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The analytical approach to deciding if you support an Israeli attack on Iran

by Shmuel Rosner

August 14, 2012 | 9:36 am

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad speaking at the country's nuclear plant in Natanz. (Photo: Reuters)

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.‎

 

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