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Israel and Iran: An Attack Might Be Necessary, but Not Yet

Editor’s note: This article is one of two debating the necessity of an Israeli attack on Iran’s nuclear project. The other, by Elliott Abrams, argues “The Grounds for an Israeli Attack.”

Israeli and American leaders are in full agreement on the need to prevent Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons. The question, therefore, is not if we should thwart Iran’s illicit nuclear ambitions, but rather how we can do so most effectively.

First we must understand why we need to make sure Iran does not acquire nuclear weapons. While great focus is justifiably directed toward the existential threat Israel would face if a nuclear arsenal was obtained by Iranian leaders who have repeatedly expressed their desire to eliminate the “Zionist entity,” President Obama rightly stressed in a recent conversation with the Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg that preventing a nuclear-armed Iran is a global concern—“in the national-security interests of the United States and in the interests of the world community.”

Related Essay

Israel and Iran: The Grounds for an Israeli Attack

Given Washington’s current reluctance to use military action against Iran’s nuclear program, Western leaders should at least grant that Israeli action is justifiable.

A nuclear Iran would touch off a nuclear arms race in the Middle East that would destabilize world order. Regional powers including Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Egypt, and Turkey would consider acquiring nuclear weapons of their own to guard against the perceived threat from Iran. “If Iran is able to acquire nuclear weapons, the most serious round of nuclear proliferation since nuclear weapons were invented would have begun,” British Foreign Secretary William Hague recently warned. “The threat of a new cold war in the Middle East without necessarily all the safety mechanisms,” he continued, “would be a disaster in world affairs.” Moreover, an Iranian nuclear umbrella would provide its proxy militias protection from retaliation against terrorist attacks, and would dramatically increase the risk of those same terrorist organizations ultimately acquiring a nuclear weapon.

There is much discussion of the possibility that Israel might launch a pre-emptive military strike to neutralize Iran’s nuclear facilities. Understandably, Israeli leaders who are responsible for the well-being of the Jewish state—recalling centuries of pogroms, inquisitions, and expulsions, culminating in the tragedy of the Holocaust—must do everything in their power to prevent Iran from attaining nuclear weapons capacity. But while there may be a time in the not-too-distant future when a military strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities would be necessary as a last resort, I strongly believe that the course laid out by the American administration presents the greatest likelihood of halting Iran’s nuclear weapons program while minimizing the potentially devastating fallout of premature military action.

 

In his March 4, 2012, address to the annual American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) Policy Conference, President Obama outlined his administration’s strategy, which “includes all elements of American power: a political effort aimed at isolating Iran, a diplomatic effort to sustain our coalition and ensure that the Iranian program is monitored, an economic effort to impose crippling sanctions, and, yes, a military effort to be prepared for any contingency.”

The United States is currently leading a crippling global sanctions effort targeting Iranian entities involved in the development of nuclear weapons as well as third-party countries doing business with Iran. America has essentially said to the targeted companies, “You can do business with Iran or you can do business with the United States, but you cannot do both.” The goal of these sanctions is to disrupt the Iranian economy to the point that Iran’s regime will have little choice but to accept international guidelines for dismantling its nuclear weapons program while allowing for strict, transparent, and verifiable oversight from the United Nations International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).

This punishing sanctions regime has effectively isolated Iran and has had incontrovertible and debilitating impact on its economy. As the Obama administration, in cooperation with other world powers, has ramped up sanctions against Iranian banks, big businesses, and oil companies, we have seen Iran’s unemployment rate rise, factories close, and inflation skyrocket. Iran’s currency, the rial, has lost half its value against the dollar over the past several months, falling to a new all-time low. The price of basic goods is continuing to rise, with staple food items like meat and milk up fifty percent. But these developments are just the tip of the iceberg for a sanctions effort that continues to increase in intensity and force.

On March 15th, in an unprecedented move, the Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunication (SWIFT) announced its decision to cut ties with Iranian banks subject to EU sanctions. This remarkable development will have a substantial impact on Iranian banks since global financial transactions are impossible without the use of SWIFT. The White House welcomed this step, as did Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, whose officials called the move a “critical blow” to the Iranian regime.

And Iran will slide even further into isolation when the planned European boycott of Iranian oil begins on July 1st. This planned embargo has already begun to have an impact though, with many owners of large oil tankers avoiding trade with Iran as a result of European Union insurance restrictions and American sanctions on Iranian financial institutions. India, for example, just recently canceled an Iranian shipment because its European insurers refused to provide coverage for the tanker. More troubling still for Iran, reports from a European oil firm recently showed that there are four tankers currently searching for a place to unload Iranian crude. These developments can directly affect the financial well-being of the Iranian regime, since roughly fifty percent of Iran’s government revenue comes from oil sales. It is still too early to fully gauge the impact, but sanctions targeting Iran’s oil industry will increasingly hurt Iran’s ruling elite.

