What if the Israelis bomb Iran?

Watching Barack Obama's address to the Iranian public from outside the United States, though obviously not from inside Iran, I don't share Andrew Sullivan's concern that it will come off as patronizing. Instead I think it will seem, for those able to watch, startlingly and disarmingly respectful. After all, this is the President of the United States, not denouncing or lecturing an "enemy" audience but addressing them in friendly and supportive terms. Therefore I think it is part of a shrewd long-term play for rapprochement with an Iranian public that by all reports is potentially far more pro-Western than its current zealot leadership. Of course the same people who disagreed with Obama in 2002 about the wisdom of invading Iraq are certain to denounce him now for being too soft.

But clearly this approach does not solve the short-term problem of curbing the Iranian leadership's nuclear ambitions. Unfortunately, and for fuller discussion another time, no other approach immediately solves that problem either. For now it is worth considering this extensive analysis from CSIS, by the indefatigable Anthony Cordesman and Abdullah Toukan, of the ever-tempting "Osirak" option: allowing / encouraging / condoning / watching Israeli warplanes as they attack nuclear facilities in Iran.

The report is more than 100 pages long and tries to assess the feasibility of an attack from every angle. (A 2006 assessment by Cordesman of all options for dealing with Iran is here. The results of a 2004 Atlantic-sponsored "war game" involving Iran are here.) In its examination of second- and third- order effects, it strongly reminds me of the reports I read and wrote about in 2002, emphasizing that the conquest of Iraq was likely to be far more complex, costly, and likely to backfire than its boosters assumed. Many of the same boosters are again willing to assume away the practicalities in urging a military showdown with Iran.

After the jump, a few of the summary points. But you should look at the whole report.

From the CSIS reports summary of "Military and Political Consequences of an Israeli Attack on Iran's Nuclear Facilities":

Iran's Nuclear Program
• The more an Israeli threat to the survival of the regime in Iran, the more Iran will be determined to acquire nuclear weapons.
•Increase Iran's long term resolve to develop a nuclear deterrent program. Could be the beginning rather than the end of such a program. Iran could start an accelerated program in building its own nuclear weapons. It could also covert it's dispersed facilities into a full weapons development program and be brought online in a very short period of time.

Iran and the IAEA
• Iran would withdraw from the NPT based on the argument that it needs to acquire nuclear weapons to deter any further aggression by Israel and the U.S.

Iranian response against Israel
• Immediate retaliation using its ballistic missiles on Israel. Multiple launches of Shahab-3 including the possibility of CBR warheads against Tel Aviv, Israeli military and civilian centers, and Israeli suspected nuclear weapons sites.
• Using proxy groups such as Hezbollah or Hamas to attack Israel proper with suicide bombings, covert CBR attacks, and rocket attacks from southern Lebanon.


And for the record, what Cordesman and Khalid al-Rodhan wrote three years ago about larger US strategic choices:

The "ride out" option is one that many commentators need to consider in more depth. Unless the US does find evidence of an imminent Iranian threat -- which at this point might well require Iran to find some outside source of nuclear weapons or weapons-grade material -- the US may well simply choose to wait. Patience is not always a virtue, but it has never been labeled a mortal sin

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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.


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