Israel and Iran: War now? Or war later?

For Benjamin Netanyahu, the question is not if, but when to bomb Iran

Mutual hostility between Israel and Iran has burned hot ever since Iran’s Islamic Revolution of 1979. But rarely, if ever, has the prospect of outright war between the two countries been as real as it is now.

At issue is Iran’s nuclear program. Iran insists it is peaceful. Israel, along with most Western nations, believes it is geared toward obtaining a nuclear weapon. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who told the United Nations last week that Iran is on track to build an atomic bomb by the summer of 2013, is determined to stop it. A firm ultimatum was needed, he said, calling on the United States and other global powers to set a “red line” that Iran would not be allowed to cross without triggering a military response. The U.S. has so far rejected such a tactic. President Barack Obama says the U.S. will not allow Iran to obtain nuclear weapons, but he is refusing to threaten Iran with an explicit deadline.

With American help, Israel has launched a covert campaign of sabotage and cyber-warfare. A wave of assassinations of Iranian nuclear scientists in the last two years is also believed to be Israel’s responsibility. But still Iran’s centrifuges spin, and uranium is enriched.

The final and most serious measures Israel might employ are air strikes. The targets are far from Israel’s borders, and most are deeply buried. They are more difficult and dangerous to hit than either the Iraqi nuclear reactor Israel bombed in 1981, or the Syrian one it attacked in 2007.

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The difficulties involved in hitting Iran’s nuclear facilities (especially in a unilateral attack), the uncertainties about the chances of success, and the possible repercussions an attack might trigger have provoked a fierce debate in Israeli political and military circles. Israeli President Shimon Peres has publicly spoken against the prospect of unilateral Israel strikes. And Meir Dagan, recently retired head of the Mossad, Israel’s foreign intelligence agency, calls the idea “the stupidest thing I have ever heard.”

But Netanyahu appears undeterred. He recognizes that an attack involving the U.S.—with its greater reach and military resources—would be much more damaging to Iran and its nuclear program. And so he took his public relations campaign to U.S. soil.

Prior to the U.N. speech, Netanyahu used appearances on American talk shows to argue that Iran must be given an ultimatum. And on the eve of his trip to America, Netanyahu suggested an Israeli attack would stem, in part, from other nations’ refusal to take a firmer stand against Iran: “The world tells Israel, ‘Wait, there’s still time.’ And I say, ‘Wait for what? Wait until when? Those in the international community who refuse to put red lines before Iran don’t have a moral right to place a red light before Israel,” he told reporters in Jerusalem in early September.

Netanyahu’s dire predictions of a soon-to-be nuclear Iran are also not new. In 1992, then a member of the Israeli parliament, Netanyahu said Iran was three to five years away from nuclear weapons capability. The threat, he said, had to be “uprooted by an international front headed by the U.S.”

It takes audacity for an Israeli prime minister to seek confrontation with an American president in the midst of a re-election campaign. And indeed Netanyahu’s barbs have further eroded relations between the U.S. and Israel. He intensified the rift—it is reported—by having his aides leak to the press that Obama refused to meet with him during his visit to the United Nations in New York last month. And yet the Israeli prime minister is not so foolish as to risk poisoning relations with Obama, who may be America’s president for the next four years, without cause.

The International Atomic Energy Agency says it has “serious concerns” that Iran has failed to resolve questions about the nature of its program, and its refusal to suspend uranium enrichment as demanded by the U.N. Security Council. Whether Iran is six months or six years away from being able to produce a bomb, it is closer than it has ever been. Irrespective of Obama’s reluctance to issue ultimatums, Israel’s “red line” on Iran is fast approaching.

“We’re running out of time,” says Jonathan Fine, a research fellow with the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya, Israel, and a former arms control adviser in the Israel Defense Forces. He spoke to Maclean’s in the midst of a Canadian speaking tour that was partially funded by the Israeli embassy. “Every day that goes by, more yellowcake is produced. The defence installations are getting deeper. And there is a point of no return when, whatever you do, unless you’re prepared to use unconventional weapons—and no one wants that—we can’t stop them.”

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is doing little to calm Israeli fears about Iranian intentions. In an August speech to mark al-Quds Day—an annual event begun in Iran in 1979 to show solidarity with Palestinians and to protest Israeli control of Jerusalem—Ahmadinejad told a rally in Tehran that “the Zionist regime and the Zionists are a cancerous tumour” and warned against “one cell of them” being left in Palestinian land in the future. The nations of the region, he added, will “soon finish off the usurper Zionists in the Palestinian land,” and a new Middle East will emerge with no trace of either Americans or Zionists.

“I think it’s very stupid to tell Jews that you want to exterminate them 65 years after Auschwitz,” says Fine. “They can get crazy also.”

Israel’s challenge in trying to push the U.S. to take a harder stance on Iran is that America believes it has more time than Israel thinks it does. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta estimates that if Iran decides to make a nuclear bomb, the United States would know about it and would have about a year to stop the process before such a weapon was ready. The U.S. believes it can afford to wait; Israel doesn’t.

