How to avoid an Israeli strike on Iran?
By Zachary Hosford Best Defense nuclear warfare correspondent As diplomacy falters and the potential for an Iranian nuclear weapon edges closer, public discourse has increasingly focused on U.S. and Israeli options for preventing such an outcome by other means. And of late, the option most thoroughly debated in government and on the pages of the ...
By Zachary Hosford
Best Defense nuclear warfare correspondent
As diplomacy falters and the potential for an Iranian nuclear weapon edges closer, public discourse has increasingly focused on U.S. and Israeli options for preventing such an outcome by other means. And of late, the option most thoroughly debated in government and on the pages of the policy journals is an Israeli military strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities.
With his recent National Interest article and last week’s accompanying talk to a small group of journalists, academics, and think tank analysts in the journal’s Nixon Center office space, Bruce Riedel, a former CIA officer, veteran policy advisor, and current Brookings senior fellow, not only predicted that an Israeli attack on Iran would be calamitous but added that preventing it would require us to turn our focus from Iran’s nuclear program to Israel’s.
But first things first. Should Israel attempt to delay the Iranian program by force, he said, the result would be particularly disastrous for the United States. Iran, at the very least, would view an Israeli attack as being American-enabled-and perhaps explicitly approved — which would prompt the regime in Tehran to retaliate directly against U.S. interests in the region. The drawdown of combat forces in Iraq as well as ongoing operations in Afghanistan would likely become significantly more challenging as Iran maximized its considerable influence in both countries.
So, Reidel continued, how can Washington forestall an Israeli attack? Sure, President Barack Obama could tell Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu not to strike Iran, promise to withhold the “IFF” codes identifying attacking Israeli jets as friendlies to the U.S. military aircraft patrolling the Middle East’s skies, and threaten to reduce or halt Israel’s annual military aid dollars, but these actions — even if successful — could only supplement a more substantial and lasting approach.
The crux of Riedel’s argument? Convince Israel that it is safe to abandon its decades-long policy of maintaining a monopoly on Middle Eastern nuclear weapons. This argument might be easier for Americans to swallow, but if the goal is to dissuade the Israelis from attacking Iran, it will be a tough sell.
Riedel reaches back to deterrence theory by proposing that the United States offer Israel the benefits of American nuclear umbrella. This, of course, only works if those with their fingers on the hypothetical Iranian nuclear button are rational, and Riedel’s mention of the Netanyahu quote claiming Iran is “crazy” casts doubt on the views of the Israeli leadership, to say the least.
Though Riedel could very well be accurate in his analysis, in order to keep his deterrence argument intact he needs to downplay the possibility that Iran would transfer a nuclear weapon to a third party. So, perhaps not surprisingly, he does not offer any evidence for why Tehran would keep it nukes to itself. On the surface, it does seem as though a Hizbollah nuclear attack on Israel would not be in the interest of either Hizbollah or Iran, but gut feelings and hunches are not likely to convince the Israelis to sit back and watch while Iran goes nuclear.
The second part of the two-fold Riedel plan would call for the United States to bolster Israel’s second strike capability. That is, once the U.S. eases the Israeli population’s fears with promises to employ the formidable American nuclear force in the event the unthinkable occurs, an arsenal of American-supplied hardware would ensure that a stricken Israel would still be able to retaliate with its F-15Is, Jericho IRBMs, and increasingly sophisticated missile defense system. This would enable permit Israel to maintain strategic dominance, even facing a nuclear Iran. Among other items, Riedel advocates selling F-22s to Israel, though they are probably not the most appropriate platform for Israeli defense needs, and are perhaps further obviated by recent Israeli cabinet agreement to allow the United States to give Israel 20 stealthy new F-35s.
Of course, one problem with publicly boosting the Israeli deterrent — which Riedel readily admits — is that it is exceedingly difficult to do without first acknowledging that Israel possesses nuclear weapons. While Israel should, in fact, officially announce its arsenal, there is little benefit for it in doing so, at least at the moment. It would gain little, given that everyone knows of the Israeli nukes anyway, and could potentially entangle them in international debates over the NPT and a nuclear-free zone.
So, could the U.S. out them instead? Doubtful. Washington has been extremely hesitant to adopt a tough approach toward Israel in the past, but if an Israeli action might risk significant consequences to U.S. personnel and strategic interests, perhaps we will be surprised …