In a March 10th column in the Washington Post, David Ignatius adroitly surmised the predicament Iran is now facing: “As the sanctions bite deeper into Iran’s oil exports and revenue, further enfeebling the regime, Tehran may have to contemplate the kind of negotiated settlement that Ayatollah Khomeini once likened to drinking from a ‘cup of poison.’… For Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, it’s a double bind: If he offers on the nuclear program a deal that would be acceptable to the West, he risks undermining what he sees as the regime’s legitimacy. But if he doesn’t offer a deal, the steady squeeze will continue. Eventually, something’s got to give.”

Working-class Iranians, lamenting the burden of a sanctions-depressed economy, could place additional pressure on the regime. This agitated population, not wishing to follow in the Soviet Union’s footsteps and face the consequences of an economy undermined by an overly ambitious arms program, will have to decide how to respond. It was two years ago, following the presidential election results in 2009, that the Green Movement bravely rallied against the Iranian regime, only to be brutally suppressed. In the wake of tumultuous revolutions in Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya, a renewed Iranian popular uprising, driven by economic crisis, might not be quelled so easily.

But it is the fate of another embroiled Arab leader, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, that could ultimately transform the equation. Syria is Iran’s most critical asset in the Middle East, serving as the regime’s supply line to Hezbollah and Hamas. As Assad’s Syria crumbles, Iran’s control over its two primary proxies dwindles. Hamas has already withdrawn its headquarters from Damascus (seeking asylum in Egypt, Qatar, and elsewhere), and Hezbollah Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah defiantly claimed in February of this year that “Iran does not command us.” When Assad’s regime does in fact fall, Iran will face even further isolation, which could, along with sanctions, dramatically impair its nuclear resolve.

The bottom line is that in order to induce a change of course from Iran, the mullahs must be made to see that the cost of attaining nuclear weapons is greater than the perceived benefits. The Obama administration is exacting a clear “cost”: the toll inflicted on Iranians by the devastating sanctions program as well as the threat of possible armed conflict with the world’s greatest military powers. Already the United States is deploying roughly fifteen thousand troops to Kuwait and stationing at least two carrier strike groups in the region, supporting its substantial fleet of ships currently patrolling the Persian Gulf.

And though some reasonably argue that Iran is not a rational actor and therefore cannot be swayed by the economic hardships of its people or the threat of warfare, Tehran has nonetheless repeatedly responded to threats of force by calling for negotiations. Currently, the P5+1 group—the United States, Russia, Britain, France, and China, plus Germany—is renewing talks with Iran over its nuclear weapons program. At the same time, Iran’s ambassador to the IAEA announced that Iran will allow the UN’s nuclear watchdog agency to visit Parchin, the military facility suspected of housing nuclear warhead development.

 

We must not, however, be naive. We should assume that Iran’s objective is to achieve nuclear military capability and recognize that, in the past, negotiations have been, as they may still be, a stalling tactic for the Iranian regime to buy time as it continues its nuclear activities. But less than a decade ago, Iranian fear of an American invasion did lead to a temporary suspension of its nuclear program. After the US invasion of Iraq in 2003 and the swift defeat of the Iraqi military apparatus, Iran, fearful that hundreds of thousands of American troops would turn eastward, sent the US an offer to negotiate the effective dismantling of its nuclear weapons program. Although the Bush administration did not respond because of its policy of non-engagement with Iran, Iran still suspended its nuclear program for a period of time because it felt the looming shadow of US power.

Maintaining a credible threat of a military strike, in synch with crippling international sanctions, could lead an Iranian regime—concerned first and foremost with survival, and facing pressure from a discontented and fearful public—to calculate that it is best served by abandoning the current rush toward a bomb. The Iranian regime is “self-interested,” as Obama explained in his interview with Jeffrey Goldberg. “They recognize that they are in a bad, bad place right now. . . . They’re sensitive to the opinions of the people and they are troubled by the isolation that they’re experiencing.”

But why focus all this energy and resources on a difficult and uncertain diplomatic and economic campaign when the Israeli Air Force could significantly compromise Iran’s nuclear facilities with one strike? After all, faced with similar threats in the past, Israel successfully launched swift preemptive military campaigns against Iraq’s Osirak nuclear reactor in 1981 and Syria’s secret nuclear facility in 2007.

But the sobering reality in this case is that (a) intelligence analysts have raised troubling concerns regarding the possible efficacy of such a pre-emptive strike and (b) an attack on Iranian nuclear facilities could ignite massive military and terrorist destruction in the region and abroad.

To the first point, intelligence reports state that in contrast to the singular and accessible nuclear targets in Iraq in 1981 and in Syria five years ago, Iran has hardened and fortified its nuclear sites deep underground and spread them throughout dozens of sites across the country. Top military officials in Israel and the US have therefore suggested that even in the best-case scenario, a military strike might only set back the Iranian nuclear program by a relatively short period of time.

