War Stories

October Surprise

Why Israel may feel pressure to attack Iran before the U.S. presidential election.

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad kisses the Koran.

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad kisses the Quran before boarding a plane. Talks are set to resume on Iran’s nuclear program.

Atta Kenare/AFP/Getty Images.

Negotiations over Iran’s nuclear program resume in Turkey this weekend, attended by delegates from the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council plus Germany. Not much is likely to happen.

The big obstacle is this: The Iranians want a pocketful of nuclear weapons. Or, more to the point: The Iranians have always aspired to be the major power in their region. Several of the region’s powers—Israel, Pakistan, and India—have nukes, so Iran wants some too.

What many people are reluctant to admit is that Iran would want these nukes even if the country weren’t run by mullahs. Back in the early 1970s, when President Richard Nixon stepped up foreign arms sales (in part to spread American influence in the Third World, in part to shore up the trade balance), Henry Kissinger told the Shah of Iran that he could buy any weapon in the U.S. arsenal. The Shah asked for a Polaris submarine, which carried 16 nuclear missiles. (Kissinger had to tone down the offer: any weapon except nukes.)

Still, if Iran’s leaders were Western-leaning democrats, their nuclear program would be less worrisome. In 2006, when India was openly seeking to expand its nuclear arsenal, President George W. Bush not only declined to protest, he sold Delhi the supplies (as part of a “global partnership” pact) and declared it to be “a responsible state with advanced nuclear technology” and thus eligible for the same benefits as a state that had signed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (even though India was one of just three countries in the world that hadn’t).

Iranian leaders no doubt followed this story closely and drew from it the lesson that the United States was troubled not so much by Iranian nukes as by the Iranian regime.

This being the case, if the Iranians’ nuclear program has a military dimension (as it almost certainly does), one motive driving it is the old-fashioned doctrine of deterrence: They want a nuclear arsenal in part to deter their enemies, chiefly the United States and Israel, from launching an attack on their regime.

None of this is to say that Iran’s nuclear ambitions are purely defensive—or defensible. The danger, in large part, is the regime. It’s not a good thing for weapons of mass destruction to wind up in the hands of messianic fundamentalists.

Even so, it’s extremely unlikely that a nuclear-armed Iran would one day, out of the blue, start dropping bombs or firing missiles at Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. For one thing, whatever the status of Iran’s nuclear-enrichment program, they are probably years away from turning an explosive device into a weapon, miniaturizing it to fit inside a warhead, and installing the warhead on top of a missile heavy enough to deliver it over a long distance with accuracy.

For another thing, Israel is believed to possess up to 200 nuclear weapons. It’s a reasonable guess that they are dispersed, heavily protected, some of them mobile, perhaps at sea, and connected to redundant command-control networks so that, even if the capital is destroyed, the surviving weapons can still be launched. In other words, if Iran lobs some nukes at Israel, Israel can be counted on to blow Iran to smithereens. The Iranian leaders surely know this: They may sponsor suicide bombers, but they’re not suicidal themselves.

Some have inferred from this argument that an Iranian bomb is nothing to worry about. This inference is wrong, for several reasons. First, nuclear weapons are good not just for deterring but also for brandishing. They can provide cover for conventional aggression or intimidation. For instance, if Saddam Hussein had possessed some nukes before invading Kuwait, it’s unlikely that President George H.W. Bush and Secretary of State James Baker could have assembled or sustained the vast coalition that pushed Iraq’s army out of Kuwait. Or, during that same war, when Baker declared that a chemical or biological attack on Israel would be treated the same way as a nuclear attack against the United States, his threat might have been less credible if Saddam had had his own nukes to bargain with.

Similarly, a nuclear-armed Iran may push or condone the more militant factions within Hezbollah and other proxies to step up their aggression and take greater risks.

