By Henry Herz
SAN DIEGO--Iran’s pursuit of nuclear weapons and the West’s attempts to stop them returned to the headlines recently with the announcement by the US, Britain, and France that they had detected an underground (and until recently undeclared) uranium enrichment facility in Iran. And yet, no country is more concerned with the possibility of a nuclear-armed Iran than Israel.
Given the enormous stakes involved, Israeli decision making on how to address the Iranian nuclear question will be painstakingly analytical, carefully weighing the pros and cons. While there are many unknowns associated with Iran’s pursuit of nuclear weapons, there are enough issues that are known with high confidence to conclude that an Israeli attack is nearly inevitable.
It is widely agreed that Iran’s nuclear efforts are not purely for developing a new domestic energy source. Iran wants nuclear weapons for three compelling (from their perspective) reasons: Iran’s geopolitical power would be increased, Israel’s nuclear deterrence would be reduced, and they would give Iran the capability to destroy Israel.
Israel has invested enormous amounts of its blood and treasure
to develop the potent war fighting and deterrent capabilities it feels it needs to defend itself. Despite that, Iranian nuclear weapons represent an existential threat to Israel. Given Israel’s small size, only a modest number of nuclear weapons would be required to hold at risk a large fraction of its population. While Israel and the US are working hard on developing multi-tier ballistic missile defenses, these have not yet proven to be leak proof (nor are they ever likely to provide complete protection).
Iranian nuclear weapons would also seriously undermine the strength of Israel’s nuclear deterrent. Iran’s alliance with Hezbollah and Hamas offers an unconventional method for delivery of a nuclear weapon. In the absence of a "return address" of a ballistic missile trajectory from Iran, it would be harder for Israel to justify a retaliatory strike on Iran. In addition, Iran’s acquisition of nuclear weapons might increase the likelihood that Arab states like Egypt and Saudi Arabia would pursue nuclear weapon development, further weakening Israeli nuclear deterrence.
An Israeli conventional military strike on Iran’s nuclear infrastructure would fail to completely eliminate Iran’s ability to build nuclear weapons. Despite its effective military, Israel does not have the ability to destroy all of Iran’s nuclear weapon infrastructure, because it is extensive, geographically dispersed, and partially hidden. In any event, even a completely successful Israeli military strike would not eliminate the Iranian know-how to resume pursuit of nuclear weapons.
A military strike by Israel on Iran would almost certainly escalate and become extremely costly, both in terms of loss of life and economically. While it would cause limited casualties on both sides initially, an attack would prompt significant retaliation in the form of missile strikes from Iran and their proxies like Hezbollah. Destruction of Iran’s enriched uranium stores could inadvertently create the equivalent of a large dirty bomb, spreading radioactive material over a wide area. In order to minimize their civilian casualties, Israel’s strike on Iranian nuclear infrastructure would be immediately followed up by a systematic campaign to destroy Iranian and proxy weapon delivery capabilities (missile launchers and military aircraft), thereby widening and lengthening the military operation, and increasing the loss of life. Unfortunately, even a vigorous Israeli counterforce campaign would not be capable of stopping all incoming missiles, as the recent war with Hezbollah demonstrated.
The costs of a conflict would not be limited to loss of life. Widespread missile strikes on Israel would cause considerable physical and economic damage. Given the geography of the region, Israeli air strikes would likely cut across northern Syria and Iraq, rather than take the much longer southern route around the Arabian Peninsula. Given the US control of Iraqi airspace and its alliance with Israel, the US will be viewed by Iran (even in the event the US does nothing) as enabling (if not
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actively aiding) an Israeli attack. Thus, a likely outcome of an Israeli strike on Iran could be Iranian-sponsored attacks (most likely through proxy forces) on US interests throughout the world. Should Iran attack US or Western shipping in the Persian Gulf, a spike in oil prices would result, creating global economic implications.
So, given the high costs associated with an Israeli conventional military strike, are there other ways to prevent Iranian acquisition of nuclear weapons? Unfortunately, history suggests that even strong economic sanctions will fail to prevent a determined nation from building nuclear weapons. Although Iran’s economy is weak, previous sanctions have not halted their nuclear weapon programs, just as they failed to stop the even more resource-limited North Korean program. That said, economic sanctions will slow down a nuclear weapon program by constraining resources and technology transfers. Since buying time is a worthwhile goal as I explain below, and since economic sanctions are bloodless, they should be vigorously pursued.
Another alternative to a military strike is to promote a democratic Iran that is not virulently anti-Israel. This option, which is admittedly a long-term one, could prove stable even if the Iranians have nuclear weapons. After all, democracies are less likely to initiate wars of aggression than theocracies or dictatorships. Countries that are not in a state of hostility are not threatened by each other’s nuclear arsenals (e.g., Israel and India or US and France).
The passage of time appears to favor Iranian democracy. A growing portion of the Iranian population is young and yearns for democracy, as we saw in recent demonstrations against Ahmadinejad’s “re-election”. The Iranian activist Akbar Ganji wrote, “The Achilles heel for the regime today is the widespread and systematic violations of human rights against it own people. Greater exposure and scrutiny of this key issue will generate more popular discontent toward the leaders of Iran.” An Israeli military strike on Iran would set back this trend by rallying the Iranian population to the Iranian regime, temporarily distracting the Iranian populace from their grievances with the mullahs.
Even peaceful external promotion of democratic initiatives within Iran will be viewed by Iranians as yet another attempt at foreign manipulation, and will therefore be counterproductive. Worst of all, democracy requires time to take root, especially in traditionally authoritarian cultures, and the Iranians are widely considered to be very close to acquiring nuclear weapons.
So if military, economic, and political efforts to stop Iran’s development of nuclear weapons will ultimately fail, what will the Israeli government deem is the best course? Application of economic and diplomatic pressure on Iran should continue to be pursued. This will slow down Iran’s acquisition of nuclear weapons, but will not stop it. A military strike on Iran will significantly slow down Iran’s acquisition of nuclear weapons, but will not stop it. This leaves Israeli nuclear deterrence. Iran understands that use of nuclear weapons against Israel would result in a catastrophic Israeli nuclear retaliation. And Israeli leadership probably believes that the Iranian leadership is rational and not suicidal. But would the Israelis be willing to take that chance, given the cost of being wrong?
In the end, I believe Israel will conclude, based both on the reasons outlined above and on millennia of persecution, that it will need to act preemptively. Even though a conventional military strike cannot eliminate the Iranian nuclear threat, Israel will view it as their least bad choice because it is the option that sets back furthest Iran’s nuclear ambitions. With both the experience of the Holocaust (and its denial by Iran’s president) in mind, Israeli leaders will be unwilling to rely solely on deterrence for their survival. If they believe that, despite economic sanctions, the Iranians are getting too close to acquiring nuclear weapons, Israel’s leaders will feel compelled to buy themselves more time. Previous military strikes against Iraq and Syria’s nuclear facilities suggest that Israel would be willing to endure the significantly higher human, economic and diplomatic costs associated with an attack on Iran to push back the hands of the doomsday clock, and sadly with it, the advent of Iranian democracy that offers the greatest potential for peace.