Israeli or U.S. Action Against Iran: Who Will Do It If It Must Be Done?

A case study in how military action against Tehran could unfold.
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An Israeli air force F15-E fighter jet takes off for a mission over the Gaza Strip, from the Tel Nof air base in central Israel on November 19, 2012. (Baz Ratner/Reuters)

Let's say it's late 2013 and the prime minister of Israel has just received a phone call from the White House relaying the findings of a recent U.S. intelligence assessment: international sanctions and negotiations with Iran have yet to persuade the regime to halt its nuclear drive. Tehran previously rejected a generous U.S. offer that would have allowed it to enrich uranium in exchange for strong nuclear safeguards, and the program continues to advance unabated. After agreeing to convene in Washington in one week to discuss strategy going forward, the prime minister and president each call a meeting with their national security advisors.

The president's team acknowledges that the United States is war weary, debt laden, and politically gridlocked. With U.S. forces having just withdrawn from Iraq and on a path to end combat operations in Afghanistan by late 2014, many hope that the attendant diversion of resources will spring the country from its financial woes and accelerate its economic recovery.

What happens if the leaders of Israel and the U.S. agree that the time has come to ready their contingency options for a military strike against Iran's nuclear facilities?

Nevertheless, the president, the prime minister, and their advisers reaffirm that a nuclear Iran is an unacceptable threat to U.S. and Israeli national security, with the president reiterating his strong and repeated 2012 commitment to prevention. Each leader then reviews the redlines that the regime has already crossed since 2004 regarding enrichment of nuclear material, as well as the UN Security Council resolutions it has violated in its pursuit of nuclear weapons. They also consider the fact that five rounds of diplomatic negotiations (in Geneva, Istanbul, Baghdad, Moscow, and Kazakhstan) have failed.

In light of these concerns, both leaders agree that the time has come to ready their contingency options for a military strike against Iran's nuclear facilities. But if such action does indeed become necessary, they ask, which country should launch the attack -- the United States or Israel? To address that and other key issues, the president and prime minister pose ten questions to their close advisers regarding military action. Below are the most probable answers.

Which approach would give the West more room to exhaust peaceful options: leaving the timing of a potential attack to Israel or the United States?

Israel's military capability to strike Iran's proliferating nuclear sites -- especially those bunkered deep within a mountain, such as Fordow -- is more limited than that of the United States. Israel's window for military action is therefore closing, while Washington's more advanced capabilities mean that it can wait, affording the West a final attempt to exhaust all other options.

Which attack option would have more international legitimacy?

The international community is unlikely to support military action if diplomacy or sanctions still have a chance of succeeding. Again, America's superior military capabilities provide more time to exhaust these options. From this perspective, a last-resort U.S. strike would enjoy greater legitimacy, while a unilateral Israeli strike amid Western efforts to find a diplomatic solution would not be received well internationally.

Yet the Iranian nuclear program does not pose an existential threat to the United States as it does to Israel, so only an Israeli attack could legitimately claim self-defense. Numerous U.S. officials, including President Obama, have therefore qualified their warnings against a unilateral attack by recognizing Israel's sovereign right to defend itself.

Which option would cause greater damage to Iran's nuclear facilities?

The U.S. military's superior capabilities -- including B-2 stealth bombers, air refueling craft, advanced drones, and 30,000-pound massive ordnance penetrators -- are more likely to severely damage Iranian targets. Yet the United States has no operational experience in strikes against such facilities, unlike Israel, which successfully conducted similar operations against the Osiraq nuclear reactor near Baghdad in 1981 and, according to foreign press, against a Syrian reactor in 2007.

Which option would avoid violating the sovereign airspace of third countries?

Any Israeli operation would have to cross the airspace of at least one other country (Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Iraq, or Syria). Yet a U.S. attack could be launched directly toward Iran from bases or aircraft carriers in the Persian Gulf and elsewhere.

Which country could better carry out a focused military campaign that causes the least collateral damage or potential for escalation?

Without the advanced military capabilities to carry out a sustained bombing campaign against Iran's nuclear sites, any Israeli attack would necessarily be quick and surgical, with less collateral damage. This is a significant advantage. After such an attack, the Iranian regime would still have a lot to lose, and its retaliation would likely be much more measured, diminishing the potential for escalation.

The United States has one of the best air forces in the world, and its superior capabilities and massive ordnance penetrators leave it well poised to carry out an efficient surgical operation. Although there is no guarantee that these heavier bombs would be effective against all targets, they are nonetheless more powerful than their Israeli counterparts. If Washington wants to avoid getting bogged down in another war in a Muslim country, however, such a strike must be geared solely toward stopping Iran's nuclear efforts, not regime change or conquest. Toward this end, a surgical strike would be highly preferable to putting boots on the ground.

If post-strike escalation leads to war, which country has more efficient mechanisms in place to end the conflict?

Assessments of the day after an Israeli or U.S. strike range from limited Iranian retaliation that could be checked within days to full-scale regional war. If the United States attacked, however, it would have less moral authority than if Israel attacked -- Israel could legitimately claim that it was acting in self-defense. Moreover, Washington's ability to serve as an honest broker in negotiating a ceasefire would be diminished if it ordered the strike. For their part, China and Russia would be less incensed by an Israeli strike than a U.S. attack, and perhaps more willing to play a role in post-strike de-escalation.

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Presented by

James Cartwright and Amos Yadlin

Gen. James Cartwright, USMC (Ret.), is the Harold Brown chair in defense policy studies at the Center for Stra­tegic and International Studies. Maj. Gen. Amos Yadlin, IDF (Ret.), is director of Israel’s Institute for National Security Studies and former chief of Israeli defense intelligence. A version of this article will appear in a forthcoming paper for the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

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