Should Israel attack Iran? Or should it not? The debate keeps heating up, while no one really has much to add to the well-known basic facts (see Ari Shavit for why yes, and Jeffrey Goldberg for why no – both excellent writers, both have written other versions of these same articles many times in the past).
While the public gets to hear the conflicting views of officials and former officials, it doesn’t have the required information with which to form an opinion that carries any weight. This is of course problematic. On the one hand one has to wonder: why is it that the Israeli military establishment is so up in arms against an imminent attack? What do they know that we don’t? Would we have a better way of assessing the situation had we known what “they” know? And another question: Does one trust those military officials and former officials more than one trusts Israel’s political leadership? And why?
This article is an attempt to assist all those puzzled observers. It is a guide for approaching the issue of an Israeli attack on Iran’s nuclear sites in a methodological way. I’ve based it on a lot of reading, but also on several conversations and email exchanges I have had recently with some of the most knowledgeable Israelis and Americans available for such a dialogue. To make it easier to read and digest, we have divided the topics on which one must base one’s opinion into five categories – the five crucial questions that need answering. My own answers are at the end:
Question number 1: How dangerous is a nuclearized Iran?
Important clarification: dangerous to whom?
Clearly, it is better for the world and the region if Iran does not have nuclear weapons. Very few people would argue that an Iran with nuclear capability would actually contribute to stability (there are in fact very few such people). However, assuming that a nuclearized Iran is dangerous, one still has to contemplate the following: how dangerous, and dangerous to whom?
How dangerous? Is it dangerous enough to justify a long and very costly war? There are many dangerous threats, but not all justify such action. One has to try and assess these two questions:
A. Will the future damage caused by nuclear Iran be much greater than the damage of imminent war?
B. How likely is such damage to materialize? An imminent war is, well, imminent, but a future danger is fuzzier. Should Israel go to war now, because of a danger that might not occur later?
Dangerous to whom? Is it mostly to Israel? To the whole region, but not the US? To the US as well? If Iran is mostly dangerous to Israel, it is reasonable to assume that Israel will be the one most eager to act against Iran militarily. The US is Israel’s ally, but that doesn’t mean it will go to war for something that is not a crucial American interest.
Question number 2: Can Iran be stopped without using force?
Important clarification: Can we wait long enough to find out?
The Israeli government is constantly declaring that sanctions are a failure and that while Iran is hurting, it is not getting any closer to caving. In fact – Israel is saying - while the world is busy with employing more sanctions and is feeling good about doing something, the Iranians are moving forward with their program. Other Israeli and other international players are more hopeful about the sanctions. They can’t yet say that sanctions are working – since the Iranians haven’t yet caved under the pressure. But people around the world (and some in Israel as well) believe that the current course of non-violent coercion might lead to some kind of breakthrough.
So the obvious question is: Can the combination of tough sanctions and tough talk stop Iran? But this isn’t the only question. One should also consider the ticking clock as the wait for sanctions to do the trick continues. In other words: Do we have time to wait for the sanctions to work?
Here, again, one has to ask: Who’s “we” in “do we have time to wait”? While the US might have the time to wait, and only act in the case of failure, Israel - with its smaller military and more limited resources - might not have the time to wait.
Question number 3: Can Israel wait if it gets assurances that the US will do what’s necessary?
Important clarification: It there an issue of personal trust involved?
Clearly, Israel’s clock is ticking faster than that of the Americans. We’ve explained why. So the question is this: can Israel forget about its problematic clock, if the US will guarantee that no matter what happens, no matter what other countries might be saying, no matter what the circumstances might be – American force will prevent a nuclear Iran? Obviously, there are three problems with such guarantee:
1. No American leader would give such a promise.
2. Israel has no way of making sure such a promise is fulfilled (bluntly put: it has no way of punishing America if the promise is broken).
3. Israel has clarified time and again in words and deeds that it will never sub-contract its essential security (on the other hand: Israel constantly relies on American support for its security – so maybe the “we-will-defend-ourselves” mantra is no more than empty bravado?).
