IS IT INEVITABLE? RATIONAL?
WHAT SHOULD THE U.S. DO?
By Tyrus W. Cobb
Colleagues: Speculation is rife that with or without U.S. support, Israel will attack Iranian nuclear facilities, possibly soon. Clearly the Obama administration and the US’s military leadership do not share the Israeli viewpoint, with respect to the extent of the threat, how well sanctions can impact the challenge, and whether a military strike is advisable or workable.
The Israeli Perspective and its Supporters in the U.S.
There seems to be a wide gulf between what the Israelis (and much of the Jewish community in the U.S.) believe with respect to Iran’s nuclear objectives and what professional military officers and defense experts in this country conclude.
Israeli writers dismiss this American caution, charging that these observers simply can’t understand that an Iranian nuclear weapons capability would be an “existential threat” to Israel. Many here in the West cannot and do not appreciate what Israelis have confronted for more than 60 years, and what Jews worldwide experienced before that—from the Dreyfus Affair in France to the Holocaust, to a sense of being isolated in a world of autocratic, anti-Semitic Arab and Persian neighbors. They fear once again being caught unprepared in the face of a severe military threat (1973); they tend to perhaps exaggerate adversary intentions and capabilities; they tend to rely on the belief that a preemptive, quick strike (Osirak, 1981; the 1967 war) is a proven path to military success.
Tel Aviv’s fears have been stoked by continuing incendiary statements by Iran’s leaders, including President Ahmadinejad and Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei, who advocate the destruction of Israel. Western observers may dismiss these comments as sheer rhetoric; Israel’s leaders take them much more seriously. Thus, as Israeli professor Efriam Inbar concludes, “delaying an Iranian capability by only a few years would be a worthwhile achievement”, and that fears of regional repercussions from any strike on Iran are “exaggerated”.
They have virtually no faith that an outside superpower like the U.S., and certainly not China or Russia, will intervene to effectively halt the Iranian program. Or if Tehran did achieve a nuclear weapons capability, that any outside power—including the U.S.—would do anything about it. Israeli officials also feel that they have shown great patience over the past few years, with little to show for it as the Iranian nuclear program steams ahead.
The leading War Hawk in the Netanyahu administration, Defense Minister Ehud Barak, argues that to allow the Iranian nuclear program to continue would result in Tehran producing such a number of weapons that Israel would be unable to conduct an attack that would permanently cripple the Iranian capability. Barak sees a current “window of vulnerability” for Iran that will close soon as the Iranian program escalates, Iran receives advanced air to surface missiles from China or Russia, and Tehran’s terror networks coalesce. This will provide, in Barak’s words, a “zone of immunity”.
And certainly the leadership in Tehran is doing nothing to dampen those fears. As former DOD official Jack David wrote, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei emphatically proclaimed recently Iran would continue its nuclear program, called Israel a “cancerous threat” that should “be cut”, and threatened to accelerate its global support of terrorism. David worries that a nuclear-armed Iran would be even more aggressive in attacking the U.S., Israel and Arab states like Saudi Arabia, operating behind a nuclear shield. A nuclear Iran, David continues, would “threaten Israel’s very existence”.
This viewpoint reflects the feelings of much of the American Jewish community, which is unusually united in their perspectives on Iran. However, it would be a mistake to think this sense of urgency is driven only by Jews—it is one that many “NeoCons” have espoused and as well as mainstream national security experts such as SEN Lindsey Graham. And, it is important to note, the drumbeat for an attack is propelled just as much by Sunni-dominant Arab regimes, including Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, and the UAE.
What are the professionals in the U.S. saying?
Does everyone believe that Tehran is hell-bent to develop and field a nuclear weapons arsenal? There is, actually, wide disagreement about Tehran’s objectives with respect to its nuclear programs. Many very senior officials in the IAEA and here in the U.S. have expressed doubts about the ultimate goal of the Iranian program. For example, General James Clapper, the Director of National Intelligence (DNI), and formerly Secretary Rumsfeld’s key intelligence officer, has testified that he is not certain that Tehran really intends to take its nuclear program to the point of actually producing nuclear weapons! Clapper, sitting alongside CIA Director GEN Dave Petraeus, commented, “We don’t believe they’ve actually made the decision to go ahead with a nuclear weapon”.
Others note that the Iranian program is still under the supervision of IAEA inspectors and Iran has not made any move toward “breaking out” toward the production of weapons-grade, highly enriched uranium. They added that Iran is a signatory to the Non-Proliferation Treaty and has not violated its norms to date. By contrast, they add, Israel is not a signatory to the NPT and has refused to provide any access to its nuclear facilities to IAEA or any other agency officials. Israel probably has 200+ nuclear weapons, and three means to deliver them, and nothing is controlled by any international treaty. So if Iran does not have a bomb and it is uncertain that they will, and since Iran has never built, tested or weaponized a nuclear device, some ask, who is the “existential threat” to whom?
Regardless of what views one has on Tehran’s intentions, many experts believe that the economic and financial sanctions that have been imposed on Iran, as well as covert actions, have had a very significant impact and caused severe degradation to the Iranian economy. This has weakened the position of the Mullahs and led to internal strife within the government’s top leadership.
