Israeli officials may see a "zero hour" for attacking Iranian nuclear facilities, but it could backfire.
On his Twitter feed, Oren Kessler reports that news analysts on Israel's Channel 2 are in agreement that an Israeli strike on Iran's nuclear facilities seems to be imminent. Ari Shavit, of Haaretz, is reporting that an unnamed senior Israeli security official he interviewed who is identified in a headline as "the decision-maker" (If you guess Ehud Barak, the defense minister, you would not be wrong) is arguing that the zero-hour is approaching for an Israeli decision:
"If Israel forgoes the chance to act and it becomes clear that it no longer has the power to act, the likelihood of an American action will decrease. So we cannot wait a year to find out who was right: the one who said that the likelihood of an American action is high or the one who said the likelihood of an American action is low."
Aluf Benn, the editor of Haaretz, writes that the world seems to have accepted the idea that Israel will soon strike Iran: "All the signs show that the 'international community,' meaning the western powers and the U.S. in the lead, seem to have reconciled themselves with Israel's talk of a military strike - and now they are pushing Netanyahu to stand by his rhetoric and send his bombers to their targets in Iran. In general terms, the market has already accounted for the Israeli strike in its assessment of the risk of the undertaking, and it is now waiting for the expectation to be realized." And then, of course, there is Efraim Halevy, the former head of the Mossad, who warned earlier this month that Iran should fear an Israeli strike over the next twelve weeks.
I'm not going to guess whether Israel will strike Iran tomorrow, next month, next year, or never. I believe it is highly plausible that Netanyahu and Barak will do so at some point over the next twelve months, if current trends remain the same. (The Atlantic Iran War Dial, which is set by a panel of 22 experts, currently puts the chance of an Israeli or American strike over the next 12 months at 38 percent.) Obviously, the Obama Administration believes that Netanyahu and Barak are itching to give the strike order soon. Otherwise, why would it have sent half the senior national security team to Israel over the past several weeks?
Though I have no idea what's going to happen in the coming weeks, this seems like an opportune moment to once again list the many reasons why an Israeli strike on Iran's nuclear facilities is a bad idea. Believe me, I take seriously the arguments made by Netanyahu and Barak in favor of action against Iran (read the Shavit piece, linked above, for a very good summary of all the reasons why a nuclear Iran would be a catastrophe for Israel, and pretty damn bad for the Arabs and the West as well), but the negatives still outweigh the positives in my mind: Here are some potential consequences of an Israeli strike:
1) Innocent people will die. It is quite possible that even a limited Israeli strike could kill innocent Iranians, and it is an almost-sure thing that Iranian retaliation will kill innocent Israels.
2) It very well might not work at all. The Israeli Air Force is very talented and brave, but it doesn't have the capacities of the USAF. It would only have one shot at these facilities, and it might not do much in the way of significant damage. It could also lose pilots, or see its pilots shot down and captured.
3) Even if a strike does work, it may only delay the Iranian program, and it might even speed it up. Any Israeli preventive strike would justify, in the minds of Iranians -- even non- or anti-regime Iranians -- that their country needs nuclear weapons as protection. Certainly much of the world would agree, and the sanctions put in place on Iran may crumble. So acceleration of the nuclear program may be a consequence of an Israeli strike.
4) An Israeli strike may cause a surge of sympathy for Iran among Sunni Arabs across the Middle East, who right now despise the regime for, among other reasons, supporting the Assad government in Damascus. Right now, Arab opinion is hardened against Iran and its Lebanese proxy, the terror group Hezbollah. An Israeli strike could reverse this trend, and would be a boon to Assad and Hezbollah in many other ways as well -- for one thing, it would take attention away from the continuing slaughter of innocent Syrians by Assad. Conversely, an Israeli strike would be very useful for those forces around the world trying to delegitimize and isolate Israel.
5) A strike could trigger an overt war without end (Iran, of course, has been waging subterranean war on Israel, and America, for a long time now, and Israel and America respond, in subterranean fashion), and an all-out missile war may escalate into something especially horrific, so in essence, Israel would be trading a theoretical war later for an actual war now.
6) A strike could be a disaster for the U.S.-Israel relationship. It might not be -- there is no sympathy for the Iranian regime among Americans (except on the left-most, and right-most margins) and there is plenty of sympathy for Israel. But an attack could trigger an armed Iranian response against American targets. (Such a response would not be rational on the part of Iran, but I don't count on regime rationality.) Americans are tired of the Middle East, and I'm not sure how they would feel if they believed that Israeli action brought harm to Americans. Remember, American soldiers have died in the defense of Kuwait, and Saudi Arabia, but they've never died defending Israel. I doubt Israel wants to put Americans in harm's way now. And it certainly isn't healthy for Israel to get on the wrong side of an American president.
7) The current American president is deeply serious about preventing Iran from going nuclear. I believe he would eventually use force (more effectively, obviously, than Israel) to stop Iran from crossing the nuclear threshold. His position will be severely compromised if Israel jumps the gun and attacks now. Again, what I worry about, at bottom, is that an Israeli attack would inadvertently create conditions for an acceleration of the Iranian nuclear program.
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