As to the second point, the same reason that Iran cannot be allowed to attain nuclear weapons—its general belligerence, the deplorable human rights violations committed by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, and the terrorist activities of its proxy militias—is the very reason that military confrontation could yield devastating fallout. Israelis know better than anyone that war with Iran could mean thousands of rockets raining down on its towns from Hamas in Gaza, Hezbollah in Lebanon, the Assad regime in Syria, and perhaps even from Iran itself. In February, Israel’s military intelligence director, Major General Aviv Kochavi, warned that more than two hundred thousand missiles and rockets are currently aimed at Israeli cities. During the Second Lebanon War in 2006, roughly four thousand rockets were launched at Israel, and the Israel Defense Forces expects that number to increase tenfold in a future conflict of the type that could be ignited by a military strike against Iran.

In light of these daunting facts, the overwhelming majority of Israelis themselves, according to recent polling by Israel’s Dahaf Institute, are against any military strike without American backing. Consistent with Israeli public opinion, Meir Dagan, former Mossad chief for the better part of the last decade and hawkish defender of Israel’s security, urged caution when considering a strike on Iran, which he predicted “would mean regional war, and in that case you would have given Iran the best possible reason to continue the nuclear program.”

Moreover, any military action would likely have destructive implications far beyond Israel’s borders. Iran, in the words of Netanyahu, is “the largest exporter of terror in the world.” If attacked, Iran has an unparalleled ability to mobilize its global network of proxy militias—ranging from the Middle East to Latin America—placing American, European, and NATO ally targets at risk.

In addition to the potential toll on innocent civilians’ lives, the economic fallout could also be tremendous. The Strait of Hormuz, which serves as the trading artery for one-fifth of the world’s oil supply, would undoubtedly be impacted by any such conflict. Israelis and Americans, along with the rest of the developed world, who are witnessing prices at the pump soar to record highs, would be afflicted by severe global economic costs resulting from even more dramatically inflated oil prices sure to follow any strike on Iran.

 

Enumerating these cautions and concerns is not meant to argue that these potential consequences outweigh the risks of a nuclear-armed Iran. They surely do not. But the very real limitations and consequences of premature military action demand that Israel and the US first exhaust all possible non-military strategies and actions.

The Obama administration’s multi-pronged approach still has the capability to disarm Iran without ever firing a shot, and it must be given enough time to bear fruit. The president understands that, should these efforts ultimately fail to dissuade the Iranian regime, a military option must then be employed to thwart Iran’s nuclear weapons ambitions. “When I say we’re not taking any option off the table, we mean it,” Obama said in his Atlantic interview. “As president of the United States, I don’t bluff.” Moreover, it is clear that should a military option ultimately prove necessary, an American-led strike would best serve Israel and the Middle East generally.

A strike led by the United States would allow for the creation of a large international coalition of nations, similar to the coalition built by President George H. W. Bush in the lead-up to the Gulf War. The US, unlike Israel acting unilaterally, would be able to gain the support of its European allies, NATO assistance, and a degree of official and unofficial support from the Arab world. Just as the Gulf states shouldered the vast bulk of the financial burden for the first Gulf War, a coordinated effort could allow for them to play a comparable role in this case.

Top Israeli military officials have also stressed their deep preference for an American-led strike. Israel’s former head of military intelligence, Major General (ret.) Amos Yadlin, wrote in a recent New York Times op-ed: “America could carry out an extensive air campaign using stealth technology and huge amounts of ammunition, dropping enormous payloads that are capable of hitting targets and penetrating to depths far beyond what Israel’s arsenal can achieve.” 

Yadlin went on to aptly suggest that “Mr. Obama will therefore have to shift the Israeli defense establishment’s thinking from a focus on the ‘zone of immunity’ to a ‘zone of trust.’ What is needed is an ironclad American assurance that if Israel refrains from acting in its own window of opportunity—and all other options have failed to halt Tehran’s nuclear quest—Washington will act to prevent a nuclear Iran while it is still within its power to do so.”

President Obama addressed this very concern in both his recent interview with the Atlantic and his AIPAC address, where he said, “Iran’s leaders should understand that I do not have a policy of containment; I have a policy to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon. And as I’ve made clear time and again during the course of my presidency, I will not hesitate to use force when it is necessary.”

It is also prudent to point out that there is an ongoing campaign of covert tactical action that has impacted Iran’s illicit nuclear program: mysterious explosions in nuclear facilities, targeted killings of senior Iranian nuclear scientists, and the damaging Stuxnet virus. Similar campaigns by the world’s leading intelligence agencies could further reduce the need for more overt forms of military confrontation.

At the end of the day, there must be no doubt that Israel is the “master of its own fate,” as Netanyahu told Obama during their recent White House meeting. This includes Israel’s ability to evaluate the resources and assets at its disposal and the disposal of its closest ally, the United States, in their joint resolve to stop the nuclearization of Iran. As US Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta said early in March, the United States and Israel “are stronger when we act as one . . . to support a sovereign and secure Israel. . . . But make no mistake, if all else fails, we will act [against Iran].”

Israel cannot allow the emergence of a nuclear Iran. But before engaging in a military campaign whose unforeseen consequences might be devastating, it is in Israel’s best interest to allow the US and the international community to first exhaust all diplomatic, economic, and covert tactical options.

Robert Wexler is a former seven-term Democratic congressman from Florida’s 19th district and currently the president of the S. Daniel Abraham Center for Middle East Peace.

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