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The fact that Ha’aretz, Israel’s left-leaning daily, found it necessary on February 17 to warn the Benjamin Netanyahu government not to attack Iran  strongly suggests that the option is on the table.
It seems clear that the administration of US President Barack Obama never will use force against Iran, despite the Iranian regime’s open contempt for Washington and the international community. US Secretary of State Clinton this week responded with a direct “no” – not “all options are on the table” – when asked if America was planning a military strike.
During a February 16 visit to Saudi Arabia, Clinton talked about responses to Iran as if America had already decided that Iran was developing nuclear weapons, something Tehran vigorously denies. Clinton was quoted as saying that the “evidence doesn’t support” Iran’s claim it is pursuing a peaceful nuclear program.
Israel has a strategic problem broader than the immediate issue of Iran’s possible acquisition of nuclear weapons: it is an American ally at a moment when America has effectively withdrawn from strategic leadership. That leaves Israel at a crossroads. It can act like an American client state, or a regional superpower. Either decision would have substantial costs. To remain in Washington’s pocket is to show weakness and invite the contempt of its adversaries; to ignore Washington’s demands would incur the wrath of its most important financier and arms suppliers and possibly result in a reduction of aid.
That is the concern of the editors of Ha’aretz: “The chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Michael Mullen, warned in Tel Aviv on Sunday of the unexpected consequences of an Israeli attack on Iran, just as he did during the days of the [George W] Bush administration. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said in Qatar that Iran’s neighbors, who are worried about its nuclear plans, must rely on the American defense umbrella. And next week, Vice President Joseph Biden will visit Israel to pass on a similar message.”
Ha’aretz concludes, “The likelihood that the American move will succeed is unclear, but Israel is required to give Obama a chance, for one simple reason: Israel will need full American support for any actions it may decide to take against the Iranian threat. If Israel goes to war, it will need intelligence help, prior warning, military equipment and diplomatic support from the United States.”
That is not quite right. No matter how much “intelligence help” and “diplomatic support” Israel might get from the United States, Israel’s capacity to deliver conventional munitions at a distance of 1,250 miles (2,012 kilometers) could not eradicate the Iranian nuclear program, which is located in hardened underground facilities. At best, Israeli efforts could set the program back a year or so. Low-yield nuclear weapons delivered by ballistic missile would be required to strike a devastating blow to Iran’s nuclear program. But the political and strategic costs of the first use of nuclear weapons are grave, and Israel may not be ready to assume them. It probably doesn’t need to.
The trouble is that Israel’s strategic problem is usually presented in reductive terms: Iran (in the standard view) represents an existential threat to Israel in that it might get nuclear weapons; this would give it the capacity to destroy Israel, and therefore Israel must nip the existential threat in the bud. In this narrow framework, pushing back Iran’s nuclear development by six to 18 months hardly seems worth the cost.
Iran’s perceived attempt to acquire nuclear weapons, though, is not Israel’s problem as such; the problem is that Israel is the ally of a superpower that does not want to be a superpower, headed by a president with a profound emotional attachment to a nostalgic image of the Third World. If America were in fact acting like a superpower, the problem would not have arisen in the first place, for the United States would use its considerably greater resources to destroy Iran’s nuclear program.
Rather than focus on the second-order effect – the consequences of Iran’s possible acquisition of nuclear weapons – Israeli analysts should consider the primary issue, namely the strategic zimzum  of the United States. The correct questions are: 1) can Israel act as a regional superpower independently of the United States, and 2) what would Israel do to establish its regional superpower status?
The answer to the first question obviously depends on the second. To act as a regional superpower, Israel would have to take actions that shift the configuration of forces in its favor. No outside analyst has sufficient information to judge the issue – with the best of information a great deal of uncertainty is inevitable – but there are several reasons to believe that an Israeli attack on Iran would establish the Jewish state as an independent superpower and compel the United States to adjust its policy to Israel’s strategic requirements.
First, the Sunni Arab states have a stronger interest than Israel’s to stop Iran from possibly going nuclear. Israel, after all, possesses perhaps two hundred deliverable nuclear devices, including some very big thermonuclear ones, and is in position to wipe Iran off the map. But none of Iran’s Arab rivals is in such a position. The Saudis have done everything but take out a full-page ad in the Washington Post to encourage the Obama administration to attack Iran. Prince Saud al-Faisal, Saudi Arabia’s foreign minister, warned on February 15 that sanctions were a long-term measure while the world faces a short-term threat from Iran. Egypt reportedly has allowed Israeli missile ships to pass through the Suez Canal en route to the Persian Gulf.
Secondly, Russia well might prefer to deal with Israel as an independent regional power than as an ally of the United States. A stronger Israeli presence in the region also might contribute to Russia’s market share in missiles and eventually fighter aircraft. Russian-Israeli cooperation in a number of military fields has improved markedly during the past year, including the first-ever sale of Israeli weapons to Russia (drones) and Israeli help for the Russian-Indian “fifth generation” fighter project.
Third, the United States would have to respond to a new strategic situation in the Middle East were Israel to inflict even moderate damage on Iran’s nuclear program. The consequences would include, among other things:
- Aggressive retaliation by Iran against American targets in Iraq. The Joint Chiefs of Staff have opposed bombing of Iran for years in part because they fear that Iran could inflict significant casualties on American forces.
- Stronger Iranian support for the Taliban. Washington’s plan for Afghanistan depends in part on the fanciful notion that Iran will be persuaded to support the Shi’ite Hazara minority against the Pashtun Taliban. Iran has always played both sides and in the event of an Israeli strike would shift resources towards whatever America liked the least.
- Greater tensions between Pakistan and Iran. Iran’s credibility in the region depends on its perception of being the protector of Pakistan’s 35 million Shi’ites, the second-largest concentration outside of the 70 million people of Iran.
To the extent Washington has a Middle East policy, it seems to involve playing balance-of-power games on the scale of the Mad Hatter’s tea party, as I wrote at year-end (The life and premature death of the Pax Obamicana Asia Times Online, December 24, 2009). Whatever Washington thought it was doing would come unstuck in the wake of an Israeli strike against Iran. Rather than attempt to lead events – in no particular direction – Washington would have no choice except to follow until it arrived at its own foreign policy at some unspecified future date. Although Washington would scream like a scalded pig, Israel’s influence is more likely to rise than to fall in the aftermath.
There are numerous variables I cannot possibly estimate, of which the most important have to do with the technical feasibility of a long-distance strike. The political variables are too fuzzy to pin down. The strategic framework in which a unilateral Israel strike on Tehran makes sense is one in which all depends on Israel’s capacity to improvise and dominate the situation through a combination of force and unpredictability.
Once again, the words of my favorite character in American literature – Dashiell Hammett’s Continental Op – come to mind: “Plans are all right sometimes … And sometimes just stirring things up is all right – if you’re tough enough to survive, and keep your eyes open so you’ll see what you want when it comes to the top.”
1. See Israel should heed Obama’s warning not to strike Iran
2. Zimzum, also tsimtsum (Hebrew “contraction”). Jewish kabbalistic doctrine. The kabbalists taught that, in order that creation could take place, God had in some sense to make a space for it.