Hence, the secondary question comes to the fore: Would Israel change its habitual behavior and have faith in the pledge of an American president if that president was deemed trustworthy by Israelis? In other words: Does it matter if the promise is given by a President Obama, a President Romney, a President Bush, or a President Clinton – do we have to take into account a specific president when we consider this matter of attacking Iran?
Question number 4: Can Israel act without American consent?
Important clarification: What would be the price of such action?
Suppose one answers all previous questions in the negative: Israel can’t risk a nuclearized Iran, it can’t wait for the sanctions to work, it can’t trust the US president – then the question becomes: Can Israel even act when the US doesn’t want it to act? Here, there are two separate questions to be answered:
1. Can it technically do it?
2. Can it withstand the consequences of doing it?
The first question is not one that the average citizen can answer. I don’t know what the air force can do, I don’t know what the US can do, I’m not sure if the US will actively disrupt an Israeli operation if it gets underway. Can you see an American airplane trying to take down an Israeli airplane on its way to Iran? Furthermore, as one ponders the question of capabilities, one has to think not just about the initial attack but also the aftermath: Does Israel base its post-strike planning on the assumption that the US will be joining the battle later in the game – both to defend Israel but also to prevent Iran from rebuilding its sites? And what happens if the US refuses to play such role?
The second question is not necessarily easier to answer: will the US suffice with denouncing Israel, or will it retaliate is some way? A lot depends on the outcome of an attack. If it’s very successful and no harm is done to American interests, I’d expect mostly admiration from the Americans. If it goes badly, if American interests are hurt, if the crisis drags the economy down without the benefit of having tamed Iran – the damage to the relations could be serious.
Question number 5: Can Israel launch a successful operation?
Important clarification: What do we mean by “successful”?
These are the easy ones: Easy – because one has no way of knowing the answers without having all relevant information. But not so easy, because everything else begins with this basic question: if the operation can be successful, American response will not be harsh, there will be no need to rely on American promises, and no need to risk it by waiting for sanctions to work, and there is not nearly as much hesitation: a successful operation is much better than a nuclearized Iran. If success were guaranteed, the choice would be easy.
Clarification is due though: By successful, do we mean that Iranian nuclear sites are destroyed and can’t ever be rebuilt? Can’t be rebuilt for the next five years, two years, a year? Does it mean that Iran will no longer have a path to having nuclear weapons? Or do we merely mean that all the pilots return back and no retaliation is launched? Or some retaliation - but with only few casualties? Or a few hundred casualties? Successful has a different meaning to different people. Successful can only be measured against an alternative. Against the possibility that Iran will go nuclear uninterrupted.
So we have to ask: how dangerous is a nuclearized Iran?
Or did we already ask this question?
And now, my answers:
1. Very dangerous. More dangerous than the war we might have if Israel strikes Iran.
1a. More to Israel. As for the US, the case is there, but it is more nuanced and complicated to communicate.
2. I doubt it, and think a timetable should be established: if by a certain date Iran isn’t stopped, action is taken.
2a. The timetable should accommodate such concerns. I don’t have a date for you – because I don’t have the intelligence with which to make the assessment.
3. Giving such assurances might prove to be deceitful; relying on such assurances might prove to be a dumb thing to do.
3a. No, it’s not about Obama or Romney – that’s just a sideshow (this doesn’t mean that the likelihood of Obama action and Romney action is identical).
4. Maybe. Depends on the level of American insistence on preventing such action. But this refers to the initial strike – for a more consistent campaign to prevent the rebuilding of sites American involvement will be crucial (I will write more about this in the coming days).
4a. As I said: American response depends on the consequences of the action (and if you think you know for sure what’s going to happen following an attack - think again, more humbly: Did you know that Mubarak is about to be arrested and put on trial two weeks before it happened?).
5. Sorry. Can’t answer this. Go read someone who’s smart enough to pretend to know.