Jewish Journal

Questions and More Questions on Iran: What do We Know? What Don’t We Know?

by Dr. Michael Berenbaum

February 28, 2012 | 11:53 am

I have been reading a lot about whether Israel should attack Iran nuclear facilities and I am struck by the confidence that the protagonists on both sides of the issue have in the soundness of their arguments. Frankly speaking I do not know.

So let me weigh the arguments and the uncertainty. This will have to be an “on the one hand and on the other hand” type of column.
Let us begin with what we know.

Twice in history Israel has attacked regional nuclear installations; once in Iraq in 1981 and again in Syria in 2007. Both attacks were swift and successful. And despite the loud chorus of criticism at the time, both made significant contributions to peace.

The world, which was infuriated at Israel – at least publicly – should have been grateful.

Were Israel able to replicate those feats this time without plunging into another war, the world would also be grateful, perhaps even publicly so.
Imagine if Saddam Hussein had nuclear weapons when he entered Kuwait; imagine a nuclear Iraq during the Iran-Iraq war and imagine if Syria had nuclear arms today when its government is faltering and attacking its own people. One could even argue that Menachem Begin deserved the Nobel Prize for peace precisely for bombing Iraq than for his historic agreement with Anwar Sadat that brought Israel a third of a century of cold peace with Egypt and may unravel tomorrow.

Jews historically would be wise to trust threats more than promises.

The threats of leaders to destroy Israel deserve to be taken seriously. Words are weapons and words used by political leaders have a way of enunciating policies and national goals. So the threat is real and must be taken seriously. No government of Israel—however hawkish or dovish—could do otherwise and no President of the United States can dismiss the nature of this threat.
Aside from Ron Paul no one running for President, neither the incumbent nor his would be opponents, is behaving otherwise. And promises made to Israel should be treated lightly as nations act in their national interest and one wonders what the American people’s response would be if oil were scarce and gas was $15 a gallon or the US found itself bogged down in yet another war in a Muslim country. Might that impose some distance between the US and Israel under any President?

What do we not know?

Questions and more questions:

  • Does Israel have the capacity to destroy Iran’s nuclear facilities?
  • Does the United States?
  • Do Israel or the United States have the capacity to attack all of them or some of them?
  • Can Israel anticipate and handle the attacks that will surely follow?

Let us examine the last question for a moment: Having fought two wars in the last decade that seemingly caught Israel unprepared and with only limited success and unclear political goals one wonders whether Israel’s vaunted intelligence services are to be trusted in their assessment of such possibilities. Having replaced the reticent heads of the Mosad and the IDF in part because of their cautious warnings, one wonders if their successors are willing to give the Prime Minister and the Defense Minister the independent cautious assessment that is required.
American intelligence demonstrated that it was inept at assessing both the status of Iraq WMD program and the consequences of the war in Iraq and in the region. Do we know more today that we did then? Are we any better in gathering and assessing intelligence than we were a decade ago? Caution is advised, caution and considerable judgment

  • Have the acts of sabotage and assassination slowed down Iran’s nuclear development.
  • Are other acts possible?

I have no idea if Israel is behind these attacks or the United States—nor should I—but someone should know what the collective impact of computer viruses, targeted assassinations and disruptions in the supply chain have had on Iran’s nuclear ambitions. Have they bought time? How much time? Will they work over a longer period of time?

  • And what has been the impact of the sanctions on Iran?
  • Have they been effective?
  • Will they be more effective?
  • Are they forcing the Iranian people into the arms of their government as both unite against external enemies or have they hastened the divide between the people and its rules and will that also impose some limits on Iran?

I think that the President should be given some credit for working successfully multi-laterally to get the sanctions in place.

Who are the friends of Israel? Those who urge Israel to attack or those who urge caution and time? Reasonable arguments can be made for either side.

I know that the politicalization of the issue in the heat of a presidential campaign in the United States does not augur well for sound policy decisions. This is one of those moments where the vote in Florida should not be the issue, but the security of the United States and of Israel should be.

I am somewhat dismayed that the very same forces that argued for a war with Iraq and downplayed its costs and its protracted nature are also giving us a clear assessment of the positive impact of an Israeli attack. Many of the same men and women on both sides of the Atlantic failed to see that one of the most significant results of the War in Iraq was the strengthening of Iran and the enlargement of its political ambitions and its nuclear ambitions.

I am perplexed that Israel is talking so much about the attack. Recall that the 1981 and 2007 attacks came as a surprise; so too, the attack at Entebbe. Not a word was spoken. In fact, Israel did not confirm the Ehud Omert led attack on Syria until after Benjamin Netanyahu, then the opposition leader, accidently confirmed it.

As a rule, if Israel is talking about a military action, it is not going to act. “Say little and do much” was the sage advice of our Talmudic sages and our most successful military leaders. Could it be that Israel is talking so much precisely because it is so hesitant to act since its leadership is as perplexed by the questions it can’t answer even with all the information it has?

I don’t envy others their clarity. It would be wise to accept the perplexity of the situation, what we know and what we do not know. I also don’t envy the American President or the Israeli Prime Minister the decisions they must make.

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A blog by Dr. Michael Berenbaum.

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