The sanctions regime has caused Iran’s currency to plunge, oil is piling up in storage tanks because it cannot find buyers, and there is growing dissension within the top leadership. Thus, some argue, given time, the sanctions will force the Iranians to negotiate or abandon any nuclear weapons programs they may have in mind. This is a viewpoint that many in Israel have also expressed—there is no unanimity that Minister Barak’s demands for a strike are the right course for Tel Aviv (in fact Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu has struck a middle course and encouraged debate on the topic, while seeming to lean closer to Ehud Barak’s position). The former head of Mossad, the Israeli intelligence agency, has also joined the fray by denouncing the war hysteria that has emerged.
How successful would an Israeli strike likely to be? What would be the repercussions?
Despite these words of caution, many anticipate that an Israeli strike against the Iranian nuclear facilities will occur. And maybe this Spring. If so, how successful would such an attack be?
Most experts believe that any conceivable air campaign would at best only delay and damage the program. They point out that Iran has withered the attack by the Stuxnet virus, the assassinations of some of its nuclear scientists, and economic sanctions, and are now installing advanced uranium enrichment centrifuges.
The elements of the program—principally the centrifuges– are being placed deep underground, for example most recently inside a bunker near Qom, one that is too deep for any bunker busting bomb to penetrate.
On the attack scenarios, virtually all experts conclude that an Israeli strike against Iran’s nuclear facilities could do considerable damage, but not halt the program. The strikes would, at best, delay the program’s progress for months or a couple years.
An air campaign would stretch the Israeli air forces capabilities to the maximum. The key targets are located at the furthest range of its fighter-bombers. And the pilots would have to violate the airspace of at least Iraq, if not Jordan, Turley or Saudi Arabia. While it is not militarily a challenge now to fly over Iraq (Iraq does not have any air defense capability to speak of), it would, of course, further drive the Iraqi populace closer to a tighter relationship with Tehran.
American military experts have also pointed out that there is no such thing as a “surgical strike”, but warn that any conflict would involve extensive civilian casualties and be very messy. Former Vice-Chairman of the JCS James Cartwright testified before the Senate that any strike would also “solidify domestic support for the regime”. He also agreed that the only way to prevent Iran from securing a nuclear weapons program was “to occupy the country”.
What would the Iranian response be? Perhaps it would encourage the Hezbollah in Lebanon to launch some of the thousands of rockets it has in the inventory, and push its new partner, Hamas in Gaza, to conduct incursions against Israel. It may take actions to close the vital Hormuz straits, through which flow much of the world’s oil supplies. And sensing that the U.S. is complicit, Iran would certainly send out swarms of its Swift boats against the U.S. Navy presence in the Gulf and likely employ numerous mini-drones to hamper U.S. activities.
Such an attack would at a minimum disrupt global oil markets and lead to a rapid escalation of petroleum prices and a global economic downturn.
What is unknown is what the global repercussions will be? Will this further drive China, and possibly Russia, into greater support for Iran? Would such a strike please the Saudis, or will it cause anger in the Muslim world? These questions also must be addressed.
Will the U.S. Be involved in an Israeli Strike? Should it?
The U.S. may not have any option but to fully support Israel should it decide to strike Iran, especially in an election year.
The United States is “tied up in knots” over the issue, James Zogby points out, because no one wants to appear to be critical of Israel. President Obama and all GOP candidates would feel compelled to support the Israeli position.
The consensus American position would be to continue the sanctions regime and not undertake a military strike. If Iran, in fact, produced a nuclear weapon, the majority would probably advise simply, “OK, live with it”. We have dealt with far worse nuclear threats successfully and we can again since, to use the phrase the Chairman of the JCS, GEN Marty Dempsey, proffered this week, Iran is, at heart, “a rational actor”.
One observer, Fareed Zakaria, writes that America faced a similar situation when the Soviet Union developed its nuclear weapons program, one that was in the hands—from our perspective—of a regime that was “irrational, aggressive and utterly unconcerned with human life”. Zakaria points out that just as many Israelis are advocating for preemptive strikes against Iran, so did many in the U.S. call for launching a decapitating “first strike” against Moscow in the late 1940s. Wisely, he concludes, cooler and more sober heads prevailed, and in the end, “the global revolutionaries in Moscow, the mad autocrats in Pyongyang and the terrorist-supporting military in Pakistan have all been deterred by mutual fears of destruction”. Why, he asks, would be believe that an Iranian regime would launch such an irrational attack. For example, he points out that while there have been suicide bombers from virtually all countries in the Mideast, there have been none from Iran.
Defense analyst Thomas M.P. Barnett argues that if “Iran will get the bomb we would be better off accepting that”. But he concludes that Israeli pressure, sympathetic and powerful domestic groups in the U.S., and the course of the Presidential election means that war with Iran is inevitable and we’d better plan for it. America will be drawn in regardless of its preferred stance.
Barnett predicts that Iran will respond with asymmetrical warfare tactics, in addition to the steps listed above. Iran would step up its global terrorist attacks, this time against the U.S. as well as Israel. “Get ready for IEDs on I-95”, he warned.
In summary, the situation is highly volatile and I do believe that Ehud Barak’s viewpoint will be adopted in Israel. The U.S. will continue to attempt to downplay the threat Iran represents—even a nuclear Iran—but it is doubtful that such words of caution will deter the Israelis. And it is highly likely that the conflict will draw the United States in, reluctantly perhaps, but in.
Tyrus W. Cobb served as Special Assistant to President Reagan for national security affairs and is the CEO of the National Security Forum.