Few in the know doubt the fact that Iran has acquired the knowledge to produce an atomic bomb. Israeli intelligence is far more concerned with Iran’s pace of advancement towards making the bomb than American or European intelligence sources are. The question in Israel is no longer if Israel should eliminate the Iranian threat, but rather when.
The Netanyahu government is skeptical about the Obama administration’s ability to reverse Iran’s quest for a nuclear weapon. And Hillary Clinton’s statement about offering the Arab Gulf states a protective umbrella against an Iranian nuclear threat only intensified the Sunni Arab states’ skepticism over America’s capacity to stop the Iranians. In fact, in the Middle East, the Obama administration appears weak and indecisive and resigned to the reality of a nuclear Iran.
For several years now, a game of mutual intimidation has gone on between Israel and Iran. The Islamic Republic of Iran and its theocratic leadership advertised its successful testing of long-range missiles, while Israel responded with public shows of the long-range refueling capabilities of its aircraft. Iran acquired sophisticated anti-aircraft missiles to defend against aerial attacks and, in 2007, Israel responded with the destruction of the Syrian nuclear facility.
This back and forth “game” is serious. Both sides understand the consequences of a nuclear attack. Former Iranian President Rafsanjani has boasted that an Iranian attack would destroy Israel, and that an Israeli counterattack would create acceptable damage.
Rafsanjani’s point was obvious: Israel’s smallness makes it vulnerable to total destruction, whereas Iran’s huge size could easily overcome an Israeli attack.
The real issue, however, is not rooted solely in the impact of bombing by one side or the other. While an Iranian bombing of Israel might indeed devastate the Jewish state, it would not destroy it. And an Israeli counterpunch could do much greater damage to Iran than anticipated by Rafsanjani.
Let us assume that the Israeli Air Force attacked the nuclear facilities spread throughout Iran and damaged or destroyed its capacity to produce a bomb for at least three to five years. It would certainly give Israel a respite and partial relief to its existential anxieties. What Israel cannot eliminate by attacking the Iranian nuclear facilities, however, is the know-how acquired by Iranian scientists. It would therefore become just a matter of time before the Iranians restore their nuclear capacity.
The consequences of an Israeli attack would doubtless be wide condemnation of the Jewish state in international forums, the UN in particular. More importantly, however, such a strike would solidify the mullahs’ control of Iran by appealing to the patriotism of all Iranians. It would force reformers and democrats who seek change to close ranks with the despised authoritarian regime.
As long as the regime of Ayatollah Khamenei and Ahmadinejad remains intact, bombing and destroying most of Iran’s nuclear facilities would at best only provide temporary relief. The cost of such bombing missions might be too prohibitive. Iran would unleash its dependencies — Syria, Hezbollah, and Hamas — against Israel’s population centers, with much greater damage to Israel’s civilian population than was caused by the Second Lebanon War of 2006.