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TEL AVIV – It is hard to remember a moment when the United States’ foreign policy establishment showed as much unanimity as in its horror at the prospect of a unilateral Israeli strike on Iran.
In a September 10 report for Georgetown University’s Center for Strategic and International Studies, Anthony Cordesman warns, “A strike by Israel on Iran will give rise to regional instability and conflict as well as terrorism. The regional security consequences will be catastrophic.”
And a “bi-partisan” experts’ group headed by former National Security Advisor Brent Scowcroft and co-signed by most of the usual suspects states, “Serious costs to US interests would also be felt over the longer term, we believe, with problematic consequences for global and regional stability, including economic stability. A dynamic of escalation, action, and counteraction could produce serious unintended consequences that would significantly increase all of these costs and lead, potentially, to all-out regional war.”
If a contrarian thought might be permitted, consider the possibility that all-out regional war is the optimal outcome for American interests. An Israeli strike on Iran that achieved even limited success – a two-year delay in Iran’s nuclear weapons development – would arrest America’s precipitous decline as a superpower.
Absent an Israeli strike, America faces:
- A nuclear-armed Iran;
- Iraq’s continued drift towards alliance with Iran;
- An overtly hostile regime in Egypt, where the Muslim Brotherhood government will lean on jihadist elements to divert attention from the country’s economic collapse;
- An Egyptian war with Libya for oil and with Sudan for water;
- A radical Sunni regime controlling most of Syria, facing off an Iran-allied Alawistan ensconced in the coastal mountains;
- A de facto or de jure Muslim Brotherhood takeover of the Kingdom of Jordan;
- A campaign of subversion against the Saudi monarchy by Iran through Shi’ites in Eastern Province and by the Muslim Brotherhood internally;
- A weakened and perhaps imploding Turkey struggling with its Kurdish population and the emergence of Syrian Kurds as a wild card;
- A Taliban-dominated Afghanistan; and
- Radicalized Islamic regimes in Libya and Tunisia.
Saudi Arabia is the biggest loser in the emerging Middle East configuration, and Russia is the biggest winner. Europe and Japan have concluded that America has abandoned its long-standing commitment to the security of energy supplies in the Persian Gulf by throwing the Saudi monarchy under the bus, and have quietly shifted their energy planning towards Russia. Little of this line of thinking will appear in the news media, but the reorientation towards Moscow is underway nonetheless.
From Israel’s vantage point, the way things are now headed is the worst-case scenario. The economic sanctions are a nuisance for Iran, but not a serious hindrance to its nuclear ambitions. When US Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman General Martin Dempsey intoned on August 30 that he “did not want to be complicit” in an Israeli strike on Iran, he was stating publicly what the Pentagon has signaled to Tehran for the past six months. The US wants no part of an Israeli strike.
This remonstrance from the Pentagon, along with the State Department’s refusal to identify a “red line” past which Iran would provoke American military action, amounts to a green light for Iran to build an atomic bomb, Israeli analysts believe.
What if Israel were to strike Iran? From a technical standpoint, there is no question that Israel could severely damage the Iranian nuclear program. As the respected German military analyst Hans Ruhl wrote earlier this year: There are 25 to 30 installations in Iran that are exclusively or predominately dedicated to the nuclear program. Six of them are targets of the first rank: the uranium enrichment facility at Natanz, the conversion works in Isfahan, the heavy water reactor in Arak, the weapons and munitions production facility in Parchin, the uranium enrichment facility in Fordow, and the Bushehr light water reactor.
The information about Natanzare is solid. The project has been under satellite surveillance from the beginning and been watched by Israeli “tourists”. At the moment there are a good 10,000 centrifuges installed, of which 6,500 are producing. Israel’s strongest “bunker buster” is the GBU-28 (weight 2.3 tons), which demonstrably can break through seven meters of reinforced concrete and 30 meters of earth. It would suffice to break through the roof at Natanz. In case of doubt, two GBU-28s could be used in sequence; the second bomb would deepen the first bomb’s crater and realize the required success.
