Israel's Compelling Reasons to Attack, Despite the Uncertainties

>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's questions about the efficacy of an Israeli strike against Iran's nuclear facilities are surely among those that have most tormented Israeli cabinets and air-force planners. Milhollin's likely-damage assessment seems reasonable -- with the exception of what an Israeli preventive attack might do to the regime's scientific talent. If Tehran were to lose several of its key nuclear scientists and technicians in such a blow, the Iranian program might sustain a crippling hit from which it would be extremely difficult to recover. I have no idea of whether the Israelis have developed a personnel roster of Iran's nuclear program -- who works where, and when -- but if they have that kind of clandestinely collected intelligence (and I'm skeptical that they do), then they could do real long-term damage. The Islamic Republic does not have a deep scientific bench, which is in part why its Manhattan Project has taken so long (Tehran has been working on nukes fairly seriously since 1989) and why the program has, it appears, been plagued with technical difficulties.

But Israeli calculations for a preventive strike don't have to be conclusive to be successful. If the Israelis do nothing, they know that they would eventually be staring at an internally unstable, virulently anti-Semitic, terrorist-fond regime with nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles. Simply imagining the probable hair-trigger scenarios in which Israel will have to play atomic-bluff with Iran's supreme leader Ali Khamenei and the Revolutionary Guard Corps -- the organization that oversees Iran's nuclear program -- ought to be enough to make any rational nuclear planner shudder. For the first time ever, 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. Then imagine other Middle Eastern regimes, especially the Saudi state, built upon Wahhabism, also acquiring the bomb in order to counter Iranian Shiite power -- and you can see why the nerves of any Israeli nuclear planner have to be fried. Although it's possible that the American sanctions approach could eventually succeed in producing sufficient internal turmoil to derail the atomic program, the odds of this seem unlikely. The sanctions regime still has too many Russian and Chinese holes, not to mention German breaches, to have a sufficiently crushing effect.

What the Israelis need to do is change this dynamic. A preventive strike offers them the only conceivable alternative for doing so. 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.

Milhollin walks us through an interesting scenario in which the Iranians play the victim after an Israeli attack. Tactically and strategically, that would be the most intelligent thing for Tehran to do. Such a response could conceivably leave the Israelis in a real pickle. It is, however, unlikely. If the Israelis can inflict real damage on the Iranian program, and what Milhollin has described would probably be seen in Iranian eyes as serious damage, then the Revolutionary Guards -- who have asserted repeatedly that the Jewish State wouldn't dare attack their nuclear facilities -- would be confronting a real crisis. To maintain their revolutionary self-esteem, let alone the awe essential to Khamenei's dictatorship, Iran's leaders will have to strike. Making the Jewish State bleed is an inextricable part of their core identity.

For better or worse, liberal democracies always try to avoid military confrontations. Israel, which since its birth in 1947 has been the most besieged liberal democracy in the world, has been more willing to use force more quickly. Given the daunting prospect of attacking Iran, and given the uncertainties that Milhollin has enumerated, Jerusalem will likely do all that it can to avoid sending its planes east. I suspect that Goldberg is right: we've got at least a 51 percent chance that the Israelis will strike by next summer. If they do, Israeli pilots will unlikely be flying with the conviction that they can end the Iranian nuclear menace forever. But they will, no-doubt, be hoping that, with some luck, they can change a nuclear equation that will otherwise put atomic weapons in the hands of a regime that holds international conferences denying the Holocaust's existence, while arming and funding those who strive for Israel's annihilation.

The debate continues here.