Striking Iran: Israel’s War Wager
Israel is trying to exploit the international community’s uncertainty about how to respond to this week’s report by the UN nuclear watchdog (IAEA) on Iran’s nuclear program to justify a possible military strike against Iran. The IAEA’s report indicated Iran has secretly worked for years on developing a nuclear warhead and might still be doing so.
The International Atomic Energy Agency’s report is certain to lead to demands by the US and Europe for stiffer sanctions on the Iranian regime. Russia and China, meanwhile, have urged dialogue and cooperation with Iran.
Amid the divisions, British government officials said this week that Israel was preparing to launch a military attack on Iran’s suspected nuclear sites within the next two months, probably with logistical support from the United States.
An unnamed senior official at the Foreign Office told the Daily Mail newspaper: “We’re expecting something as early as Christmas, or very early in the new year.”
Similarly anonymous US military officials have been ringing alarm bells in the US media that Israel might launch an attack. The Pentagon, CNN reported, was “increasingly vigilant” for military activity between Israel and Iran.
The warnings followed a fortnight of reports in the Israeli media of bitter feuds within the Israeli government, as well as with Israel’s security chiefs, about plans to initiate such a strike.
Benjamin Netanyahu, the prime minister, and his defense minister, Ehud Barak, are said to be strongly in favour of an attack. The balance in the inner cabinet apparently tipped in their favour last week when they recruited the foreign minister, Avigdor Lieberman, to their cause.
Further reports suggest that Netanyahu and Barak have recently moved from discussing a strike to the stage of “implementation.” In what looked like an additional intimidatory move, Israel test-launched last week the Jericho III, a long-range missile capable of reaching Iran.
Lined up against Netanyahu and Barak, according to the Israeli media, are both the current and recently retired heads of all the main military and intelligence services. They appear to be using the country’s military affairs correspondents to pass on dire warnings of the folly being prepared by Netanyahu.
The only one who has gone public so far is Meir Dagan, who departed as head of the Mossad, Israel’s spy agency, nearly a year ago. He incurred Netanyahu’s wrath early this year by stating that an attack on Iran was the “stupidest thing I have ever heard.”
He undermined Netanyahu’s public position again last month, arguing that Iran could not develop a nuclear bomb for at least another three years and, apparently contradicting the IAEA report, suggested there was no evidence Tehran has yet decided to develop military uses.
That position accords with the 2007 estimate of 16 US intelligence agencies, which found no evidence of Iran pursuing a nuclear weapons programme. An updated estimate this year has so far been kept under wraps by the White House, apparently because it confirms the earlier assessment.
Iran has long claimed it is only seeking to establish a civilian nuclear energy programme, as it is entitled to do as a signatory of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. It has been receiving help chiefly from Russia.
However, some experts believe Iran is also secretly trying to become a “nuclear threshold state”: that is, to get close to developing a warhead so that, should Tehran be threatened – possibly with a US invasion, as happened to neighboring Iraq – it can quickly produce a nuclear bomb as a deterrence.
Dagan and other Israeli security officials are reported to believe that an Israeli attack on Iran would be futile and dangerous. It would fail to disable most of the nuclear production sites, which are dispersed and hidden underground, and would only intensify the pressure on Tehran to develop the technology.
Israel’s security establishment also fears that a strike would lead to severe retaliation not only from Iran but also potentially from Syria, Hezbollah and Hamas; rally Iranians behind their regime; threaten reprisals against the US in Iraq; and bring international condemnation on Israel’s head.
Hassan Nasrallah, Hezbollah’s leader, underlined that point today when he said any attack by either Israel or the US would provoke “regional war.”
Similarly, Iranian leaders have warned that, if attacked, they would hit back against both Israel and the US. “We would make them regret such a mistake and would severely punish them,” said Hassan Firouzabadi, the Iranian chief of staff, this month.
Nonetheless, the Israeli public appears to be supportive of an attack. In May, 71 percent of Israelis backed the US launching a strike against Iran. A poll this month showed 41 behind a lone Israeli operation, with a further 20 percent undecided. Support among Israeli Jews is almost certainly higher, as the survey included the fifth of the Israeli population who are Palestinian and are generally opposed to military action.
The very public display of division in Israel’s political and military establishments on a matter of such importance to national security is almost unprecedented, leading Dan Meridor, a deputy prime minister, to call the debate “insane” and a “scandal.”
Israel is believed to have twice launched attacks on Arab states to prevent what it claims were secret efforts towards making a nuclear warhead. In 1981 it bombed Iraq’s Osirak experimental reactor, while it was under construction; and Israel is widely assumed to have been responsible for a strike in 2007 on a suspected nuclear site in Syria.
Both attacks were carried out without warning.
Israel’s true intentions in this case are hard to decipher.
Israel has been warning of the dangers of an Iranian bomb for nearly two decades, regularly claiming over that period that Tehran is only years or months from building a warhead.
However, in recent years Israel has won backing in the form of a series of increasingly stringent sanctions on Iran, imposed by the UN Security Council, to dissuade it from pursuing even a nuclear energy programme.
But most in the Israeli leadership are known to be skeptical that sanctions alone can stop Tehran from getting the bomb. They argue that a nuclear-armed Iran would be a threat to world peace and suggest that Israel would be first to be targeted.
Netanyahu has been especially vociferous in promoting this threat, calling Iran’s president, Mahmoud Ahmedinejad, the “new Hitler” and warning that Israel faces a “Holocaust from the ayatollahs” – comparing Israel’s position to that of the Jewish community in Germany in 1938.
