Attack Iran?

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July 5, 2010

New rounds of both United Nations and United States sanctions have been directed at Iran. Few, however, believe they will deter the Islamic Republic from its nuclear course, once again raising the prospect of a large-scale attack on Iran. What are the chances of such an attack?

A US attack on Iran?

The United States will not initiate a major attack on Iran. Our military is already stretched thin in two losing battles, in Iraq and Afghanistan. Iran, though not a significant military power by Western standards does have an organized and modern military. The terrain, America’s limited capacity, and the fact that Iran’s people would resist invasion, makes it difficult to imagine that a military campaign would have any hope of success. Even an air strike is unlikely since the United States lacks precise knowledge of the location of many of Iran’s weapons facilities and, where the location is known, the facilities are located well underground.

The American military leadership has staunchly opposed an attack on Iran for those reasons. They have been concerned that such an attack would intensify anti-American feeling in existing battlegrounds, redoubling both the sources of militants fighting American troops and local resentment toward America’s presence. The ripples that an American attack on Iran would cause are unpredictable, but almost certainly very severe.

These concerns–which all still exist prevented the Bush Administration from engaging Iran in its second term. They will stop Obama with even greater ease, should he even want to pursue such a course.

An Israeli attack on Iran?

Israeli rhetoric points to a clear desire to confront Iran. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has been screaming about Iran, literally, for decades. And there can be little doubt that if most people around the globe are frightened of a nuclear Iran, Israelis are absolutely terrified at the prospect.

Assuming for a moment that Israel could act alone to bomb Iran, it faces several logistical problems. It’s a long flight from Israel to Iran and back, which means planes would need to refuel. There’s also the airspace problem—what country will Israel overfly to get to Iran? In the past, Israel might have looked to Turkey for assistance. But this would always have been a difficult decision for Turkey, and after their recent warming gestures to Iran and the Gaza flotilla incident, the Turks are not about to grant permission to use their airspace for an attack on Iran. If the United States does not allow Israel to overfly Iraq, Israel has few options left, and even that would mean either getting Jordan’s permission or taking a circuitous route. Beyond these kinds of logistics, there is no way that Israel can launch an attack on Iran without U.S. permission. The comparisons to Israel’s attack on Iraq’s Osirak nuclear reactor in 1981 don’t really hold. In that attack, America’s response was unusually harsh, but did not cause lasting damage to the US-Israel relationship. American concerns were not nearly as immediate as they are in 2010.

A unilateral Israeli attack on Iran would have serious repercussions for Americans on the ground in the Middle East. It would also have profound implications for American diplomatic efforts and would make American influence in the region as a whole much more difficult to maintain. If the United States truly opposes an Israeli attack and Israel goes ahead anyway, the ramifications for US-Israel relations could be very serious. This is especially true given the much colder relationship of the Obama Administration to Israel compared to its predecessors.

An independent Israeli attack is thus pretty well out of the question. What about a U.S.-sanctioned one?

Many of the risks attached to a U.S. attack on Iran would also be present in an Israeli attack. No one in diplomatic circles will believe that Israel acted alone. Yet Washington may believe they can create enough doubt in the minds of Middle Eastern leaders about the United States’ role to deflect their anger from the United States to Israel. That would be a horribly risky game to play, and a very bad gamble, but stranger things have happened in DC.

More likely, however, is that the intensifying saber-rattling we are seeing of late might lead to a conflict that no one really wants, at least outside of Avigdor Lieberman’s office in Jerusalem.

Turning up the heat

After the UN Security Council agreed on a new wave of sanctions against Iran, both houses of Congress overwhelmingly passed much harsher sanctions. The sanctions are likely to be more political ploy than anything else; the congressional bills include the option of a presidential waiver. Indeed, the major change the congressional bills bring is that the President can’t simply avoid enforcing the sanctions, which he could do quietly. Instead, he must waive them and explain that decision to Congress.

