Israel Isn't Going to Attack Iran and Neither Will the United States
The radio superhero The Shadow had the power to “cloud men’s minds.” But nothing clouds men’s minds like anything that has to do with Jews or Israel. This year’s variation on that theme is the idea that Israel is about to attack Iran. Such a claim repeatedly appears in the media. Some have criticized Israel for attacking Iran and turning the Middle East into a cauldron of turmoil (not as if the region needs any help in that department) despite the fact that it hasn’t even happened.
On the surface, of course, there is apparent evidence for such a thesis. Israel has talked about attacking Iran and one can make a case for such an operation. Yet any serious consideration of this scenario — based on actual research and real analysis rather than what the uninformed assemble in their own heads or Israeli leaders sending a message to create a situation where an attack isn't necessary — is this: It isn’t going to happen.
Indeed, the main leak from the Israeli government, by an ex-intelligence official who hates Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, has been that the Israeli government already decided not to attack Iran. He says that he worries this might change in the future but there’s no hint that this has happened or will happen. Defense Minister Ehud Barak has publicly denied plans for an imminent attack as have other senior government officials.
Of course, one might joke that the fact that Israeli leaders talk about attacking Iran is the biggest proof that they aren’t about to do it. But Israel, like other countries, should be subject to rational analysis. Articles written by others are being spun as saying Israel is going to attack when that's not what they are saying. I stand by my analysis and before December 31 we will see who was right. I'm not at all worried about stating very clearly that Israel is not going to go to war with Iran.
So why are Israelis talking about a potential attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities? Because that’s a good way – indeed, the only way Israel has -- to pressure Western countries to work harder on the issue, to increase sanctions and diplomatic efforts. If one believes that somehow pushing Tehran into slowing down or stopping its nuclear weapons drive is the only alternative to war, that greatly concentrates policymakers’ minds. Personally, I don't participate -- consciously or as an instrument -- in disinformation campaigns, even if they are for a good cause.
Regarding Ronen Bergman's article in the New York Times, I think the answer is simple: Israeli leaders are not announcing that they are about to attack Iran. They are sending a message that the United States and Europe should act more decisively so that Israel does not feel the need to attack Iran in the future. That is a debate that can be held but it does not deal with a different issue: Is Israel about to attack Iran? The answer is "no."
Why should Israel attack Iran now? Because one day Iran will have nuclear weapons that might be used to attack Israel.
Does Iran have such deliverable weapons now? No.
If Israel attacks Iran now, does that mean Iran would never get nuclear weapons? No, it would merely postpone that outcome for at most a year or two more than it would take otherwise. And then it would ensure an all-out, endless bloody war thereafter.
If Israel attacks Iranian nuclear installations, would that ensure future peace between the two countries? Would it make it less likely that the Tehran regime uses such weapons to strike at Israel in the future? No. On the contrary, it would have the exact opposite effect. Again, it would ensure direct warfare between the two countries and make Iran’s use of nuclear weapons against Israel 100 percent probable.
Why is this different from Israeli attacks on Iraqi and Syrian nuclear facilities? Because in those cases a single strike by a small number of planes would be sufficient to destroy a single building. And the two regimes, precisely because of the strategic situation, would and could not respond. And if you believe Iran's regime to be so totally irrational, then factor that point into how it would respond to a direct attack like that.
If Israel attacks Iran, would it have backing from anyone else in the world? No, in fact the United States strongly opposes such an operation. Iranian retaliation against oil shipping and terrorist attacks would lead (not overly brave and already appeasement-oriented) Western governments to blame Israel, not Iran. Launching such an attack would ensure a level of international isolation for Israel far higher than what exists today. The idea that a U.S. withdrawal from Iraq makes an Israeli attack more attractive is absurd. U.S. forces and interests are in the Gulf and an Israeli attack would -- according to the Obama administration -- endanger U.S. interests there.
Would such an attack by Israel be likely to succeed even in doing maximum damage to Iranian facilities? No, a great deal could go wrong, especially against multiple hardened targets at the planes’ maximum range. Planes could get lost or crash or have to turn back. Planes arriving over the targets could miss, or accidentally drop their bombs on civilians, or simply not do much damage. Many targets would remain unscathed.
Additional waves of attack would be needed in a situation where Iran would be better prepared to shoot down the planes. And the second wave would face huge Western opposition. But it would be too late either way since Israel would now be in a full war with Iran.
So given all of these factors, why should Israel possibly attack Iran? It is an absurd idea.
The counter-argument is this: Iran’s regime is irrational and wants to destroy Israel even if the resulting counterattack would kill millions of Iranians and wreck the country. Yet while that analysis should not be totally ruled out, it is far from a certainty. Tehran is seeking nuclear weapons to make itself invulnerable to the costs of its non-nuclear subversion and support for terrorist and revolutionary forces. And a lot of what the Iranian leadership says is demagoguery to build support for itself at home, and to convince the masses to ignore its incompetence and mismanagement.
Moreover, while you may have met Iranians whose grasp of reality is -- let me put this politely -- somewhat creative and even though the Iran regime evinces an extremist anti-Western, anti-American, and antisemitic ideology, the actual history of Iran (or more narrowly of the Iranian regime) does not show it to be an irrational actor. In other words, Iran tries to implement highly radical, nasty, and terrorist-supporting actions in a careful and cautious manner. Islamist Iran did not invade any of its neighbors and it has not taken big foreign policy risks. In saying this, I'm not being naive or ignoring what Iran's leaders say or want but focusing on what they actually do.
Why does Iran want nuclear weapons? So it can go on sponsoring terrorism, spreading radical ideology, killing Americans through covert actions, and building a sphere of influence without anyone doing anything about it. In other words, the real threat is Iran's conventional foreign policy safeguarded by nuclear weapons. Are there precedents for this? Sure. More recently, Pakistan and North Korea; going back further in time, the Stalinist USSR.