Israeli Defence Minister Ehud Barak acknowledged as much in a public statement issued following a September meeting with James Winnefield, the U.S. vice-chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff: “We face a common challenge, but the clock is ticking at a different pace for each of us,” Barak said. The Israeli defence minister underlined Israel’s right to act independently, but he also made a point of reaffirming America’s position as Israel’s most important ally. “The intelligence co-operation and the military support are deep and exceptional in scope. I am sure that it will stay this way in any scenario that might happen,” he said.

Public exercises in bridge-building with America may indicate that Israel is willing to delay unilateral air strikes. But it doesn’t mean the military option has been shelved.

“The debate in Israel is not between war and peace,” says Mark Fitzpatrick, director of the Non-Proliferation and Disarmament Program at the International Institute of Strategic Studies in London. “It’s between war now and war later, war unilaterally or war with the United States.”

The drawbacks of a unilateral attack from an Israeli perspective are serious. Most importantly, it likely wouldn’t be as effective as a joint strike. Israeli has fewer planes, and with no aircraft carriers, they would have to cross foreign airspace before reaching Iran.

“They could probably do that once,” says Steven Pifer, director of the Arms Control Initiative at the Brookings Institution. The United States, with aircraft carriers that can be deployed in the Persian Gulf and military bases throughout the region, has the option of launching multiple sorties over many days, hitting deeply buried targets again and again. The U.S. could “use bombs to dig way down to the underground facilities in a way the Israelis couldn’t,” says Pifer.

But even a combined attack with the U.S. would have steep costs and questionable benefits. “They wouldn’t be destroying the program, because you can’t destroy knowledge. And Iran would try to reconstitute it,” says Pifer. Most analysts believe Iran’s program would be set back by only two or three years. And Iran has made it clear that it will respond to any attack against it. Its options include missile attacks against Israel; unleashing Hamas in Gaza and Hezbollah in Lebanon, with their own arsenals of rockets; attempting to close the Straits of Hormuz, thereby constricting world oil supplies; global terrorism against Israeli and American targets; and strikes against American troops in Afghanistan.

Domestically in Iran, an attack would give the regime an external enemy to rally the country against, making it easier to portray dissidents as stooges of the same outside forces dropping bombs on its people. Vanishingly few Iranian democrats, even those who have been jailed and tortured by the Iranian government, condone military strikes against Iran. The regime, now weak and threatened by Iranians themselves, may emerge stronger from an air campaign against it.

But internal Iranian politics don’t much factor in Israeli calculations over whether to attack. “At the end of the day, Israel is working for an Israeli agenda, not an Iranian agenda,” says Fine. “The main thing is to stop the bomb.”

And according to Patrick Clawson, director of research at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, Iran’s response may be limited: retaliation against the United States will provoke an even more serious American counter-response, he explains. Strikes and counter-strikes may escalate, but in the end, the United States and Israel can hit Iran harder than Iran can hit the United States and Israel.

Jonathan Fine describes a similar dynamic with Israel and the Iranian proxies on its doorstep. If Hamas and Hezbollah attack, he says, “the reaction toward Gaza and Lebanon will be overwhelmingly horrendous. It’s going to take them years to recover, if at all. And it’s been told. Hamas and Hezbollah know this very well. They know the ground rules.”

The problem with this argument is that it presumes rationality on the part of Iran and its Palestinian and Lebanese proxies—it takes as given that any response to Israeli air strikes on Iran will be limited because Iran, Hamas and Hezbollah fear Israeli reprisals.

This is essentially the principle of deterrence, the same strategy that contained the Soviet Union during the Cold War. But Netanyahu, for one, doesn’t believe Iran’s leadership is sufficiently rational to be deterred and contained the way the Soviet Union was. “Iran is very different. They put their zealotry above their survival,” he said in an interview with NBC. “I wouldn’t rely on their rationality. Since the advent of nuclear weapons, you had countries who had access to nuclear weapons who always made a careful calculation of costs and benefits. But Iran is guided by a leadership with unbelievable fanaticism. You want these fanatics to have nuclear weapons?”

If the Iranian government, despite its zealotry, is essentially rational, and can be contained and deterred the way the Soviet Union was, the argument for pre-emptive strikes against its nuclear program is weaker. Iran knows that Israel has its own nuclear stockpile, and would destroy Iran were Iran to use a nuclear weapon against it.

If, on the other hand, Netanyahu is correct, and the Iranian leadership is motivated more by its hatred of Israel and religious fanaticism than by a desire for self-preservation, its response to air strikes against it is unlikely to be restrained.

This all may be a moot point, though, for Israelis who believe that however horrible might be the repercussions of attacking Iran, they are less terrible than allowing Iran to go nuclear.

“Despite the disadvantages of bombing Iran and getting rid of a nuclear weapon, this is an existential issue for Israel,” says Fine. “And that comes before everything.”

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