Wednesday Round-Up: What Could an Israeli Strike Really Accomplish?

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This post is part of our forum on Jeffrey Goldberg's September cover story detailing the prospects and implications of an Israeli strike against Iran. Follow the debate here.

Gary Milhollin weighs in this morning, focusing on what he takes to be the fundamental question at hand: Would an air strike -- particularly one carried out by Israel -- significantly impede the Islamic Republic's nuclear progress? Milhollin discusses what would (and wouldn't) likely be destroyed or discovered in the course of an Israeli air campaign, emphasizing the uncertainty of any answers, short of an invading the country. A clear probability, though, is how Iran would react -- it would play the victim:

The attack would give Iran a claim on the sympathy of countries that might otherwise be inclined to shun it, thereby invigorating its campaign to thwart U.S. and Western isolation efforts. But to remain the victim, it would have not to victimize others. Successful victimhood would therefore mean few or no Iranian-sponsored terror attacks against U.S. targets. It would also mean only limited terror attacks against Israel. If victimhood works, and Iran escapes isolation, its current rulers will have fended off one of the main threats to the regime anywhere on the horizon. That benefit would seem to outweigh whatever harm Israeli bombs could do to the nuclear program.

Goldberg responds to Milhollin's point about the uncertainty of any intelligence following an air strike:

It would not take an invasion of Iran in order to learn about the damage done to the country's nuclear sites following an air raid. Israel, and the U.S., both have specialized commando units that could penetrate these sites quickly and quietly, do their assessments, and try to destroy facilities not destroyed in the air attack. The Israelis have already factored this in to their plans, I've been told. And they have a conveniently-located jumping-off point in Iraqi Kurdistan.

Reuel Marc Gerecht, also responding to Milhollin, advocates for the logic of an Israel attack on Iran's nuclear sites: "For the first time ever," the Revolutionary Guard Corps, "the same organization that has been responsible for all of the Islamic Republic's terrorist liaison relationships -- including an operationally supportive relationship with al-Qaeda after the 1998 Africa embassy bombings, according to the 9/11 Commission Report -- would control nuclear weapons." A preventive strike is the only conceivable way to change the region's dynamic, Gerecht says:

Any bombing run will, at least temporarily, shock the international system and rock Iran internally. The Israelis will have shown that they are deadly serious about confronting the Iranian nuclear threat, that they are willing to go on a permanent war-footing with the Islamic Republic and its deadliest ally, the Hizbollah, which will probably unleash rocket hell on Israel in turn. Although President Obama may become (privately) furious with the Israelis, any Israeli strike will make the United States, and probably even the reluctant Europeans, more determined to shut down Iran's program. If Khamenei and the Guard Corps respond to an Israeli strike with terrorism, which is likely, then they could well put themselves into a strategic cul-de-sac, especially if they strike out against American targets or do something truly stupid, like trying to shut down the Strait of Hormuz.

In our comments field, democraticcore counters Gerecht's characterization of Israel as "the most beseiged liberal democracy in the world":

I would suggest that this "title" belongs to India, which has for the past 15 years or so has had to live with the reality of a nuclear armed immediately adjacent state that is its implacable foe, is highly susceptible to the influence of religious extremists, and has a highly unstable government. By contrast, Israel has not been attacked by another state for the past 37 years, has been able to maintain an occupation and settlement program in violation of international law, and has invaded a neighboring country, Lebanon, on several occasions. To the extent Israel has been "beseiged" since '73, it is largely attributable to the occupation and its interactions with Lebanon.

The number and magnitude of the terrorist attacks that India has faced over the past 30 years are also substantially greater than those faced by Israel.

To Jim Fallows, Gerecht is "completely wrong," even reckless, in assessing the potential U.S. reaction to a unilateral Israeli strike on Iran:
 
If Israel initiated a strike, by almost any reading the very mildest result would be economic disruption on a major scale. Upheaval in the world oil markets; resulting financial/trade upheaval of all kinds; uncertainty with a capital-U; and that is before we even start thinking about short- and longer-term "kinetic" retaliatory efforts by Iran.

