War Stories

Will Israel Bomb Iran?

A close reading of Jeffrey Goldberg’s Atlantic article.

 F-15E Strike Eagles 

Jeffrey Goldberg’s article in the latest Atlantic, on whether Israel will (or should) attack Iran’s nuclear facilities in the coming months, is the best article I’ve read on the subject—shrewd and balanced reporting combined with sophisticated analysis of the tangled strategic dilemmas.

Whatever you think should be done about the Iranian program to build an A-bomb (and Goldberg describes his own position as one of “deep, paralyzing ambivalence“), read his piece before thinking about it much more.

Based on interviews with dozens of Israeli, Arab, and U.S. officials, Goldberg puts the odds of an Israeli strike by next July—involving 100 or so F-15E, F-16I, and F-16C aircraft dropping munitions on the uranium-enrichment facilities at Natanz and Qom, the nuclear-research center at Esfahan, and maybe the Bushehr reactor, among other sites—at “better than 50 percent.”

He fully itemizes the risks and possible catastrophes of such a move: lethal reprisals from Hezbollah, if not Iran itself; a full-blown regional war; a cataclysmic spike in oil prices; a rupture of U.S.-Israeli relations; a rash of terrorist strikes against Jews worldwide; and—not least and most likely—a solidification of the mullahs’ rule in Tehran.

Yet there are also considerable risks in letting Iran go ahead and build a small nuclear arsenal. I don’t think (though many Israelis, understandably, do) that the mullahs would nuke Jerusalem, once they had the means to do so; Israel has about 100 A-bombs and the means to deliver an obliterating response. (The mullahs may finance suicide bombers, but they aren’t so suicidal themselves.)

Still, a nuclear-armed Iran would provide cover (a “nuclear umbrella” of sorts) for Hezbollah and other militant proxies to step up their aggressiveness; it may draw smaller countries in the region into Iran’s orbit (and certainly deter them from doing anything against Iranian interests); it could sap the credibility of a subsequent U.S. policy to “contain” Iran (if we declined to use force to stop Iran from building a bomb, some might doubt we’d use force to stop it from using one); and, for this reason, it could spur others in the region to build their own bombs, thus sparking a new nuclear arms race.

Some nuclear-deterrence theorists believe that an arms race might not be a bad thing. If several powers in a region all have nukes, the argument goes, they will be deterred not only from starting a nuclear war but also from starting a conventional war, out of fear that it could easily escalate to a nuclear one. This is one big reason there’s been no war between India and Pakistan, or Russia and China, or (during the Cold War years) NATO and the Warsaw Pact.

There is something to this argument, but there are also at least three fallacies. First, all those pairs of rivals have come frighteningly close to nuclear war at various times and, in some instances, were saved as much by luck as by the doctrine of mutually assured destruction.

Second, all those countries’ arsenals have been fitted with “permissive action links” and other security measures (in some cases with U.S. assistance) that minimize the chances of inside lunatics launching missiles without authorization. This may not be true in the case of a Middle Eastern arms race.

Third, Iran and Israel are so near each other as to make “warning time” of an attack almost impossible. Therefore, in a crisis, one side might launch a first strike, if just to pre-empt the other side from launching a first strike. (This is what deterrence theorists call “crisis-instability.”) Even if neither side really wanted to nuke the other, circumstances might leave them with seemingly no alternative.

So the prospect of an Iranian bomb is very worrisome by any measure and an “existential issue” to Israelis, for whom “Never Again” is not merely a slogan and who therefore must take seriously Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s virulently anti-Semitic statements (which, as Goldberg notes, have been fully endorsed by Iran’s leading mullahs).

The real questions, then, are: What can be done, and what should be done, to keep an Iranian bomb from materializing?

As for what can be done, several Israeli officials told Goldberg that—while the task would be difficult and would require some (secret) green-lighting from the Saudis and perhaps other Arab leaders (if just to obtain permission to fly over their territory on the way to the targets)—they could mount an effective attack, not against the entire Iranian nuclear complex but against vital sections of it.

Though he doesn’t say so, the Israeli air force has spent much of the last decade equipping many of their U.S.-supplied F-15 and F-16 strike aircraft with external fuel tanks, which would give them the range to reach Iran and perhaps return without refueling.

Still, some Israeli officials tell Goldberg they’d prefer, for political and military reasons, that the United States launch the attack for them. Some U.S. officials fear that Israel might commence an attack with an eye toward drawing them into assisting (on the premise that the assault is too far gone to stop, so we might as well make sure it succeeds). Some Israelis also want President Barack Obama to take a harder line and state firmly that he will attack Iran if it continues on its path to nuclear weapons. Their argument is that Israel might back off from unilateral threats if the U.S. commitment were believable—and that Iran might back off its nuclear program, too. The flipside, however, is that if the firm pledge doesn’t faze the Iranians, it practically locks Obama into following through.

