When Would Israel Attack Iran?

The Strategic Interest

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By Yossi Alpher

Published September 01, 2010, issue of September 10, 2010.
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The prospect of Israel attacking Iran’s nuclear infrastructure is very much in the news. Jeffrey Goldberg recently published a controversial article in The Atlantic citing what he called a “consensus” view among current and former Israeli decision makers that “there is a better than 50 percent chance that Israel will launch a strike by next July.” Meanwhile, Iran and Russia are activating the Bushehr electric power reactor, spurring super-hawks like former American U.N. ambassador John Bolton to urge Israel to attack immediately.

There is a lot of bad judgment and misinformation, or perhaps disinformation, at work here. At the end of the day, an Israeli attack against Iran is conceivable, but not in the way Goldberg or Bolton imagine.

The Israeli strategy regarding Iran’s nuclear threat is premised on the need to persuade the global community to deal with it as an international, not just an Israeli, problem. Most of Goldberg’s interviewees fully understand that America can do the job far better than Israel and that an Israeli attack not coordinated with Washington would be disastrous for Israel’s relations with the United States. But Israeli threats to attack Iran sound good, because they could conceivably spur the Obama administration to take preemptive action.

Further, there are plenty of serious officials in Israel who don’t believe Iranian strategic decision-making is in the hands of “a messianic apocalyptic cult” (Goldberg quoting Netanyahu) and who have something to say in the Israeli chain of command. The Israeli army’s chief of staff, Gabi Ashkenazi, for example, is understood to doubt the wisdom of an Israeli attack. Obviously (now that the Bushehr reactor is being fired up and has not been attacked), the government of Israel does not believe an electric power reactor is a key element in a military nuclear program.

Under what conditions would an Israeli leader, left or right, civilian or military, actually consider attacking Iran’s nuclear infrastructure? By my reckoning, the following set of conditions would have to exist in its entirety:

First, the regime in Tehran continues to call for Israel’s destruction. This is indeed the case today.

Second, the Iranian nuclear program is crossing a “red line” and the timetable for Iran to obtain the capacity to attack Israel with nuclear weapons has become extremely short. This has not happened yet.

Third, all international efforts based on diplomatic pressure and economic sanctions are understood unequivocally to have failed. Right now, those efforts are actually escalating.

Fourth, all clandestine efforts to slow the Iranian program (which have apparently been very effective over the past 15 years) are understood to have failed.

Fifth, it is clear to Israel that neither America nor any other international actor is prepared to deal militarily with Iran, but that Washington is giving Israel at least a “yellow light” to move. This is not the case today; the United States itself frequently hints that it might ultimately resort to military means.

Sixth, Israel has a safe air corridor for its aircraft via one or more of the countries separating it from Iran. Turkey may recently have dropped off this list.

And seventh, an Israeli attack can set back the Iranian military nuclear program for a significant period of time, while a sober cost-benefit analysis persuades Israeli planners that the strategic advantages of damaging the Iranian program outweigh the very heavy potential ancillary costs of the strike: rocket attacks on Israel from the north and south and missile attacks from Iran; regional and international outrage and isolation; a possible historic crisis in Israeli-American relations; dangers to Diaspora Jewish communities from terrorist attacks, etc.

We are clearly not there yet.

Yossi Alpher is co-editor of the bitterlemons family of Internet publications. He is former director of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University.


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