And this is supposed to push America (and Europe, China, etc) closer to Israel?? To increase their solidarity in bearing down on Iran? Think about it: If, according to this scenario, America had decided not to attack on its own, that necessarily means that from the coldest calculation of our own American self-interest, all the assorted damage from an attack still seemed greater than the benefits. Now Israel would be bringing on all the damage that we had already decided was not worthwhile.

A report from the staff of The Jewish Week dusts off a Harvard study conducted two years ago, which found that Israel could successfully attack Iran without assistance from the United States. They also quote Goldberg and call him a "highly respected reporter."

Gerald Steinberg, a political science professor at Bar-Ilan University, pointed out that there was a Harvard study about two years ago that concluded that Israel could successfully attack Iran without the help of the United States. He said he is convinced that this analysis is correct.

"There's no question that it is technically doable," he said.

Asked about those who worry that Iran may have hidden some of its nuclear program at undetected underground sites that Israeli warplanes would miss, Steinberg replied: "There are always questions in any military operation. Just as the Iranians may have hidden aspects of their program, there are technologies and weapons that Israel will unveil for this purpose."
Should Israel attack the Iranian nuclear sites, Steinberg said it would set back the Iranian nuclear project for years. But he warned that Iran would respond through the use of its proxies, Hamas and Hezbollah, "and other terrorist attacks." And there would be political implications "because at some point the regime in Iran will be replaced by a more moderate regime and a military confrontation with Israel would remain a sorepoint."

He stressed that Israel would only attack Iran "as a last resort," and stressed that no decision would be made "until the last minute." But Steinberg said the Israeli military has already drawn up attack plans, just as it did months before it destroyed Iraq's nuclear reactor in 1981.

Also at The Jewish Week, Gary Rosenblatt writes: "For now, we must do all we can in support of the administration's efforts to convince Iran to end its nuclear program voluntarily. But Washington needs to address what happens when that fails." Goldberg comments: "This is the challenge. I support Obama's efforts as well; his strategy is prudent, patient, and well-thought-out. The problem comes if (when?) it doesn't work. I too would very much like to know what President Obama does then."

Global Security Newswire leads today with Gary Milhollin's argument in our forum on "The Point of No Return" -- also citing Robin Wright and Martin Indyk.

At Current Intelligence, Michael A. Innes mentions the debate in the morning edition of Readbook.

And in The New Yorker, Samantha Henig tracks global reactions to the prospect of an Israeli strike on Iran -- starting with Jeffrey Goldberg, Robin Wright, and ... Benjamin Netanyahu.

Back at The Atlantic, finally answering email queries pushing him to reveal his "secret" past as an Israeli soldier, Goldberg explains the extent to which this past is, in fact, a matter of public record: "You got me. I did serve in the Israeli army 20 years ago, and I have tried to keep it a secret, except for that one occasion when I wrote a book about it, and went on television and a national speaking tour to promote the book." Goldberg also addresses a recent column by Robert Wright of The New York Times. Wright:

... the main charges against Goldberg aren't about loading the cost-benefit analysis. They're about framing the future debate. His piece leaves you thinking that Israel will attack Iran very soon unless America does the honors. So the debate becomes about who should bomb Iran, not about whether Iran should be bombed.

And this is the way Israel's hawks want the debate framed. That way either they get their wish and America does the bombing, or, worst case, they inure Americans to the prospect of a bombing and thus mute the outrage that might otherwise ensue after a surprise Israeli attack draws America into war. No wonder dozens of Israeli officials were willing to share their assessments with Goldberg, and no wonder "a consensus emerged that there is a better than 50 percent chance that Israel will launch a strike by next July."
Goldberg's response here.

An overview of previous reactions to our September cover story here.

The debate continues here.

Jump to comments
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J.J. Gould is the editor of TheAtlantic.com. More

He has written for The Washington MonthlyThe American ProspectThe Moscow Times, The Chronicle Herald, and The European Journal of Political Theory. Gould was previously an editor at the Journal of Democracy, co-published by the Johns Hopkins University Press and the National Endowment for Democracy, and a lecturer in history and politics at Yale University. He has also worked with McKinsey & Company's New York-based Knowledge Group on global public- and social-sector development and on the economics of carbon-emissions reduction. Gould has a B.A. in history from McGill University in Montreal, an M.Sc. from the London School of Economics, and a Ph.D. in politics from Yale. He is from Nova Scotia. … Also: jjgould.com.

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