Israel’s military planners may have a fantasy of bombing Iran’s nuclear facilities, but any rational assessment sees only disaster
The momentum behind a prospective Israeli attack on Iran’s long-concealed nuclear facilities is building. Every day brings a new Israeli warning that the situation is intolerable and that they will attack Iran’s nuclear sites if nothing is done. These warnings have been met with obfuscation and bluster by Iran, as the two states have ratcheted up their shadow war of assumed assassinations against each other around the globe.
The actual evidence behind the Iranian threat is murkier than many realize: Friday’s IAEA report suggested that there are many outstanding questions about Iran’s uranium enrichment program, but US intelligence agencies remain unconvinced that Iran has an active program to convert that material into a bomb. But much like Iraq, the debate over the actual facts has been sidelined by one over the wisdom of striking first before the threat manifests itself.
But an Israeli attack on Iran would be neither as clean nor effective as its proponents suggest. And the events that unfold afterwards are likely to be a strategic disaster for Israel and the United States.
Proponents of an Israeli attacks against Iran’s nuclear facilities have described it as a surgical strike that would destroy or seriously damage the Iranian nuclear program without significant “collateral damage”. The clear precedent for such a strike would be the Israeli airstrike on the Osirak nuclear reactor in Iraq in 1981, which destroyed a nuclear reactor and set back Iraq’s nuclear weapons program by several years. That attack was conducted in a few hours, with a relatively small number of planes, at the cost of 11 casualties.
More crucially, it was conducted without an Iraqi military response, and the international outcry was relatively muted. A similar successful strike against an apparent Syrian nuclear facility in 2007 appears to have created a presumption among some Israeli leaders that surprise air strikes can so stun and disable their target that no serious military response will be attempted.
While these assumptions have set the stage for the debate over an Israeli strike on Iran, there is no reason to believe that a replay of these events is likely in this instance. In contrast to the small numbers involved in the Osirak strike, American defense officials have estimated that Israel would need to use at least 100 planes and would have to fly a relatively complicated route, most likely across Iraqi airspace, to conduct an attack on Iranian facilities.
Given Iran’s capabilities and the prospect of retaliation during and after the strike, Israel is unlikely to focus exclusively on destroying the dispersed and often protected nuclear facilities, but will probably extend its target list to include radars and other air defenses, as well as much of Iran’s air force, its command and control structure, and some key facilities for elite military units (such as the Quds force). Israel is also unlikely to take unnecessary risks with retaliation against its civilians and may try to destroy any conventional missile capacity that Iran retains with additional air strikes or covert operations.
Such an extensive military operation – involving dozens of attacks and an attempt to destroy a hostile neighbor’s air force in a sudden attack – bears less of a resemblance to the Osirak strike than it does to the first operations of the Six Day War in 1967.
The strategic consequences of such a massive strike against Iran are serious. There is a real danger that such an attack creates an escalatory spiral of conventional strikes which rapidly gets out of hand. Assuming that the air strikes did not destroy all of Iran’s capacity for launching missiles, Tehran could launch limited conventional strikes against Israeli cities, which would put pressure on the Netanyahu government to respond in kind or to escalate to punish Tehran. If this occurs, one of the key assumptions of Israel’s plan – the attack will be clean and surgical and not kill a large numbers of civilians – comes into doubt. At least publicly, Israel has estimated that it may have to “absorb” 500 casualties in the war, while Defense Minister Ehud Barak has said that “there won’t be 100,000 dead, not 10,000 dead, nor 1,000 dead.”
But these calculations are based on a weak or incompetent Iranian response, and assume – perhaps incorrectly – that Israel’s current domestic preparedness will mitigate the effects of Iranian counterstrikes. Also, these estimates do not take into account the fact that the human cost of war can radically change the calculations of governments. If Israel bears significant civilian casualties in an Iranian counterstrike, what limits will the Netanyahu government observe in response? How will the extent of Iranian casualties change the calculus in Tehran? If hundreds or thousands of Iranians are left dead, does Iran’s increasingly desperate government try to draw Israel into a messy war of tit-for-tat missile strikes over weeks, rather than days, in the hopes of imposing such political and human costs that Israel gives up?
One of the most alarming aspects of the current debate over a strike on Iran is the extent to which Israeli leaders appear to have discounted this possibility. According to journalist David Ignatius, some Israel leaders have imagined that this operation will probably be a “short war” scenario, where five days of strikes are followed by a UN-sponsored cease-fire. But Israeli leaders made a similar calculation when they attacked Hezbollah forces in southern Lebanon in 2006 – and that war dragged on for 33 days, with a much higher Israeli and Lebanese death toll than originally envisioned (pdf).
Wars rarely follow the scripts or timelines that leaders set out for them. It’s hard to believe that Iran – given weeks of notice of impending strike by Israel – would play along with the script that Israeli leaders have laid out.
Similarly, there is no reason to assume that Iran will respond in the same stunned way that Iraq and Syria did after Israeli’s strikes on their facilities. Iran’s well-publicized and extensive nuclear program – currently, the subject of intense international scrutiny and a matter of national pride – is of a different nature than the secretive and singular programs held by Iraq and Syria. At the time of the Israeli attack, neither Iraq nor Syria had made their nuclear programs the public centerpiece of their foreign policy.
