Israel-Iran War: Not Inevitable
A chorus of pundits has lately been arguing that an Israeli attack against Iran’s nuclear facilities is either inevitable or commendable. Recently, Jeffery Goldberg predicts in The Atlantic that Israeli will strike by next July. Reuel Marc Gerecht, an editor for the Weekly Standard, urges that regional stability calls for Israel wasting no more time in launching a pre-emptive hit. These arguments predictably come from the neoconservative crowd who urged the United States to topple Saddam Hussein as an avenue toward reaching regime change in Iran.
But similar voices have been heard outside the usual cohort. Nearly a third of House Republicans have signed onto a resolution endorsing a pre-emptive Israeli attack on Iran. A so-called Bipartisan Policy Center report coauthored by two former U.S. senators has foretold of an Israeli attack. The Joint Forces Quarterly, a publication of the National Defense University, recently counseled that the United States must “prepare for the inevitable aftermath” of an Israeli strike on Iran.
Common to the views of both the predictors and the prescribers is an apocalyptic view of Iranian nuclear attack on Israel. Inexplicably absent from the argument is any consideration as to why Iran would initiate a first strike attack on Israel. President Ahmadinejad’s vitriolic anti-Zionist, Holocaust-denying spew is unconscionable, but it does not translate into a clear-cut intent to launch a nuclear missile against Israel.
Iran’s Rational Calculations
Ahmadinejad’s confrontational exhortations are aimed at rallying the “Arab street” and showing that a Persian leader cares more about the Palestinians than Arab leaders. But even this pro-Palestinian rhetoric has proven largely empty. During Israel’s three-week assault against Gaza, Iran offered no credible threats against Israel nor did it pressure neighboring Arab states to intervene to stop the carnage. Iran similarly left its Hezbollah allies to their fate during Israel’s 2006 war in southern Lebanon. And rather than endanger larger economic and political interests, Iran remained relatively silent when Russia and China violently repressed militant Islamic activists in Chechnya and among the ethnic Uyghurs in the Xinjiang region.
This behavior is illustrative of a regime that rationally calculates its national state interests. Israel is a nuclear-weapons state with land, air, and sea-based delivery systems, and the Jewish state would retaliate massively if Iran attacked. Iran’s leadership shows no predilection to commit suicide. The political crackdown in Iran following the June 2009 sham elections underscores Supreme Leader Khamenei and Ahmadinejad’s intention to hold on to political power at whatever cost. They would not throw away this status in a futile attack against Israel. The substantial personal investments of the ideologically passionate Revolutionary Guard’s leadership in all sectors of the Iranian economy, highlighted in a 2009 Rand Corporation study, should temper its itch to launch an unnecessary war. Even zealots want to preserve their power and affluence.
Finally, a nuclear strike on Israel would likely destroy Jerusalem, a revered Muslim holy place. It would kill a substantial portion of the more than one-and-a-half million Israeli Muslim Arabs (23 percent of Israel’s population) and perhaps a chunk of the four million Muslims that reside in the West Bank and Gaza. Such death and destruction certainly would not be viewed as a victory in Iran or the Muslim world.
Diverse Israeli Responses
Ahmadinejad’s belligerency is reason for many in Israel to fear a nuclear Iran. But not all Israeli leaders believe that Iran is an undeterable mortal threat. “Iran well understands,” reasoned Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak, “that an [attack] of this sort would set her back thousands of years.” Former Mossad chief Ephraim Halevi similarly believes that Iran’s prowess and Israel’s vulnerability is exaggerated. As he explained in a 2009 interview, "[Iran] is not an existential threat. It is not within the power of Iran to destroy the state of Israel — at best it can cause Israel grievous damage. Israel is indestructible."
The claim that Iran is on the verge of acquiring a nuclear weapon is similarly misplaced. Army Lt. Gen. James Cartwright, the Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, has offered a more accurate assessment. Testifying in April 2010 before the Senate Armed Services Committee, he estimated that Iran was from three to five years from constructing a nuclear weapon. Moreover, that assessment may have overestimated Iran’s technological prowess: Cartwright’s judgment included Iran achieving simultaneous success in acquiring a sufficient amount of highly enriched uranium, assembling a workable bomb, and constructing an accurate missile. But even this presupposes that the Iranian regime has decided to build a bomb, a verdict lacking solid evidentiary support. Many observers believe that Iran ultimately will adopt the “Japan option” — possessing the capability to construct quickly a nuclear weapon if sufficiently threatened.
An Israeli strike would only set back but not destroy Iran’s nuclear industry. An Oxford Research Group briefing paper predicted that following an attack, Iran would quit the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (why stay when a non-signatory state bombs with impunity a signatory state?) and make no excuse for initiating a nuclear weapons program. Israel would feel compelled to attack again, setting off a series of escalating counterattacks. The entire Middle East quickly would devolve into twists of violence.
In a war game played in December 2009 at the Brookings Institution, an Israeli attack on Iran triggered a regional conflagration. According to the scenario, the fighting escalated to include Lebanon and Gaza, terrorist hits in Israel and Europe, missile strikes against Saudi oil fields, attacks on oil tankers, the mining of the Strait of Hormuz, and ultimately, massive U.S. military intervention in the Gulf region. An attack would greatly complicate current U.S. struggles to stabilize Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan. A report by the International Crisis Group recently described in chilling detail how Israel, Hezbollah, Syria, and Iran currently are poised in a precarious balance of terror. The slightest provocation or miscalculation could trigger carnage heretofore unseen in the modern Middle East, a catastrophe a strike on Iran surely would trigger.
An Israeli attack would bolster al-Qaeda’s propaganda that the United States is at war with Islam. Washington currently is at war in five Muslim countries (Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia). The Arab world and other majority Muslim countries would view the United States as wholly complicit in any Israeli attack, a Christian state supporting a Jewish state to make war against a sixth Muslim state. President Obama’s standing in the Arab world, which a new Pew Research opinion poll shows has precipitously dropped in the past year, would nose dive into an uncontrollable free fall, canceling out his vow to reach out to the Muslim world.
Among the many lessons drawn from the U.S. invasion of Iraq was that unintended consequences invariably flow from a war, even one of your own making. Current assurances that an Israeli attack on Iran would protect U.S. allies and bolster regional peace and stability should be treated with the same respect that we now treat the Bush administration’s assurances that Saddam Hussein’s Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction.
© 2010 Foreign Policy in Focus