Is Israel about to attack Iran?
On Thursday evening at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York the editor of Foreign Affairs, Jonathan Tepperman, chaired a debate on the security threat posed by Iran. The topics of choice included the utility of diplomacy, the threat posed by nuclear proliferation and the credibility of military intervention by an outside power. Given the present geopolitical state of play in the Middle East, this is hardly remarkable; Iran’s intransigent pursuit of nuclear weaponry has the potential to ignite a war amongst disparate nations vying for power in the world’s most volatile region. There are numerous vested interests at play – not only the United States’ close allegiance to Israel but the West’s reliance on its access to Middle Eastern oil as well as the steady income that China and Russia generate from supplying conventional arms and surface-to-air missiles to the Iranian military. The fact that this is a particularly hot topic in intellectual circles is therefore clearly not without merit.
Where the intrigue really lies, however, is in Israel’s recent willingness to talk openly about the fact that it is receptive to the possibility of unilateral military action against Iran. Far from seeking to tow the diplomatic line (as exemplified by the United States and European powers), the Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, has made it abundantly clear ever since his election to office that if the United States fails to stop Iran then he is quite prepared to do so. In an interview dating back to 2009, he averred that “the Obama presidency has two great missions: fixing the economy, and preventing Iran from gaining nuclear weapons”. In a thinly-veiled rebuke of Ahmadinejad, Netanyahu went on to argue that if the “wide-eyed believer gets hold of the reins of power and the weapons of mass death”. The belief that Iran cannot be allowed acquire nuclear weapons is the fulcrum upon which Israeli foreign policy now turns.
These current tensions – coupled with the firm rhetoric emanating from Jerusalem – lead many to judge that a pre-emptive Israeli strike on Iran is not just possible but inevitable. Israel is, of course, right to feel threatened; Ahmadinejad has made no secret of his desire to rid the world of Israel entirely, nor has he given any indication that the UN, US and EU sanctions that are having such a detrimental effect on the Iranian economy will deter him from enriching vast amounts of uranium with a view to producing nuclear warheads. What makes the situation particularly significant is that Israel only has a small window of opportunity in which to halt Iran’s steady march towards nuclear supremacy.
How viable is a unilateral Israeli attack? This is a useful question to consider, and one that is often neglected by analysts. History demonstrates that such action does not necessarily lead to war. In 1981 Israel launched Operation Opera, a strategic mission through which the Israeli military bombed an Iraqi nuclear reactor which was purportedly intended to be used for the peaceful production of nuclear energy, evoking not only the fury of Saddam Hussein but admonition from the United Nations Security Council. In 2007, Israel turned its attention to the embryonic nuclear capabilities of Syria by targeting a nuclear reactor – mostly manned by North Koreans – in the Deir ez-Zor region of the country in a mission known as Operation Orchard. Working on the basis of US intelligence, the Israelis justified the attack as a necessary strategic step to ensure its safety. Crucially, though, in both instances Israeli pre-emption passed without retaliation.
An attack on Iran, however, is an altogether different proposition. Israel certainly has the military means to carry out a repeat mission – laser-guided missiles and F-15 fighter jets capable of destroying Iranian targets are in plentiful supply – but the risk to Israeli personnel is significant. Iran’s surface-to-air capabilities (technology it acquired from the Chinese) are advanced and precise; as soon as Israeli planes enter Iranian airspace they are in danger of being shot down. Without United States backing, Israel would open itself up to significant reprisal. It is perhaps owing to his appreciation of this fact that, in an interview with The Atlantic on Friday, President Obama asked Israel to have patience and allow the economic sanctions that are currently in place to take effect. But this will become largely irrelevant if Iran succeeds in transporting its operations to a site free from the risk of aerial attack, something it is very much in the process of doing. If successful in moving its enriched uranium to an underground site located in close proximity to the holy city of Qom – dubbed the ‘zone of immunity’ by Israel – air strikes alone will no longer be sufficient to eliminate the Iranian nuclear threat. Unless either Israel or the United States are prepared to commit ground forces (an almost unthinkable strategy), in perhaps as little as a few months Iran will be free to realise its nuclear ambitions without any fear of hindrance.
The likely repercussions of an Israeli attack are hard to quantify at this stage. One thing, however, is certain: Iran would play the victim, and it would likely do so to great effect. Ahmadinejad demonstrated his proclivity for using transgressions against Iran to his own benefit when, upon releasing fifteen British Navy personnel who had strayed into Iranian waters, he declared his act of humility a “gift to the British people”. A preventative attack on Iran would provide Ahmadinejad with ample scope to cast Israel in the role of aggressor, a label that could ultimately negatively affect the country should Iran seek to strike back.
Moreover, it is not even entirely clear what could be achieved. Even the most optimistic of foreign policy experts refuse to countenance the notion that an attack would do anything more than delay Iran in its quest for nuclear weapons – after all, the knowledge behind uranium enrichment cannot be shelled out of existence. Much has also been made of the threat of Iranian proxies; Hezbollah, the Shi’a militant group and political party, is both geographically and militarily able to attack Israel on behalf of Iran, its principal benefactor. Toppling the Iranian regime or even taking out its nuclear capabilities would almost certainly incur the wrath of such Iranian-backed terror cells across the Middle East, providing the scope for the kind of protracted and unconventional conflict to which the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan ultimately led.
The task of seeking the answers to these ‘known unknowns’ has, however, been supplanted by the perceived need to act with urgency. Forced to pick between the ‘wait-and-see’ approach advocated by the United States and the preventative military assault favoured in Jerusalem, the instinct to secure one’s own survival will take over irrespective of the potential fallout. After all, what repercussion could be worse for Israel than ceasing to exist, a not inconceivable corollary of failing to act? Save for a remarkable and unforeseen diplomatic breakthrough, it is for this reason that an Israeli attack before the year is out looks not only possible but predestined.