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11.02.11

Will Israel Really Strike Iran?

Benjamin Netanyahu is edging closer to launching a strike against Iran’s nuclear facilities. A firestorm of violence across the Mediterranean would follow. And Tehran is already threatening to retaliate against the United States, writes Bruce Riedel.

Suddenly the Israeli press has become fixated on stories that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government is considering a military attack on the Iranian nuclear program. Some very reputable Israeli journalists are reporting that the prime minister and his defense minister, Ehud Barak, are pushing the cabinet to vote in favor of an attack. An Israeli strike on Iran could create a firestorm of violence from the Mediterranean to the Arabian Sea and put thousands of American soldiers and diplomats at risk. Today Israel tested one of its long-range missiles, adding to the tension.

The story began to break last Friday with an article claiming that Netanyahu and Barak were pushing for an attack on Iran this fall. The journalist who wrote the story, Nahum Barnea, is one of Israel’s best reporters and is highly respected.  Subsequent news stories have focused attention on a large Israeli Air Force training exercise in late October that took place on the Italian island of Sardinia, in which IAF long-range fighter bombers practiced an extended-range attack plan with the Italian, German, and Dutch air forces. Now Israel has test-fired one of its Jericho missiles, which can hit targets all over Iran.

The Iranians, of course, have noticed all the Israeli press accounts. Iran’s chief military leaders have warned this week that an Israeli attack on Iran would result in “heavy damage” in Iranian retaliation against both Israel and American targets. Iran has been saying that for years. Tehran believes Israel would attack it only with an American green light. Since the IAF would be using American-supplied jets and bombs, the Iranian argument cannot be dismissed lightly.

Iran and its allies in the region, especially Syria and Hizbullah, are already under enormous pressure from the international community on a number of fronts: Iran for allegedly plotting to assassinate the Saudi ambassador in Washington; Syria for killing thousands of its own citizens in the Arab Awakening; and Hizbullah for murdering former Lebanese prime minister Rafiq Hariri in 2005. The International Atomic Energy Agency is due to publish a new report on Iran’s nuclear program this month, which could ratchet up the issue further. It is an extraordinarily tense and dangerous moment in the Middle East, and trigger fingers are itchier than ever. 

Iran’s capability to retaliate for an Israeli strike against the U.S. is enormous.

Iran’s capability to retaliate for an Israeli strike against the U.S. is enormous.  It could encourage its Shia allies in Iraq to attack American forces, as they seek to withdraw from the country before the end of the year, or the American diplomats who will stay behind. It could encourage the Afghan Taliban, with which it has developed a closer relationship in the last couple of years, to step up its attacks on NATO forces in Afghanistan. The Italian forces in Afghanistan are particularly vulnerable, since they are deployed near the Iranian border around Herat, but American bases across the country would be even more at risk than they are today. U.S. bases in the Gulf states, including Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, and Oman, would be in range of Iranian missiles and terrorists. Hizbullah and Iran have contingency plans for attacks on American diplomatic and other targets across Europe, Africa, Asia, and here at home. They don’t need to rely on Mexican drug cartels to hit inside America.

Of course, Iran and its allies can also strike at Israel. Hizbullah proved in 2006 that it can turn northern Israel into a war zone, forcing the mass evacuation of Haifa and other cities. Now it has missiles that can reach Tel Aviv. Iranian missiles could target Tel Aviv as well. And Syria has chemical warheads for its missiles.

Israel can mount a tough defense and has the capability to strike back hard.  Of course, it also has a nuclear deterrent. Ehud Barak famously warned Saddam Hussein in 1990 that if Iraq fired chemical weapons at Israel, he should look at his watch because in less than an hour Baghdad would be vaporized by a Jericho. The U.S. can strike Iran even harder. We can hope that deterrence would keep the Persians from blowing up the region.

The whole Israeli press hullabaloo may be just a media invention or some trial balloon that will fade away. The Obama team could also quietly make clear to Bibi that a strike is a bad idea. Sanctions and sabotage have slowed Iran’s nuclear program down considerably. The former head of the Mossad has publicly urged continued diplomacy and covert action to keep Iran from getting the bomb. Meir Dagan has said an Israeli attack would be a “stupid idea.” He is right.