On bombing Iran, Israel needs to cool its threats
“Iran is much closer to producing nuclear weapons than previously thought, and could be less than five years away from having an atomic bomb, several senior American and Israeli officials say.” That sentence came from a New York Times article published in January 1995. “…Senior Israeli officials say that if the program is not halted,” the story continued, “they will be forced to consider attacking Iran’s nuclear reactors, a tactic they used against Iraq in 1981, when Israeli warplanes bombed an Iraqi reactor.”
Twenty-seven years later, Israel continues threatening to bomb Iranian nuclear facilities. Last week, Defense Minister Benny Gantz warned that Israel must do “everything it can” to prevent the Iranians from possessing a nuclear weapon, or else “there may be a point when we will have no choice but to act.” He went on to assert that his country must prepare “for any possibility in order to defend the State of Israel”.
For good reason, the Israelis have not made good on its past threats, and there are very compelling concerns why. One can’t conclude that the relative ease with which Israel has bombed Egypt, Gaza, Iraq, Lebanon, Sudan, Tunisia, and Syria means that Israel could just simply bomb Iran’s nuclear facilities without potentially catastrophic consequences. To be sure, one could not compare Israel’s bombing of such facilities in Iran to its air attacks against Iraq’s Osirak reactor in 1981 or Syria’s Al-Kubar facility in 2007.
Practically speaking, Israel would need to deal with the fact that the Iranians have built dozens of nuclear sites all over their country. “The Israeli planes will also have to strike – either before striking the nuclear sites or in tandem – command-and-control centers, communications centers and anti-aircraft systems,” wrote Yossi Melman in Haaretz last week. “All in all, it is a hugely complex and practically impossible mission that is too big for the Israel Air Force to take on. Remember, too, that some planes would almost certainly be lost during the sorties. Their pilots would be killed or taken prisoner, which is essentially the same thing.”
Iran is a country of nearly 86 million people with the potential ability to mobilize its networks and loyalists all over the Middle East to retaliate. From Lebanese Hezbollah to armed groups in Palestine and Syria, pro-Iranian forces surrounding Israel could make the Jewish state pay a huge price for any attack. Hezbollah alone has tens of thousands of rockets, some of them with precision guidance systems, that could reach all parts of Israel, according to the Israeli military. While Israel’s sophisticated missile defenses could intercept many of these rockets if a new war erupts, it’s virtually certain that enough would break through to cause major destruction. Tehran, which has a formidable missile arsenal of its own capable of precision strikes, can also respond to an Israeli bombing of its nuclear sites by going after softer targets virtually anywhere in the region.
Despite all the Israeli chest-thumping, the country’s national-security establishment clearly understands these possibly deadly risks. Back in 2010, then-Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak ordered their country’s security chiefs to prepare the military to attack Iran’s nuclear facilities within hours. According to an Israeli TV investigate news program that aired two years later, however, Israel’s security chiefs persuaded them to withdraw the order. “The order to step up military readiness was given by Netanyahu and Barak to the then-chief of staff of the Israel Defense Forces, Gabi Ashkenazi, and to the then-head of the Mossad, Meir Dagan, at a meeting on an unspecified date,” the Times of Israel reported. “But Dagan reportedly retorted that the order, if followed, might lead to a war based on an illegal decision. And Ashkenazi, reportedly declaring that such an attack would be ‘a strategic mistake,’ also warned that the very order to prepare for a strike might set in motion a deterioration into war even if Israel didn’t actually choose to launch one. Netanyahu and Barak chose not to insist that the security chiefs follow their orders, the program indicated.”
Without considering any of the dangers that Israel would face if it bombed Iran’s nuclear facilities, one must also ask what such bombings could achieve.
Even if Israel successfully destroyed the targeted nuclear sites, Iran’s scientists and engineers would retain the know-how to reconstruct them. At this point, U.S. analysts agree that Israel’s past sabotage targeting Iran’s nuclear program has been counterproductive in the sense that the Iranians have not only rebuilt such damaged facilities but also built them back better and more quickly than anticipated.
There is also the issue of Iran’s international standing and the positions of non-western powers. For now, China and Russia are opposed to Iran becoming a nuclear threshold state, let alone one actually armed with a nuclear weapon. But if Israel bombs Iran and then the Iranians make the case to Beijing and Moscow that only nuclear deterrence can keep their country safe from Israeli attacks, Beijing and Moscow are much more likely to support Tehran’s position.
Ultimately, it is safe to assume that Israel’s continuing threats can’t lead to any good outcomes for the Jewish state, especially if Tel Aviv can’t persuade the Biden administration to bring the U.S. military into the fight. Mindful of how, at the end of the day, the Bush, Obama, and Trump administrations all decided against bombing Iran’s nuclear sites, it is difficult to imagine Biden and his team assessing the risks much differently.
Where do Israeli threats lead?
Thus, more Israeli threats can only bring the Jewish state to two fateful and undesirable choices if the negotiations over reviving the JCPOA fail and Iran’s nuclear program proceeds apace. If, on the one hand, Israel makes good on its threats, it could very well find itself in an escalatory spiral with Iran and its regional allies over which its control will be extremely limited. If, on the other hand, Israel never attacks, it risks being seen as a paper tiger.
Looking ahead, what is in Israel’s interests vis-à-vis Iran’s nuclear program? The answer is simple: stop talking about the alleged Iranian nuclear threat. There is no need to continue hyping this threat or inaccurately portraying Iran as an irrational state actor. Doing so is counterproductive and undermines Israel’s long-term security.
Even if one day Iran does possess a nuclear weapon, it has no reason to launch an unprovoked, first-use nuclear attack against any country, including Israel. The regime in Tehran is not suicidal. Iran’s leaders know that their country would suffer grave consequences if the Islamic Republic ever carried out such an attack. Iran’s nuclear activities seem designed to be mainly about boosting the country’s standing and leveraging the fears that other powers have of the Iranian nuclear program. To continue achieving such goals, the Iranians do not necessarily ever need to acquire nuclear weapons and Iran could remain a nuclear threshold country if the JCPOA is not restored.
Today, as Iran and global powers carry on past the seventh round of this year’s nuclear negotiations in Vienna, which ended on December 3, Israel has been calling on all parties to halt the talks at once. But it would behoove the Israelis to understand that a revived JCPOA is now the most realistic pathway toward ensuring that Iran freezes and, if possible, reverses its nuclear program to the levels prescribed by the 2015 nuclear deal. With the United States out of the JCPOA — an outcome in part attributable to Israeli and Gulf Arab lobbying of the Trump administration — Iran’s nuclear advances continue.