Why Israel Might Believe Attacking Iran Is Worthwhile

Do the potential costs of an air strike really outweigh the benefits?

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Israel's Foreign Minister Lieberman addresses Israeli diplomats during a conference in Jerusalem / Reuters

A barely perceptible but hugely important shift has occurred in recent months. Israel now appears to believe that the benefits of attacking Tehran's nuclear sites outweigh the costs. As Iran builds an enrichment complex underground near the city of Qom, the timing has also become critical. All of which may mean that, as Defense Secretary Leon Panetta reportedly told a Washington Post columnist, Israel will probably strike Iran in April, May, or June. (Panetta wasn't quoted directly, and a Pentagon spokesman tells National Journal that the secretary has "refused to comment" on the story.)

Western powers had thought that a preemptive strike on oil-rich Iran could have devastating implications for the region and the world. It could undermine the global economy (especially at a time of high oil prices) and peace in the Middle East. It could rain rocket fire on Israeli towns and possibly shift global power balances. But now, some American and Israeli experts--both inside and outside their governments--argue that Iran is less likely to retaliate in a serious way. An attack, in other words, may have fewer drawbacks than the skeptics first thought.

Partly, this has to do with Iran's internal problems. Its government is mired in chaos and infighting, its military is weak and disorganized, and its economy is crippled. Iran's main proxies, Hezbollah and Hamas, are not eager to attack Israel, and the United States is less vulnerable in Iraq now that its military has withdrawn. Tehran's lone ally in the region, Syria's Bashar al-Assad, is fighting a civil war. Iran "basically only has three asymmetric options for retaliation," says Matthew Kroenig, who recently published a controversial essay in Foreign Affairs urging a U.S. attack on Iran as "the least bad option."

First, it could support terrorists and proxy groups. But Kroenig points out that Hezbollah and Hamas, which both possess missiles and rockets along Israel's border, do not want to relive the devastating Israeli counterattacks of the 2000s. "Neither wants to provoke another Israeli invasion," Kroenig says. "They might engage in some kind of token retaliation just to satisfy Iran," but it wouldn't fundamentally change life for Israelis.

Second, Iran could fire ballistic missiles "at population centers in the region and at U.S. bases and ships," says Kroenig, who until last July was a special adviser to then-Defense Secretary Robert Gates. "But their missiles aren't all that accurate."

Third, its irregular navy, run by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, could wreak havoc in the Persian Gulf or even possibly close strategic oil-shipping lanes in the Strait of Hormuz, as Tehran warned recently. "They do have a bunch of guys on speedboats," Kroenig says. "But if we bombed half a dozen nuclear facilities, I don't think their response is going to be to close the straits, especially if we issue a clear deterrent threat.... We could completely destroy their navy in a matter of weeks." Anyway, Iran desperately needs oil sales to keep its sanctions-damaged economy going, so it is unlikely to halt the petroleum trade. That fact could assuage White House fears about a spike in gas prices bad enough to shake the global economy during an election year.

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Michael Hirsh is chief correspondent for National Journal.

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