This leads to the matter of what should be done, a very different question—and some Israeli (as well as most U.S.) officials think an airstrike would be at least premature and probably a big mistake. Certainly, at least for the moment, it’s not the only option.

First, the most pessimistic intelligence projections, including those cited by Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, figure the Iranians could have a nuclear bomb sometime between one and three years from now. This is nothing that has to be dealt with right away. (It’s also an estimate that has been cited in years past, with no vindication.)

Second, there are signs that the U.N. sanctions against Iran—and, even more, the still stiffer sanctions imposed by the Obama administration and the European Union—are having some effect. Precisely what effect, and how this might impede or foment internal opposition to the nuclear program, is not yet clear. But Suzanne Maloney, a specialist on the Iranian economy at the Brookings Institution, notes that the sanctions are exacerbating a “huge schism” between the mullahs and Iran’s more traditional conservatives—though she, too, sees this as a “long-term” development, with uncertain impact in the short term, which is where the nuclear dilemmas arise.

The Iranian leadership, perhaps in response to growing pressures, did recently call for a return to the bargaining table on the question of letting a foreign government enrich its uranium and send it back in a form that cannot be used to build bombs. So far, anyway, this “concession” has involved only a regurgitation of the deal that they had worked out in June with Turkey and Brazil—which amounts to no real concession at all. Still, as the sanctions take their toll, especially on such matters as capital investment, oil refinement, and routine financial transactions, maybe the offers will get more serious.

Finally, there is much more that the Israelis could do to ease the crisis on this issue (assuming they want to, which isn’t clear). As Steve Clemons of the New America Foundation pointed out in a blog post about Goldberg’s article, they could embark on a round of real diplomacy with the Palestinians.

The point here is not that making nice in Gaza and the West Bank will compel the Iranians to stop spinning centrifuges or Muslim militants in various countries to lay down their arms. (Certainly Clemons, a realist, has no such illusions.) But if Israel made a genuine effort at starting peace talks and freezing settlements, it might help “de-couple” the issue of Iran from the issue of the Palestinians (which Iran and its proxies have always tried to link, an effort that Israel’s settlement policies have abetted).

And it may provide cover for the Saudis and other Arab nations—which fear and distrust Iran almost as much as Israel does—to join the pressure campaign against Tehran and perhaps, though covertly, help Israel more than they might otherwise if military action becomes unavoidable.

Those who find this notion outlandish should recall that, in July 2006, a few days after Hezbollah militiamen in southern Lebanon crossed the border, killed three Israeli soldiers, and kidnapped two others, prompting retaliation from Israeli rockets and artillery, the Arab League issued a statement condemning Hezbollah and supporting Israel’s right to self-defense. Some specialists urged then-President George W. Bush to seize the moment—a potential strategic turning point—with a round of shuttle diplomacy. But he didn’t; the Israelis escalated their strikes to disproportionate levels; and the Arab League backed away.

However, Goldberg doubts that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will initiate this sort of diplomacy, and his analysis of why is one of the most disturbing things about the Atlantic article. The key to understanding this fact is the prime minister’s 100-year-old father, Ben-Zion Netanyahu, a former secretary to Vladimir Jabotinsky, the founder of the most militant branch of Zionism and a firm opponent of any territorial concessions. A friend of the prime minister’s told Goldberg, “Always in the back of Bibi’s mind is Ben-Zion. He worries that his father will think he is weak.” Another said that as long as the old man is alive, “Bibi could not withdraw more” from the West Bank “and still look into his father’s eyes.”

It’s a thunderbolt of historical revelation to muse that, no less now than in the time of Greek tragedies, the fate of the most ancient turbulent region might be guided less by rational interests or Realpolitik than by father-son psychodramas, first the Bushes, now the Netanyahus.

One thing Goldberg writes is definitely true: Obama may soon be facing a defining moment, similar to John F. Kennedy’s with the Cuban Missile Crisis but more complex, in that Kennedy had just Nikita Khrushchev to deal with, while Obama would have not only the (much more unpredictable) Iranians but also the Israelis and a slew of regional players to confront, accommodate, bargain with, or who knows what.

In October 1962, Kennedy and his advisers also had the luxury of 13 days to hammer out a solution, much of it spent in meetings whose very existence was kept secret (and whose deliberations were not truly revealed for a quarter-century with the release of Kennedy’s White House tapes).

Obama and his team will not have that luxury. They might have to make momentous decisions and deals on the spot. Now’s a good time, then, to figure out what they want the outcome of the coming crisis to be and how far they’re willing to go to attain it.

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