Both congressional Democrats and Republicans stand to gain by acting tough on Iran. Democrats, can claim to be acting tough on Iraq without necessarily tying the President’s hands. Republicans now have a huge bull’s-eye on Obama’s chest if he waives the sanctions, as he is expected to do. Yet pushing Obama to apply sanctions may prove counterproductive. Implementing sanctions will increase tension in the region, creating a likely backlash against U.S. troops. Worse, the sanctions may have the effect of discouraging internal Iranian opposition They will impact the Iranian middle class, and, as external sanctions often do, they will cause the deprived people to rally around the flag. A stronger Iranian middle and business class will be pushing the government to enhance its international standing and end its isolation. A beleaguered one will blame the United States rather than its own government if the problems are caused by sanctions. This combines with two other developments to raise serious concerns. One is the rumor that Saudi Arabia has given Israel an air corridor it may use for an attack on Iran. The Saudis deny this, of course, but that tells us nothing; they would do so whether the report was true or not as they cannot be seen to be abetting an Israeli-American attack on a Muslim country.

But the Saudis have a lot to lose with a nuclear Iran: specifically, their position of leadership in the region. A nuclear Iran, even if it never uses such a weapon (which it almost surely would not) would supplant Saudi Arabia and Egypt as the neighborhood leader. It is quite possible that the Saudi rumor is false. But there is also reason to believe it may be true.

The second development involves reports that Egypt closed the Suez Canal to general traffic for a while in order to allow a dozen American and one Israeli warship through on their way to the Red Sea. This one was widely reported, with no denials.

The presence of Israeli and American ships in the Red Sea, under current circumstances, widens the possibility of a naval conflict that can mushroom into a wider confrontation. All this doesn’t mean that the US has thrown caution to the wind and completely forgotten all the reasons it is trying to avoid a direct attack on Iran, by itself or by Israel. But it does indicate that the US is trying to marshal pressure on Iran, using all of its regional allies, and that creates a tinderbox that can too easily be set off.

Iranian nukes in perspective

Like many other commentators, I do not believe Iran’s protestations that its nuclear program is purely civilian. They have routinely avoided full transparency, and played a cat-and-mouse game with U.N. weapons inspectors.

What is often lost in the details of this game is that Iran’s desire to become a nuclear power is a perfectly rational decision. They are living near numerous nuclear powers (India and Pakistan are right nearby, with China and Russia not very far) and their chief antagonists– now that America has conveniently rid them of their main foe, Iraq—the United States and Israel, are both nuclear powers. Iran’s becoming a nuclear power itself would accelerate their rise to the top of the Middle Eastern heap. And they have few disincentives—it as not as if their lack of nuclear power has aided their relationship with the United States or other surrounding powers. Iran, despite the perception of many Americans, is not a country of fanatics bent on destruction. When politicians and pundits begin their diatribes on Iran, simply ask them to name the wars of aggression Iran has fought in its history. The last one was before the Christian era. The result of a successful Iranian nuclear program is not a nuclear war, but a “mutually assured destruction” scenario between Iran and Israel. That’s far from desirable—Americans know from our own history with the Cuban missile crisis that such a scenario can lead to war. But we also know, from the same experience, that it greatly increases the incentive to tone down confrontations.

Israeli military historian Martin Van Creveld has argued that Israel and the world can live with a nuclear Iran. It can, though that doesn’t mean a nuclear Iran is not a threat, both in the Middle East and on the global stage. A nuclear Iran will change the balance of power in the region. A nuclear Iran will certainly make it easier for groups and even states to resist American interests. It will remove the mantle of regional leadership from “moderate” dictatorships like Saudi Arabia and Egypt to the theocracy of Iran, under the leadership of a hostile and polarizing demagogue of a president.

That’s not good. And perhaps the best chance to avoid that scenario was lost when the United States refused to even consider the Brazil-Turkey brokered deal with Iran, which was virtually a clone of the US proposal from late last year. But a nuclear Iran is vastly preferable, for the US and for Israel, to the maelstrom that would be unleashed from an attack on Iran, which would, at best, only delay their nuclear program. As terrified as many Israelis (and Americans) are, I am pretty sure that the decision-makers in Washington know that. And so, I suspect, do the more reasonable ones in Jerusalem, including the military leadership and, yes, even Benjamin Netanyahu.

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