Yet given the points made above, even the Iran-as-irrational analysis -- and even assuming it to be correct, the probability of being right about Iran ever trying to launch a nuclear attack is far lower than 100 percent -- does not justify an Israeli attack at this time.
And, finally, Israel has other options. The alternative is this: As the Iranian regime works hard to get nuclear weapons and missiles capable of carrying them, Israel uses the time to build a multi-level defensive and offensive capability. These layers include:
U.S. early warning stations and anti-missile missile installations in the Gulf; Israeli missile-launching submarines; Israeli long-range planes whose crews have rehearsed and planned for strikes at Iranian facilities; different types of anti-missile missiles capable of knocking down the small number of missiles Iran could fire simultaneously; covert operations, possibly including computer viruses and assassinations, to slow down Iran’s development of nuclear weapons; improved intelligence; help to the Iranian opposition (though the idea of "regime change" in the near future is a fantasy); and other measures.
If and when there was a clear Iranian threat to attack Israel, then Israel could launch a preemptive assault. And if no such threat ever materializes, Israel need never attack. Any future Iran-Israel war will happen if Iran’s regime makes it unavoidable, not in theory but in actual practice.
Note that attacking a limited number of missiles and launch facilities, that must be located closer to Israel within Iranian territory, is easy. Attacking multiple nuclear facilities buried deep in the ground anywhere in Iran is hard.
Ah, but what if Iran gives small nuclear devices to terrorists? Well ask yourself two simple questions:
1. Would an Israeli attack on Iran ensure that this didn't happen? Answer: Not at all.
2. Would an Israeli attack on Iran ensure that Iran would definitely give nuclear devices to terrorists and try to strike against Israel as quickly and as frequently as possible? Absolutely yes.
Does an Israeli strategy of not launching an attack assume that Iran’s regime is “rational” and “peace-loving” and will be deterred by Israel’s ability to strike back? Absolutely not. Indeed, quite the opposite. No such assumption is required. Israel will simply be ready and alert based on the assumption that Iran might attack some day. But such a war, however possible, is not inevitable. And since Israel cannot prevent Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons by attacking, there is no point in doing so.
Whether you hope for or fear an Israeli attack on Iran, it isn’t going to happen.
At the same time, a new theme in the America mass media is that the United States is headed toward war with Iran either by electing a Republican president, the inevitable weight of events, or through having sanctions so effective that a cornered Iran will attack. The fact is that neither country wants to have an armed conflict and such a battle is easily avoidable. Ironically, those who claim Iran is going to attack are using the crazy Tehran regime concept that they reject when it comes to nuclear weapons. And the "watch out for the warmongering Republicans" slogan is part of the election campaign.
Warning against tough sanctions is a way of avoiding tough sanctions. The argument boils down to saying that sanctions better not hurt Iran or else the consequences will be disastrous. We will be hearing the same argument soon about Hamas, Hizballah, Egypt, and maybe even Libya or Turkey. The effort to use U.S. leverage will be presented as triggering war or an anti-American explosion among Muslims. Thus, for example, whatever the Egyptian regime does toward Israel or its own people, we will be told that reducing U.S. aid is not an option.
Going to war with Iran is a mistake and the hysteria on this issue, including claims the regime is about to fall, that it can easily be brought down, or that an Iranian nuclear attack on others is inevitable, should be reined in. That's precisely why sanctions and other measures should be applied to the fullest extent possible.
And there isn't going to be any war unless Iran's regime tries to use nuclear weapons or makes a big mistake. It could, as Egypt did in 1967 or Saddam Hussein did in the late 1990s, rattle "nuclear sabers" enough to convince Israel that an attack is imminent. Even if it did not intend to attack, Tehran might push too hard and trigger an Israeli attack. By the same token, some Iranian attack on Western forces or on oil traffic in the Gulf -- more likely triggered by a local commander without regime permission -- could produce a slide into war with the United States.
But here's what's most likely going to happen: Iran will get nuclear weapons. Iran is not going to stop its nuclear drive (though it could stop short of actually building bombs or warheads ready to go). Western policies are not so bold or adventurous as to go to war; Israel's interests and capabilities do not make attacking sensible. An attack would not solve but increase problems.
And no matter how crazy you think Iran's regime is, the inescapable predicable threat is not high enough to force policymakers to risk getting hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions of people killed, when the chance of avoiding such an outcome is very high. I am not talking here about Hizballah firing a few rockets (Hamas might well do nothing) but a long term war that would guarantee the use of Iranian nuclear weapons.
PS: One reader has asked and others are no doubt thinking: But don't you have to stop the possibility of an Iranian nuclear weapon being handed to terrorists against Israel or some how against the United States? Let's be clear: An attack on Iranian facilities will not prevent this from happening and indeed will make such an event more likely than it would be otherwise. You can think up any scenario you want but if there is a war going on the Tehran regime or various parts of it has a much greater incentive to order or allow nuclear weapons to be used when it obtains them within a year or two of the initial attack.
Update: A number of sources are now saying that Iran's retaliation to an attack should not be exaggerated. I agree that Iran can and will do little in the immediate aftermath. At most, Hizballah will fire rockets. The problem is the long-term effect, the opening of an Iran-Israel war that will go on for many years. In addition, the idea of Israel bombing Iran to prevent it from getting nuclear weapons should take into account that...the attack will not stop Iran from getting nuclear weapons. What's the point of an attack that doesn't achieve its stated goal?
Barry Rubin is director of the GLORIA Center, at IDC, and editor of MERIA Journal. His new book, Israel: An Introduction, has just been published by Yale University Press.