WASHINGTON - New arguments by analysts close to Israeli thinking in favor of
United States strikes against Iran cite evidence of Iranian military weakness
in relation to the US and Israel, and even raise doubts that Iran is rushing to
obtain such weapons at all.
The new arguments contradict Israel's official argument that it faces an
"existential threat" from an Islamic extremist Iranian regime determined to get
nuclear weapons. They suggest that Israel, which already has as many as 200
nuclear weapons, views Iran from the position of the dominant power in the
region rather than as the weaker state in the relationship.
The existence of a sharp imbalance of power in favor of Israel and
the United States is the main premise of a recent analysis by Patrick Clawson
and Michael Eisenstadt of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy (WINEP)
suggesting that a US attack on Iranian nuclear facilities is feasible. Chuck
Freilich, a senior fellow at Harvard University's Belfer Center on Science and
International Affairs, has also urged war against Iran on such a power
All three have close ties to the Israeli government. WINEP has long promoted
policies favored by Israel, and its founding director, Martin Indyk, was
previously research director of the leading pro-Israel lobby, the American
Israel Public Affairs Committee. Freilich is a former Israeli deputy national
These analysts, all of whom are pushing for a US, rather than an Israeli
attack, argue that Iran's power to retaliate for a US attack on its nuclear
facilities is quite limited. Equally significant, they also emphasize that Iran
is a rational actor that would have to count the high costs of retaliation.
That conclusion stands in sharp contrast to the official Israeli line that Iran
cannot be deterred because of its alleged apocalyptic Islamic viewpoint on war
Clawson summed up the argument for a US attack from Iranian weakness in an
interview with Ha'aretz last week. "My assessment," he said, "is that contrary
to the impression that has been formed, Iran's options for responding are
limited and weak."
Freilich made a similar point in an article in the Jerusalem Post last week.
"Instead of unwarranted, self-deterring risk aversion," he wrote, "let us not
forget who wields the incalculably greater 'stick': Iran certainly will not."
A paper by Clawson and Eisenstadt published by WINEP this month not only
acknowledges but bases its argument for aggressive war on the fact that Israel
holds a decisive edge over Iran militarily. "A nuclear-armed Iran could
dangerously alter the strategic balance in the region," write the WINEP
authors, "handcuffing Israel's room to maneuver on the Palestinian and Lebanese
The WINEP co-authors thus highlight the degree to which Israel now has
virtually complete freedom to use military force in the region as long as it
does not attack Iran directly. Israel's bombing and ground campaign against
Hezbollah in Lebanon in 2006 and its destruction of an unidentified target in
Syria - an ally of Iran - last September, evidently to make the point that
Israeli warplanes could also hit targets in Iran, demonstrate how Israel has
been able to use airpower at will without fear of an Iranian military response.
Israel has been accustomed to such an extreme disparity in military power for
decades. Ray Close, who was US Central Intelligence Agency station chief in
Saudi Arabia at the time, recalls that after the Yom Kippur war of 1973, the
Israeli Air Force frequently made very low-level runs over Saudi airbases in
northern Saudi Arabia. The Israeli warplanes would drop empty fuel tanks on the
runways near Saudi fighter plains to remind the Saudis that they could have
been just as easily dropping massive bombs on the Saudi planes, according to
Clawson and Eisenstadt conclude that a military strike against Iran by the
United States could be successful, but they acknowledge that such a strike
"might cause Iran's leadership to conclude that the country needed nuclear
weapons to deter and defend against the United States ..."
The authors contradict the official Israeli position that Iran is hell-bent on
acquiring a nuclear weapon, observing that the Iranian nuclear program has not
actually been pursued with the urgency that has been publicly attributed to it
by Israel and the US. They write that Iran "has been engaged in less of a
nuclear race than a nuclear saunter".
Contrary to the explicit anti-Israel objective attributed to the Iranian
nuclear program by the Israeli government, moreover, they assess the motive of
the Iranians as being "the desire for prestige and influence" - aspirations
that could be fulfilled without having nuclear weapons, as other analysts have
Clawson and Eisenstadt argue that Iranian threats of retaliation against a
naval blockade should not be taken at face value, because Iran has demonstrated
great caution in response to past attacks on its own population by foreign
They cite the US shoot-down of an Iranian passenger airliner in 1988, when Iran
threatened retaliation but agreed to a ceasefire with then Iraqi president
Saddam Hussein out of fear of a US entry into the Iran-Iraq war.
The pro-Israel analysts further minimize the threat that Hezbollah would
unleash its thousands of rockets against cities in northern Israel, which has
long been regarded by Israel as Iran's single-most important deterrent to a US
attack on its nuclear program. In September 2006, after the Israeli war in
Lebanon, Freilich wrote that Hezbollah's rocket arsenal had already "lost much
of its deterrent value". The Israeli population, Freilich observed, had already
borne the brunt of a Hezbollah rocket attack and had been "willing to pay the
Clawson and Eisenstadt suggest that the US could reduce the likelihood of
Hezbollah rocket attacks on Israel in retaliation for an attack on its nuclear
sites by "quietly indicating that, as in 2006, it would support a tough Israeli
response to Hezbollah rocket attacks".
Clawson even contradicted the official Israeli and US line that Hezbollah is
simply a proxy of Iran, asserting in his interview with Ha'aretz that there is
"no guarantee" Hezbollah's leaders would "react automatically" to a US strike
against Iran. Instead, he suggested, they would act on their own interests "as
they understand them".
Hezbollah is "very aware of Israel's strength, and of the harsh reaction that
may result if Hezbollah attacks", Clawson said.
As for the Iranian threat to attack US naval targets or otherwise use its navy
to stop shipping through the Strait of Hormuz, Clawson and Eisenstadt express
confidence that "the US response would almost certainly cripple or destroy
Iran's navy". They clearly imply that Iran would have to weigh its options for
such retaliation against that loss.
Their argument that Iran is too militarily weak to mount a significant
retaliation reflects expert opinion within Israel. In a paper for the Institute
for National Security Studies at Tel Aviv University last February, Ephraim
Kam, widely regarded as the leading Israeli academic specialist on Iran, wrote,
"Iran's retaliatory capability against Israel is yet limited."
In basing the case for aggressive war against Iran on the weakness of the
target state rather than the threat of its military power and aggressiveness,
the pro-Israeli analysts are following a familiar pattern in dominant power
policymaking toward war on weaker states. The main argument made by advocates
of US air attacks against North Vietnam within the US government in 1964 was
that both North Vietnam and its socialist ally China were too weak to credibly
threaten an aggressive military response.
Gareth Porter is an investigative historian and journalist specializing
in US national security policy. The paperback edition of his latest book,
Perils of Dominance: Imbalance of Power and the Road to War in Vietnam, was
published in 2006.