The trick is to put a second bunker-buster directly into the crater left by a previous one. According to Cordesman, the probability of a direct hit with existing smart-bomb technology is 50%. Half a dozen bombs should do for each of the six key sites – assuming that the Israelis don’t have something more creative in the works. Israel has had 10 years to plan the operation, and it is a fair assumption that the Israeli Air Force can accomplish the mission.
The deeper question is: what constitutes success?
“When Israel bombed [Iraq’s] Osiris [nuclear reactor in 1981],” said an Israeli who took part in the planning, “we expected a three-year setback of Iraq’s nuclear program. It was delayed by 10 years. But that wasn’t the most important thing. What was most important to us is the ripple effect through the region.”
The ripple effects are what America’s foreign policy establishment fears the most. The vision shared by the George W Bush and Barack Obama administrations, albeit with some variation, of a Middle East dotted with democratic regimes friendly to the United States would pop like a soap-bubble. What ripples would ensue from a successful Israeli strike on Iran?
Iran probably would attempt to block the Straits of Hormuz, the gateway for a fifth of the world’s oil supply, and America would respond by destroying Iranian conventional military capabilities and infrastructure from the air. This would add to Tehran’s humiliation, and strengthen the domestic opposition.
Iran’s influence in Iraq and Syria would diminish, although Iran’s supporters in both countries probably would spill a great deal of blood in the short run.
Hizbollah almost certainly would unleash its missile arsenal at Israel, inflicting a few hundred casualties by Israeli estimates. Israel would invade southern Lebanon and – unlike the 2006 war – fight without fear of Syrian intervention. In 2006, the Olmert government restricted the movements of the IDF out of fear that the Syrian Army would intervene. Syria’s army is in no position to intervene today.
There is a possibility, to be sure, that Syria would launch chemical and biological warheads against Israel, but if the Assad government employed weapons of mass destruction, Israel would respond with a nuclear bombardment. In this case deterrence is likely to be effective. Iran’s influence in Lebanon would be drastically diminished.
Stripped of support from its Iranian sponsor, the Alawite regime would fall, and Syria would become a Saudi-Turkish condominium. Ethnic butchery would go on for some time.
Egypt would be cut off from financial support from the Gulf States as punishment for its opening to Iran. The domestic consequences for Egypt would be ugly. The country is almost out of money; some of its oil suppliers stopped deliveries last August, and Egypt’s refineries lack funds to buy oil from the government.
Al-Ahram reported September 12 that Upper Egypt now suffers a 30% shortage of diesel fuel. The newspaper wrote,
Egyptians started feeling another diesel crisis at the end of last week, with amounts available shrinking and prompting lengthy queues at stations. A shortage of liquidity in the Ministry of Petroleum has delayed payments to refineries that provide the crude needed to produce diesel. “The Finance Ministry is late delivering the required funds to the Ministry of Petroleum,” Hossam Arafat, head of the division of petroleum industries at Egypt’s Chambers of Commerce, explained. The total daily supply of diesel on the Egyptian market has fallen to 33,000 tonnes from 40,000, press reports estimate.
Cairo well might become a radical Islamic state, a North Korea on the Nile, as I wrote in this space last month (see North Korea on the Nile Asia Times Online, August 29, 2012.) But the consequences of such a devolution would be limited. With Iran neutralized , Egypt would be less of a threat to Saudi Arabia. It might become a threat to Libya and Sudan. That is unfortunate, but what have Libya and Sudan done for us lately?
In the absence of an American leadership willing to assert American strategic interests in the region, Israel well might save the United States.
In the long view of things, there is not much cause for optimism about the Muslim world. It contains two kinds of countries: those that can’t feed their children, like Egypt, and those that have stopped having children, like Iran, Turkey, Algeria and Tunisia. Muslim nations seem to pass directly from infancy to senescence without stopping at adulthood, from the pre-modern directly to the post-modern, as I wrote in my book Why Civilizations Die (and Why Islam is Dying, Too).
Turks have just 1.5 children per family, like the infecund Europeans, while Turkish Kurds have four or five children. That makes the redrawing of the map of Turkey inevitable sooner or later. In a generation, Iran will have an inverted population pyramid like the aging industrial countries, but without the wealth to support it.
There is no reason to expect most of the Muslim countries to go quietly into irreversible decline. All-out regional war is the likely outcome sooner or later. We might as well get on with it.