Second, the United States and the Soviet Union were able to maintain a “balance of terror” for several decades of Cold War tensions, without pushing the button, in part because both sides learned—and applied—the lessons of deterrence as they went along. They put missiles in blast-hardened silos and untargetable submarines. They set up early-warning radars and a hotline for managing crises. They installed coded locks (“permissive action links” or PALs) on their missiles, to minimize the chance that some loony general might launch a first-strike on his own. There is no assurance that the Iranians will do any of these things with their arsenal.

Third, there is the matter of geography. Moscow and Washington are 5,000 miles apart. If they were 900 miles apart (as Tehran and Jerusalem are), there probably would have been a nuclear war at some point in the last 50 years. It takes a half hour for an ICBM to fly from Moscow to Washington; that’s just barely enough time for the president to decide what to do if a blip on the radar screen suggests an attack is underway. It takes about five minutes for a short-range missile to fly from Tehran to Israel. That’s probably not enough time.

There were several times during the Cold War when America’s finely tuned radars mistook a flock of geese for a flight of Soviet missiles or when a software glitch produced a false warning of an attack. In all these instances, the leaders could afford to wait a bit to see how the signals panned out. According to David Hoffman’s frightening book The Dead Hand: The Untold Story of the Cold War Arms Race and Its Dangerous Legacy, there was an incident in 1983 when a Soviet early-warning satellite picked up signals of an American missile attack. The signal in this case was never straightened out; the system kept warning of an attack all the way until the point when the warheads would have exploded, had there really been an attack. Luckily, the Soviet lieutenant colonel at the monitoring station, thinking that this couldn’t really be happening, decided—on his own authority—to tell his commander that it was a false alarm and, therefore, there was no need to launch the Soviets’ own ICBMs. He was lying: According to the warning system, the attack was real. But by lying, he probably prevented World War III.

It’s not at all clear that an Iranian or Israeli officer would keep his cool under similar circumstances (or that he’d be so laid back to begin with)—especially if the false warning coincided with a diplomatic crisis or a military exercise or some other moment of extraordinary tension.

I don’t think the Iranian nuclear program constitutes an urgent danger. But if there is a way to nip this whole panoply of nightmare scenarios in the bud—if there’s a diplomatic route to keeping Iran from going nuclear—then it’s worth pursuing, at some effort and cost.

The good news is that the sanctions have been taking their toll on the Iranian economy and its international standing. If the Supreme Leader really does think nuclear weapons are immoral (as he has said), or if there are factions within the government that think the pursuit of a bomb is costing too much, then maybe this weekend’s talks will bear fruit.

The bad news is that, for the Iranians to give up such a high-profile trump card, they need to get something in return—a suspension of sanctions, a guarantee of security, something that’s tangible and valuable. Is there some deal—even hypothetically—that is, at once, worthwhile to the Iranians and acceptable to the Israelis? That’s the key question; it’s hard to envision such a thing.

In fact, if the Israelis really are intent on attacking the Iranian nuclear facilities, they’re likely to do so before this November’s American presidential elections. If they started an attack and needed U.S. firepower to help them complete the task, Barack Obama might open himself up to perilous political attacks—for being indecisive, weak, appeasing, anti-Israel, you name it—if he didn’t follow through. It could cost him the votes of crucial constituencies. If the Israelis tried to pressure the United States into joining an attack after the election, Obama would have (to borrow a phrase from another context) more flexibility. So, to the extent the Israeli leaders have decided to attack (and it’s not at all clear they have), they are probably thinking: much better sooner than later.

One thought worth considering is that the Iranians have probably contemplated this scenario as well. They certainly do worry about an Israeli attack, and for good reason. The fact that they’ve buried some of their facilities so deeply underground, at great cost, attests to this. If they think the Israelis are serious, maybe they will come up with a deal to avert a strike, at least for the next several months. The question, then, is whether their offer—whatever it is—seems authentic and sufficiently tempting for the Israelis to accept.

Maybe the negotiations will be worth following, after all.