Israeli leaders and officials may be giving careful consideration to the possibility of launching a strike against Iran to prevent it from acquiring nuclear weapons. But the more they consider it, the more they are forced to think again.
Why? After all, an Iranian regime armed with nuclear weapons poses a clear existential threat to Israel and, given its ideological and even theological fervour, it’s not unreasonable to believe the regime might decide to follow up on its oft-declared suggestion of wiping Israel off the map. Indeed, it’s almost certain Iran will, given an opportunity, seek to destroy Israel, expel Western influence from the region and become a regional hegemon (or at least at the eastern end of the Middle East around the oil-rich Persian Gulf). Indeed, this process is well underway, with Iranian influence extending into Iraq, Lebanon, the Gaza Strip and parts of Afghanistan. In addition, Iran can also count on allies including Syria and perhaps even an increasingly pro-Islamist Turkish government.
Faith in its advancing forces, a belief that the West is weak and in retreat and the strong expectation that God is on its side—it’s a potent mix.
But even if it did secure nuclear weapons, how would it proceed? Its fanatical, bellicose language undoubtedly raises the possibility of Iran’s government firing nuclear-tipped missiles at Israel or handing over nuclear weapons and know-how to terrorist groups.
Yet Iran’s regime has another option, and one that seems more likely: to wage a long and varied campaign to intimidate or subvert neighbours as it looks to build an empire and exploit Arab weakness and Western uncertainty. Of course, Israel would still be destroyed in the process, but the Iranian regime could see this as a welcome by-product rather than a dedicated plan.
At present, Israeli analysts believe this second approach is more likely. If they’re right, the result will likely be a decades-long situation comparable with the Cold War, with Iran using its nuclear weapons as a defensive ‘umbrella’ to deter others from doing anything about its aggressive strategy.
So is Iran seeking to possess but not fire nuclear weapons? No one can be sure. But the fact is that with Iran still a few years away from acquiring nuclear weapons, giving Israel and other nations vital time to prepare a response, there’s simply no need to rush into an attack.
Of course, if Israel could hit and effectively destroy Iran’s nuclear facilities, obtain strong international support for doing so, ensure that Iran can’t build nuclear weapons for decades and be faced with little prospect of retaliation, then launching such an attack would still be an attractive option.
This, of course, isn’t the case.
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.