The Debate

Past Performance Is No Guide…

Israel undoubtedly has the capacity to surprise. That doesn’t mean an attack on Iran is destined for success.

“Many analysts argue that Israel lacks the military capability to stop the Iranian nuclear program for more than a few years and assert that the cost of any attack will exceed the benefit,” foreign policy analyst Mitchell Bard wrote yesterday. “This is the conventional wisdom, but it is just that, conventional, and Israel has repeatedly proved that it has the daring and creativity to disprove the skeptics.”

I’m not sure I find the reasoning that because Israel surprised most countries by trouncing its neighbors in 1967, that it’s destined to confound naysayers about a military strike on Iran now, very reassuring. Nor is the suggestion that as it took Iran 20 years to get to where it is now, Israel will buy itself more than a couple of years if it does manage to demolish Iran’s nuclear program.

As the Center for Strategic and International Studies’ Anthony Cordesman notes in an important piece of research last week:

“Iran has moved far beyond the point where it lacked the technology base to produce nuclear weapons…Iran has pursued every major area of nuclear weapons development, has carried out programs that have already given it every component of a weapon except fissile material, and there is strong evidence that it has carried out programs to integrate a nuclear warhead on to its missiles.”

The reality is that Iran is too far down the track for any realistic number of targeted assassinations of scientists (whoever is responsible for them), or even a military strike, to put the genie of knowledge back in the bottle.

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Cordesman’s piece is worth reading in full, but even just a skim through makes it clear the depth and breadth of knowledge that Iranian scientists have gradually acquired over the years. It also makes clear that Bard’s portrayal of the International Atomic Energy Agency as acting like the “three blind mice” is inaccurate – there’s plenty of information that the IAEA has provided that offers a strong indication of Iran’s weapons intent.

But the suggestion that following an Israeli strike “sanctions can remain in place, inspections could become more rigorous and other measures taken to ensure the nuclear program is not rebuilt” is simply fanciful – even if Iran decides not to retaliate, it’s extremely difficult to imagine Tehran opening its doors to inspectors.

I don’t doubt the ingenuity of Israel’s intelligence and armed forces. But hopeful cheerleading based on its past success seems at best unhelpful. Investors have it drilled into them that past performance is no guide to future performance. It’s a lesson that can sometimes be usefully applied to geostrategy.