Wednesday, August 18, 2010

The Public Debate -- A Military Attack on Iranian Nuclear Facilities

There has been a lot of response the past few days to several pieces about a potential military option against Iran. Numerous US and Israeli officials from senior levels of government, seem to have "a consensus emerging that there is a better than 50 percent chance that Israel will launch a strike sometime in the near future (probably within 6 months).
A nuclearized Iran represents, among other things, a threat to Israel’s very existence. In the gap between Washington’s and Jerusalem’s views of Iran lies the question: who, if anyone, will stop Iran before it goes nuclear, and how? In my opinion, if things remain on the current course, an Israeli air strike will unfold.

Having said that, there are a number of people who are closely following these events that simply do not agree with me. In their opinion Israeli elites want the United States to attack Iran's nuclear program -- with the potentially negative repercussions -- so that Israel will not experience "a dilution of quality" or "an accelerated brain drain. The United States has an abiding commitment to Israel's security, but, just as surely, preventing "dilution of quality" or bolstering Israelis' perceptions regarding their country's raison d'ĂȘtre can never give an American president a just or strategically sound cause for initiating war. And make no mistake: Bombing Iran's nuclear facilities would mean war. They make the case that the threat to Israel is a loss of regional hegemony, a danger not sufficient to justify military action.

In considering this question, one must ask what would happen after an Israeli attack on Iran. One thing would certainly be massive international pressure on Israel, probably consisting of pressure to join the NPT and/or open its nuclear facilities to IAEA monitoring. An Israeli attack on Iran would probably result in additional international isolation for Tel Aviv. The dilemma Israel faces in the longer run is between a nuclear Middle East and a demilitarized one.

What about the results of a military strike? What can reasonably be expected? The actual outcome of an Israel strike is likely to be murky. Iran has 17 known nuclear sites and has placed many of its key facilities deep below ground, so deep that there are questions that even "bunker buster" bombs could destroy them. Also, if there’s one tunnel complex that we’ve discovered, there’s probably seven or eight we haven’t.

Steven Simon of the Council on Foreign Relations pointed out last year, "Israeli officials are aware that no conceivable Israeli strike could completely eliminate the nuclear threat posed by Iran and that an attack might only intensify longer-term risks as Iran reconstituted covertly.” Moreover, the US would almost certainly be drawn into the conflict, even if Israel initiated an attack on its own.

One major draw back to a military strike is that many analysts doubt that Israel is capable of carrying out a successful strike. It may very well not be possible for Israel to destroy all of the necessary targets in a single raid as it did in Iraq, nor would it be politically, militarily, or logistically possible for Israel to sustain multiple such strikes over the many days, if not weeks.

Of course, there is always the possibility that Israel is bluffing. The Israelis would naturally prefer that the U.S. bomb Iran. So one of the things the Obama administration must wrestle with is the degree to which Israeli tough talk is a bluff aimed at pushing the White House to action, and how, if it isn't a bluff, it should affect U.S. policy.

It must be noted that it is unusual that the weighing of possible options for engagement with Iran – a conversation that is taking place at high levels – is so public. To seriously consider a military strike on Iran, which would mean not only air strikes on its nuclear infrastructure, but likely attacks on research centers located in cities as well (causing civilian casualties), is a policy decision that is not taken lightly. Although sensitive decisions like this one are commonly made only by top officials and behind closed doors, the subject now appears to be an open source of debate. Although, magazine articles probably do not affect policy to a great degree, it seems like an overall good thing that possible responses to Iran’s controversial nuclear program are being thoughtfully discussed (and criticized) in policy and academic arenas.


Ted Leddy said...

Like you Gary, this is an issue that keeps me up at night. There is no good solution to this. Even if an air strike succeeds with its objective the repercussions are quite frightening. We could definitely say goodbye to the global economic recovery and the Iranians could see to it that much of the progress made in Iraq is reversed. These are huge concerns, but from Israel's point of view they are secondary concerns to a nuclear Iran and what that could potentially involve, ie a second holocaust.

I don't know the solution. I do however think that many on the American right that favour bringing down the regime with covert action are wrong. I believe the Iranian regime is resilient and more stable than most realise. Maybe its wishful thinking but an opening to Iran, Nixon/China style might be the solution, if it meant a complete abandonment of Iran's nuclear program. Maybe, just maybe !

Gary said...

A Nixon/China style opening? Really? With Barack Obama and the Iranians? I am sorry, Ted. I am afraid I can not see Obama making that kind of move, being believable enough in the Middle East to pull it off or have the support in this country to be successful. In addition, I simply do not believe the Iranians would negotiate in good faith.
I am afraid there are no good answers here.

As for my personal opinion - I just hope the Israelis are super accurate because they are only going to get one good shot.....