The U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta has said that Iran is probably one year away from having a nuclear device, indicating “a red line for us, and … for the Israelis.” Then Panetta said, “If we have to do it, we will do it.” This is one of the strongest statements from a U.S. official to date. In recent days Israeli officials have talked openly of striking Iran’s nuclear facilities. It seems there is something of an American-Israeli chorus in this regard. Can we take it seriously?
The Los Angeles Times ran a piece titled “Israel’s intentions toward Iran remain unclear.” According to this article, recent Israeli threats may be “a bluff to spur tougher sanctions.” Observing the statements of U.S. and Israeli officials, this seems probable. If you are planning a preemptive attack there is no point discussing it publicly. But if your strategy is to compel other nations to carry out sanctions, trusting they are frightened by the prospect of war, then you will talk openly about the possibility of war.
Yet, there is room enough for worry. Before the Israelis bombed Iraq’s nuclear facility on 7 June 1981 there was public talk. Of special interest is the role that Iran played at the time. As it happened, Iran and Iraq were at war. When this war began the director of Israeli Military Intelligence publicly urged the Iranians to bomb Iraq’s nuclear reactor. And here is the punch line: On 30 September 1980 the Iranians attacked and damaged the Iraqi nuclear reactor with two F-4 Phantoms. (Please note: this was the first instance in history of a preemptive military attack against a nuclear reactor. The attack did not destroy the reactor. As noted above, the Israelis destroyed the reactor on 7 June 1981.)
According to the founder of the National Iranian American Council, Trita Parsi, the Israelis sent an official before the 7 June attack to secretly meet with a representative of the Iranian regime in France. At this meeting the Iranians agreed to allow Israeli warplanes to use an Iranian airfield if such usage became necessary during Operation Babylon (Israel’s preemptive strike against Iraq’s nuclear reactor). A preemptive attack on the Iraqi nuclear facility was strategically desirable for both Israel and Iran.
Today the Iranians have a nuclear program, and Iranian officials have talked publicly of wiping Israel off the map. Whatever Iran’s actual intentions, the Jewish people look back to the Holocaust and say to themselves, “Never again.” Some Iranian officials no doubt realize how frightened the Israelis are of a second Holocaust. They also know that the Israelis are willing to launch preventive strikes against the nuclear facilities of a hostile country. Knowing all this, the Iranian government does not rely – as did Saddam Hussein – on the deception that they are merely developing “peaceful” nuclear power. Nobody should doubt that the Iranian nuclear program is heavily protected, with critical facilities located underground. In addition to this, Iran has prepared its armed forces to close the Strait of Hormuz in the event of an Israeli or American attack. This is, perhaps, the most serious threat of all; for such a closure would cut the world’s main oil artery.
Rethinking the situation today, we must ask whether the Israelis will launch an attack. Israeli officials have at least three criteria with regard to an attack on Iran’s nuclear sites: (1) Are sanctions working? (2) Can Israel successfully destroy Iran’s nuclear capability? And (3) will America give the green light to an Israeli strike?
It is difficult to say whether sanctions are working. Iran has not abandoned its nuclear program, and is probably receiving under-the-table assistance from China and/or North Korea. In all probability sanctions will not work. As for the feasibility of an Israeli strike, in terms of distance to the target and Iranian defenses, there is plenty of uncertainty. Nobody knows whether a strike of this kind would succeed or not. Given the international condemnation of Israel that would result, and the possible loss of U.S. support, the Iranians might secretly wish for an attack (provided it fails).
Given the consequences to the world economy (if the Strait of Hormuz is closed, even for a short time), it is not in the U.S. national interest for Israel to bomb Iran. While an Iranian nuclear arsenal would pose a potential threat to the United States, it would not be the only such threat. Russia and China already have nuclear arsenals aimed at America. What is more frightening to the Americans is a war in the Persian Gulf with a constricted flow of oil. In light of this, it is not surprising that President Obama and Defense Secretary Panetta have both warned the Israelis against a preventive strike in the past. This makes more recent statements by Panetta suspect, adding weight to the theory that U.S. and Israeli officials are attempting to intimidate Iran with tough talk.
Some Israeli strategists believe there is no choice. Israel will have to accept the reality of Iranian nuclear power. Therefore, they argue, Israel must rely on deterrence. Besides this, there is only one country that would profit by an Israeli attack on Iran. That country is Russia. First, because a closure of the Strait of Hormuz would mean that Russian oil exports would generate vast profits for the Kremlin. Yet the Russian government does not enjoy popular support at the moment. If Putin is replaced in the upcoming elections, Russia might be in a stronger position (or maybe not). But for now, massive anti-government protests in Moscow makes Iran unsure of Russia’s help. All these factors may lead the Iranians to short-term concessions.
Of course, there are no certainties here. We should not dismiss the possibility of a Third World War originating in a conflict with Iran. That much being admitted, the tough-talk of American and Israeli officials should not be taken at face value.