

  1. Nice piece Jay. Just wondering how domestic political considerations can affect the international situation. With a troubled stint in Afghanistan, with troops from Iraq just recently pulled out, with still tentative economic growth, and with enormous security implications of another Arab-Israeli war will have, the current Obama administration’s stance is indeed understandable.

    But apart from that, this year is also an election year for the US. Aside from negative economic effects, any major armed conflict now in West Asia especially involving US forces may affect the incumbent’s chances in November (not that I think the GOP field can win it but we can never tell until election day).

    How about Israel’s Netanhayu and his Likud party? In 2009, although it gained more seats and votes than in the previous Knesset election, it still was not the top vote getter (unlike before under Sharon). Next year is an election year for Israel. Will he or Likud benefit politically from a military strike? Why does it seem he is eager to hack it out with Khamenei and Ahmadinejad’s forces? Or is it because he thinks other Arab nations don’t have the capacity now to act militarily against it save for Iran (with forces from Egypt, Libya, Iraq, and Syria obviously out of the equation)?

    I suppose both Obama and Netanhayu are playing what Putnam would call a two level game. Let’s just hope that diplomatic negotiations will calm things down and still win in the end. For as the saying goes, when elephants fight, it is the grass that suffers.

    1. Sir, thanks for these insights! I have to admit that I’m not very familiar with the dynamics of Israel’s domestic politics, so I wouldn’t know ho much political gains would air strikes deliver for the Likud. I think studying these factors is key to answering the question of whether Bibi would proceed with the air strikes or not. Thank you sir!

  2. In 1981, Israel unilaterally made an air strike against an under-construction nuclear reactor of Iraq. Israel was condemned internationally. Yet, it was strategic that they have prevented a nuclear capable Iraq. They call this a preventive strike. And more importantly, Israel went scot-free.

    The scenario today has a lot of parallels to the pre 1981 air strike of Israel against Iraq’s nuclear facilities. So, I feel israel will really do an air strike if Iran persist on building the reactor (uranium enrichment) despite international pressures.

    Moreover, I think Iran is not capable of making a retaliation just as Iraq was not able to make a war-level retaliation. I think tensions between Iran and Israel post-air strike might include a rhetoric declaration of war by Iran without actual mobilization of its actual army. Conflicts will be limited to espionage “war”, propaganda, sanctions or very small skirmishes.

    Iran cannot launch a war because they will be effectively neutralized. They know this. US and EU, even Saudi Arabia will contain a belligerent Iran. I doubt if China and Russia will back up a declaration of war of Iran. It is beyond the interest of the two countries.

    But of course, USA support to the air strike or whatever means of destroying the Iranian nuclear program is the crucial factor.

    1. I think there are fundamental differences between Iraq and Iran.

      Iraq was a secular government that knew when to stop, so to speak. When they saw that the Israelis were not bluffing with their air strike threats, they knew it was strategic to back down. Iran, on the other hand, is led by clerics with extra-ordinary zeal. I think an attack from Israel would embolden them.

      This is not to say that the response would be all-out war, of course. You are right, the response from Iran would be calibrated. But it doesn’t mean Israel would go scotch-free. I did say the response would be non-linear since there are few options for Tehran; you’re right, they can’t launch a full war. But unlike Iraq in 1981, which was smarting from the Iran-Iraq War, Iran now has Hamas and Hezbollah to do the retaliation for them. I think Iran would respond, but in a careful way. If it responds weakly, it will lose support domestically; it it responds too forcefully, it would lose.

      Finally, I don’t think an airstrikes would be strategically beneficial for Israel. I think it’s the contrary, as I’ve said above. Like Saddam’s attack in 1980, an Israeli attack would strengthen the ayatollahs and would be the surest way to ensure that Iran would have the bomb. Further, an increase in oil prices due to escalation of crisis would benefit Iran, and would fund its nuclear program; unless China and Russia stops buying oil from the country.

    2. There are important differences between the current scenario and the Osirak one which might point to a different outcome.

      First is that Iraq at the time of Operation Opera was at war with Iran. Understandably, it was reluctant to pursue war against Israel, not when they would’ve had to fight a two-front war, especially against Israel, who has demonstrated their ability to defeat the Iraqi Army with ease in 1948 and 1967. Iran is not involved in a war at the moment, and its military is far more capable than any other Middle Eastern state save for Israel and Turkey.

      Second, Iran is far less likely to be swayed by realpolitik (given the nature of the regime) than Iraq was in 1981. There might have been changes, but ayatollahs remain in charge and they have weathered sanctions before. In short, threats of sanctions and economic reprisals are not likely to work on an Iran determined to have the bomb.

      Third, Israel is no longer “under siege” as it was in the 80s. Neighboring Arab states have at least tacitly accepted the existence of the Jewish state and therefore there is less urgency in launching preventive strikes. Not to mention Israel has enough nukes to burn Iran down to bedrock if it so much as flings a spitball at Israel.

      All these reasons point to Israel not attacking (for now). The biggest indicator is that they’re talking with the US about a strike in the public realm. That’s not how Israel would act if it was already planning an air strike. Things may change of course, but as of now, I see that Israel would just rather not have another nuclear power in the area which might check their nuclear trump card.

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