There’s simply too much that could go wrong: fighter jets can go astray or be shot down, bombs sometimes miss, facilities may be better hidden or shielded than intelligence suggests. And once Iran has the knowledge of how to build bombs, it will anyway eventually be able to try again (meanwhile a full-blown war would be going on between the two countries).
This would all be challenging enough even if Israel had the full backing of the international community. But it doesn’t, and it would also be forced to contend with the prospect of having rockets fired at it from Hamas and Hezbollah.
So what next? One step is to prepare its offensive forces and a layered missile shield to defend against any Iranian nuclear attack. Such defences aren’t foolproof, but given the small number of missiles Iran could fire at any one time, there’s a strong chance any such attack would be neutralized (although an awareness of Israel’s much more massive second-strike capability could well deter it from a launch anyway).
And ruling out an attack now doesn’t mean ruling one out altogether. If an attack seems imminent, Israel can reserve the option of a pre-emptive strike as it undertook in 1967 under similar circumstances.
And as the United States and other countries build up the apparatus to contain Iran, their preparations would assist this more considered scenario. The United States has already begun to send advanced detection systems to the Gulf and will be placing anti-missile facilities there. These are intended first to protect Saudi Arabia but will also effectively function as protection for Israel.
The debate hasn’t been won, but the wait-and-prepare approach reflects the majority position among Israel’s leadership. So, while an Israeli strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities can’t be ruled out, a more likely outcome will be that Iran will obtain deliverable nuclear weapons in the next three to four years. It’s a scenario the US and the world will have to deal with, though it also threatens to change the entire strategic balance in the Middle East.
In an ideal world, Iran will be prevented from acquiring nuclear weapons at all. But the reality may prove to be that the main task is trying to prevent Iran from using such weapons as a strategic instrument to discredit Western power and subvert Arab governments (or turn them into appeasers). Doing so successfully will prevent far more unrest and bloodshed in the Middle East for decades to come.
Barry Rubin is director of the Global Research for International Affairs (GLORIA) Center and editor of the Middle East Review of International Affairs Journal and the Turkish Studies journal.