But Iran has done so, and it has proven willing to bear crippling sanctions and international condemnation to sustain its nuclear ambitions. While Iraq and Syria were willing to take the punch and not fire back, it is hard to imagine Iran doing the same – given how much it has invested politically in nuclear power. Iran’s government, already paranoid and facing widespread domestic discontent, may also calculate that it could not afford to let such an affront stand without some kind of military response. The domestic pressure to respond from a furious population could even back Tehran into a corner where some kind of violent response is necessary, rather than optional. It is also probably not lost on the Iranian leadership that striking back against Israel has political benefits in producing a “rally around the flag” effect and that such a show of defiance may even extend its shelf life.
Assuming that Iran was incapable of a conventional response, Iran has a series of other options, through its proxies, to respond to Israel. Hezbollah rocket attacks against Israeli civilian targets are possible, though not guaranteed, as Hezbollah may be wary of inviting an Israeli military response just for the sake of defending its foreign patron. Hamas may also be willing to join the fray and launch rocket attacks or suicide bombers against Israel. In addition, Israeli intelligence has estimated that Iran has as many as 40 sleeper cells around the world, which could launch attacks against Israeli targets, such as embassies.
There is no guarantee that these attacks will be limited to the region, as Iran has promised to extend its retaliation to any country that might allow bases to be used for an Israeli strike. Iran could also decide to activate its dense networks of intelligence operatives in Iraq and Afghanistan and attack US personnel or facilities in both countries. The Iranian government has also threatened to close the Strait of Hormuz in order to drive world oil prices even higher, a decision that might precipitate a confrontation with US naval vessels determined to keep the shipping lanes open.
Israeli officials have concluded that these nightmare scenarios are highly unlikely, and that Iranian promises of retaliation are bluffs designed to weaken support for a military Israeli action. They may be right, and much of this may never come to pass. But again, miscalculation is important here: if Israel is wrong about even one of these potential retaliatory options, there is a risk of a long and messy conflict that spreads beyond borders.
Moreover, what happens the day after an attack matters a lot. It is not hard to imagine that Hezbollah attacks on Israel would precipitate a limited Israeli military operation against its forces in Lebanon or that Iranian strikes against American embassies or targets abroad may push the US into responding militarily to Iranian provocation. Former chief of the Mossad, Meir Dagan, may be wrong that such a strike will lead to a full-fledged regional war, but there are a lot of terrible options short of that that could come to pass if Iran retains even one of its retaliatory options.
Assuming Israel did launch this attack, it is also not clear that it would be effective in stopping the Iranian nuclear program. In the Osirak case, the record is mixed: the air strike did temporarily set back the Iraqi program and bought some time, but Saddam Hussein redoubled his efforts to rebuild his nuclear capabilities throughout the late 1980s, until the program was discovered after the Persian Gulf war. There is some evidence that the strike itself reinforced his determination to get the bomb as an insurance policy against future action by Israel and later the United States.
In this respect, there are some similarities with Iran today. Even favorable assessments of an Israeli strike suggest that at best it would set back Iran’s program by three to five years. Moreover, an Israeli military operation short of outright regime overthrow is likely to entrench support for a nuclear program among the Iranian political leadership, who will see the race to the bomb as the only way to protect themselves against similar attacks in the future. In other words, an Israeli attack may temporarily set back the program, but hasten Iran’s nuclear ambitions in the long term.
The final piece of this strategic disaster for Israel is what a strike would do to Israel’s regional position. An Israeli strike on Iran may rupture Israel’s shaky relationship with Egypt and possibly Jordan. Amid a violent confrontation between Israel and Iran, Syria’s crisis may deepen, as the Assad regime may decide to crush the revolt against its rule while the world is distracted by the crisis over Iran. Many of the emerging democracies in the Middle East (such as Tunisia, Iraq and even Libya) could find it harder to establish diplomatic ties with Israel if there is widespread popular outrage over the attack. An Israeli strike on Iran may also stoke new fears in the region, and radically reorient alliances and jeopardize some of the fragile gains of the Arab spring. When the dust has settled after such an attack, Israel may find itself even more isolated, and in a weaker strategic position in the region, than it is today.
For the US, this entire scenario presents real strategic costs, as well. If the US backs Israel but does not participate directly in the operation, it will also find itself increasingly isolated as Russia, China and some European governments will move to condemn the attack and to accuse Israel of destabilizing the Middle East. If the crisis lasts longer than the few days envisioned by Israeli officials or causes substantial civilian casualties on either side, ongoing US political support for Israeli operations could lead to the kind of rifts between the US and Europe not seen since the Iraq war.
There is also a distinct possibility that the spillover effects of such an attack may make the growing violence in Afghanistan worse, if Iran decides to escalate its campaign of subversion and launch or sponsor fresh attacks against US soldiers. Even silence by the US over an Israeli strike would be interpreted as a green light by much of the Middle East, and the US would bear some of the blame – and cost – for Israel’s strategic miscalculation, even if it was never informed or consulted beforehand.
Given the costs of the scenarios laid out above, it is clear that the US needs to tell Israel to allow the diplomatic pressure and economic sanctions against Iran to run their course. Many American politicians are fond of saying that they are firm friends of Israel and strongly support its security. But in this case, being a friend of Israel’s does not mean marching in lockstep with them towards a strategic disaster. A true friend of Israel speaks the truth, no matter how unpleasant, in order to stop it from talking itself into a false choice and making a grave mistake.
from Michael Boyle