The case for an Israeli strike against Iran
The fact that Ha'aretz, Israel's left-leaning daily, found it necessary on
February 17 to warn the Benjamin Netanyahu government not to attack Iran 
strongly suggests that the option is on the table.
It seems clear that the administration of US President Barack Obama never will
use force against Iran, despite the Iranian regime's open contempt for
Washington and the international community. US Secretary of State Clinton this
week responded with a direct "no" - not "all options are on the table" - when
asked if America was planning a military strike.
During a February 16 visit to Saudi Arabia, Clinton talked about responses to
Iran as if America had already decided that Iran was
developing nuclear weapons, something Tehran vigorously denies. Clinton was
quoted as saying that the "evidence doesn't support" Iran's claim it is
pursuing a peaceful nuclear program.
Israel has a strategic problem broader than the immediate issue of Iran's
possible acquisition of nuclear weapons: it is an American ally at a moment
when America has effectively withdrawn from strategic leadership. That leaves
Israel at a crossroads. It can act like an American client state, or a regional
superpower. Either decision would have substantial costs. To remain in
Washington's pocket is to show weakness and invite the contempt of its
adversaries; to ignore Washington's demands would incur the wrath of its most
important financier and arms suppliers and possibly result in a reduction of
That is the concern of the editors of Ha'aretz: "The chairman of the US Joint
Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Michael Mullen, warned in Tel Aviv on Sunday of the
unexpected consequences of an Israeli attack on Iran, just as he did during the
days of the [George W] Bush administration. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton
said in Qatar that Iran's neighbors, who are worried about its nuclear plans,
must rely on the American defense umbrella. And next week, Vice President
Joseph Biden will visit Israel to pass on a similar message."
Ha'aretz concludes, "The likelihood that the American move will succeed is
unclear, but Israel is required to give Obama a chance, for one simple reason:
Israel will need full American support for any actions it may decide to take
against the Iranian threat. If Israel goes to war, it will need intelligence
help, prior warning, military equipment and diplomatic support from the United
That is not quite right. No matter how much "intelligence help" and "diplomatic
support" Israel might get from the United States, Israel's capacity to deliver
conventional munitions at a distance of 1,250 miles (2,012 kilometers) could
not eradicate the Iranian nuclear program, which is located in hardened
underground facilities. At best, Israeli efforts could set the program back a
year or so. Low-yield nuclear weapons delivered by ballistic missile would be
required to strike a devastating blow to Iran's nuclear program. But the
political and strategic costs of the first use of nuclear weapons are grave,
and Israel may not be ready to assume them. It probably doesn't need to.
The trouble is that Israel's strategic problem is usually presented in
reductive terms: Iran (in the standard view) represents an existential threat
to Israel in that it might get nuclear weapons; this would give it the capacity
to destroy Israel, and therefore Israel must nip the existential threat in the
bud. In this narrow framework, pushing back Iran's nuclear development by six
to 18 months hardly seems worth the cost.
Iran's perceived attempt to acquire nuclear weapons, though, is not Israel's
problem as such; the problem is that Israel is the ally of a superpower that
does not want to be a superpower, headed by a president with a profound
emotional attachment to a nostalgic image of the Third World. If America were
in fact acting like a superpower, the problem would not have arisen in the
first place, for the United States would use its considerably greater resources
to destroy Iran's nuclear program.
Rather than focus on the second-order effect - the consequences of Iran's
possible acquisition of nuclear weapons - Israeli analysts should consider the
primary issue, namely the strategic zimzum  of the United States. The
correct questions are: 1) can Israel act as a regional superpower independently
of the United States, and 2) what would Israel do to establish its regional
The answer to the first question obviously depends on the second. To act as a
regional superpower, Israel would have to take actions that shift the
configuration of forces in its favor. No outside analyst has sufficient
information to judge the issue - with the best of information a great deal of
uncertainty is inevitable - but there are several reasons to believe that an
Israeli attack on Iran would establish the Jewish state as an independent
superpower and compel the United States to adjust its policy to Israel's
First, the Sunni Arab states have a stronger interest than Israel's to stop
Iran from possibly going nuclear. Israel, after all, possesses perhaps two
hundred deliverable nuclear devices, including some very big thermonuclear
ones, and is in position to wipe Iran off the map. But none of Iran's Arab
rivals is in such a position. The Saudis have done everything but take out a
full-page ad in the Washington Post to encourage the Obama administration to
attack Iran. Prince Saud al-Faisal, Saudi Arabia's foreign minister, warned on
February 15 that sanctions were a long-term measure while the world faces a
short-term threat from Iran. Egypt reportedly has allowed Israeli missile ships
to pass through the Suez Canal en route to the Persian Gulf.
Secondly, Russia well might prefer to deal with Israel as an independent
regional power than as an ally of the United States. A stronger Israeli
presence in the region also might contribute to Russia's market share in
missiles and eventually fighter aircraft. Russian-Israeli cooperation in a
number of military fields has improved markedly during the past year, including
the first-ever sale of Israeli weapons to Russia (drones) and Israeli help for
the Russian-Indian "fifth generation" fighter project.
Third, the United States would have to respond to a new strategic situation in
the Middle East were Israel to inflict even moderate damage on Iran's nuclear
program. The consequences would include, among other things:
Aggressive retaliation by Iran against American targets in Iraq. The Joint
Chiefs of Staff have opposed bombing of Iran for years in part because they
fear that Iran could inflict significant casualties on American forces.
Stronger Iranian support for the Taliban. Washington's plan for Afghanistan
depends in part on the fanciful notion that Iran will be persuaded to support
the Shi'ite Hazara minority against the Pashtun Taliban. Iran has always played
both sides and in the event of an Israeli strike would shift resources towards
whatever America liked the least.
Greater tensions between Pakistan and Iran. Iran's credibility in the region
depends on its perception of being the protector of Pakistan's 35 million
Shi'ites, the second-largest concentration outside of the 70 million people of
To the extent Washington has a Middle East policy, it seems to involve playing
balance-of-power games on the scale of the Mad Hatter's tea party, as I wrote
at year-end (The
life and premature death of the Pax Obamicana Asia Times Online,
December 24, 2009). Whatever Washington thought it was doing would come unstuck
in the wake of an Israeli strike against Iran. Rather than attempt to lead
events - in no particular direction - Washington would have no choice except to
follow until it arrived at its own foreign policy at some unspecified future
date. Although Washington would scream like a scalded pig, Israel's influence
is more likely to rise than to fall in the aftermath.
There are numerous variables I cannot possibly estimate, of which the most
important have to do with the technical feasibility of a long-distance strike.
The political variables are too fuzzy to pin down. The strategic framework in
which a unilateral Israel strike on Tehran makes sense is one in which all
depends on Israel's capacity to improvise and dominate the situation through a
combination of force and unpredictability.
Once again, the words of my favorite character in American literature -
Dashiell Hammett's Continental Op - come to mind: "Plans are all right
sometimes ... And sometimes just stirring things up is all right - if you're
tough enough to survive, and keep your eyes open so you'll see what you want
when it comes to the top."