Israel’s real concerns, however, are rather different from the doomsday rhetoric.
In fact, the leadership is chiefly fearful of the domestic and geo-political implications of Tehran developing a warhead, believing it would severely weaken both Israel’s regional superpower status and its tight alliance with Washington.
Israel has its own nuclear arsenal – estimated at between 200 and 400 warheads – which it developed secretly with assistance from Britain and France, and against US wishes, in the late 1960s.
Commentators have noted that one of Israel’s chief aims in developing a warhead was to blackmail the US and force it into a military alliance for fear that otherwise Israel might use the bomb in a confrontation with a neighboring state.
Francis Perrin, head of the French Atomic Energy Agency during the period when France helped Israel to develop a nuclear weapon, said: “We thought the Israeli bomb was aimed against the Americans… to say ‘if you don’t want to help us in a critical situation we will require you to help us, otherwise we will use our nuclear bomb.”
Just such a moment occurred a few years later, in 1973, when the US was forced massively to rearm Israel as it faced defeat at the hands of neighboring Arab states.
At the regional level, Israel’s current fear is that an Iranian bomb would unravel these gains. Israeli analysts were clear on this point as far back as the early 1990s, when Iran was trying to get European oversight for a nuclear energy programme.
Aluf Benn, an analyst for Haaretz, wrote in 1994, for example, that Israel regarded Iran as the number one military priority because it “could aspire to regional hegemony and ruin the peace process by virtue of having nuclear weapons and long-range missiles.”
In this assessment, were Tehran to become a military rival to Israel, it would be able to bolster its position with the Arab states, force Israel to make major concessions to the Palestinians and compete for influence in Washington.
None of these prospects is easy for Israel to live with.
In addition, there are also fears that a nuclear Iran would pose a “demographic threat” domestically for Israel, making Israeli Jews consider emigrating and Jews in the diaspora unwilling to immigrate. Given Israel’s desire to ensure the Jewish population outnumbers the Palestinians at all times, such issues are taken seriously.
In 2006 Ephraim Sneh, at the time the deputy defense minister to Barak, revealed that Israel was not primarily concerned that Iran might fire a nuclear missile.
The danger of an Iranian bomb, he warned, was that “most Israelis would prefer not to live here; most Jews would prefer not to come here with families, and Israelis who can live abroad will.” He added: “I am afraid Ahmadinejad will be able to kill the Zionist dream without pushing a button. That’s why we must prevent this regime from obtaining nuclear capability at all costs.”
But while there is no doubt these threats are taken extremely seriously by Israel’s security establishment, there is much less clarity about what action can feasibly be taken.
Dagan is credited with a series of exploits – including assassinating Iranian scientists, introducing computer viruses into the software being used in Iran’s nuclear programme, and setting up shell companies to sell faulty equipment to Tehran – that are believed to have slowed Iranian progress.
According to a confidential US embassy cable released by WikiLeaks last year, Dagan told US officials that covert action, including helping minority groups topple the regime, could contain Iran’s nuclear programme for the forseeable future.
There has been fevered speculation about why Israeli officials have gone public with their dispute about military action.
The disagreement has made Israel look weak and indecisive, fuelling fears that Netanyahu and Barak are sincere about wanting a military strike, even if they have to go against US wishes.
More likely, however, Dagan and others in the intelligence establishment are concerned that, while Netanyahu’s belligerent posturing towards Iran is a bluff, it might escalate into a dangerous confrontation. Haaretz’s military correspondent, Amos Harel, said there was a danger in Netanyahu’s behaviour of “a self-fulfilling prophecy.”
That concern is shared by Russia. Its foreign minister, Dmitry Medvedev, said today that Israel was using “dangerous rhetoric” that could lead to “a major war.”
Certainly, there is little evidence that Netanyahu’s threats are likely to dissuade Tehran from developing a weapon, if that is what Ahmedinejad’s regime is really trying to do. In fact, menacing Iran may simply firm up its resolve to protect itself by building a warhead.
The real audience of Netanyahu’s threat of military action, it seems, is the White House and the international community.
According to Israeli analysts, the US alone has the military muscle to take out Iran’s nuclear sites. Netanyahu appears to hope that Washington can be goaded into carrying out a strike of its own to avoid the threat of an unsuccessful Israeli operation.
At the very least, he may hope, Obama will be assisted in trying to win over China and Russia to “crippling sanctions,” as Lieberman demanded this week.
Even intensified sanctions might be used to try to bring Iran to its knees, as occurred in Iraq. That is the fear of Russia. Its deputy foreign minister, Genady Gatilov, warned this week that more sanctions would be seen as “an instrument of regime change in Tehran”.
The question is how Obama responds to the pressure. He is facing a presidential election year, and can expect to come under enormous arm-twisting not only from Israel but also from its supporters in the Congress and among Washington’s lobby groups.
How credible the report is is already open to doubt. Yaacov Katz, a Jerusalem Post analyst, noted that Israeli intelligence had provided “critical information used in the report.” That may have included information that Iran had recruited a Russian scientist, Vyacheslav Danilenko, to help in developing its nuclear programme. Almost immediately, evidence surfaced indicating that Danilenko had no nuclear expertise.
In a sign that the White House might fight a rearguard action to try to stop Israel cornering it into military action, US defence secretary Leon Panetta warned today that such an attack should be a “last resort,” and would make little impact on an Iranian programme but would have unintended consequences, including for US forces in the region.