The Ticking Clock
Four reasons why -- this time -- you should believe the hype about Israel attacking Iran.
Washington Post columnist David Ignatius created a tempest last week when he reported U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta’s prediction that Israel will attack Iran and its nuclear complex "in April, May or June." Ignatius’s column was as startling as it was exasperating. When the sitting U.S. defense secretary — presumably privy to facts not generally available to the public — makes such a prediction, observers have good reasons to pay attention. On the other hand, the international community has been openly dealing with the Iranian nuclear issue for nearly a decade, with similar crescendos of anticipation having occurred before, all to no effect. Why would this time be different?
Further, an Israeli air campaign against Iran would seem like an amazingly reckless act. And an unnecessary one, too, since international sanctions against Iran’s banks and oil market are just now tightening dramatically.
Yet from Israel’s point of view, time really has run out. The sanctions have come too late. And when Israeli policymakers consider their advantages and all of the alternatives available, an air campaign, while both regrettable and risky, is not reckless.
1. Time pressure
In his column, Ignatius mentioned this spring as the likely deadline for an Israeli strike. Why so soon? After all, the Iranian program is still under the supervision of IAEA inspectors and Iran has not made any moves to "break out" toward the production of bomb-grade highly enriched uranium.
But as a new report from the Bipartisan Policy Center discusses, Iran’s uranium enrichment effort continues to advance, even after the Stuxnet computer attack and the assassination of several of its nuclear scientists. According to the report, Iran seems to be successfully installing advanced, high-efficiency uranium-enrichment centrifuges, which foreshadows a significant increase in enrichment capacity and output in the near future. More ominously from Israel’s perspective, Iran is now installing centrifuge cascades into the Fordow mountain site near Qom, a bunker that is too deep for Israeli bombs to penetrate.
On-site IAEA inspectors are currently monitoring Iran’s nuclear fuel production and would report any diversions to military use. As Tehran undoubtedly assumes, such a "breakout" (tossing out the inspectors and quickly enriching to the bomb-grade level) would be a casus belli, with air strikes from Israel likely to soon follow. Israeli leaders may have concluded that Iran could break out with impunity after the Fordow site is operational and the enrichment effort has produced enough low-enriched uranium feedstock for several bombs. According to the Bipartisan Center report, Iran will be in this position later this year. According to the New York Times, U.S. and Israeli officials differ over their calculations of when Iran will have crossed into a "zone of immunity." Given their more precarious position, it is understandable that Israeli policymakers are adopting a more conservative assessment.
2. Alternatives to military action now fall short
Israeli leaders undoubtedly understand that starting a war is risky. There should be convincing reasons for discarding the non-military alternatives.
The international sanctions effort against Iran’s banking system and oil industry are inflicting damage on the country’s economy and seem to be delivering political punishment to the regime. But they have not slowed the nuclear program, nor are they likely to have any effect on the timeline described above. And as long as Russia, China, India, and others continue to support Iran economically and politically, the sanctions regime is unlikely to be harsh enough to change Israel’s calculation of the risks, at least within a meaningful time frame.
Why can’t Israel’s secret but widely assumed nuclear arsenal deter an Iranian nuclear strike? Israel’s territory and population are so small that even one nuclear blast would be devastating. Israel would very much like to possess a survivable and stabilizing second-strike retaliatory capability. During the Cold War, the United States and the Soviet Union achieved this mainly with their ballistic missile submarine fleets, which were always on patrol and held each others’ cities at risk. Israel does not have large numbers of submarines or any nuclear-powered subs capable of long submerged patrols. Nor can it be confident that its policymakers or command-and-control systems would survive an Iranian nuclear first strike.
Even if Iran sought a nuclear weapons capability solely to establish its own defensive deterrent, the outcome would be gross instability in the region, very likely leading to one side or the other attempting a preemptive attack (the Iranian government denies that its nuclear program has a military purpose). Very short missile flight times, fragile early-warning and command systems, and no survivable second-strike forces would lead to a hair-trigger "use it or lose it" dynamic. An Israeli attack now on Iran’s nuclear program would be an attempt to prevent this situation from occurring.
3. The benefits of escalation
A strike on Iran’s nuclear complex would be at the outer boundary of the Israeli Air Force’s capabilities. The important targets in Iran are near the maximum range of Israel’s fighter-bombers. The fact that Iraq’s airspace, on the direct line between Israel and Iran, is for now undefended is one more reason why Israel’s leaders would want to strike sooner rather than later. Israel’s small inventory of bunker-buster bombs may damage the underground uranium enrichment plant at Natanz, but they will likely have no effect on the Fordow mountain complex. Iran has undoubtedly dispersed and hidden many other nuclear facilities. An Israeli strike is thus likely to have only a limited and temporary effect on Iran’s nuclear program.
If so, why bother, especially when such a strike risks sparking a wider war? Israel’s leaders may actually prefer a wider escalating conflict, especially before Iran becomes a nuclear weapons state. Under this theory, Israel would take the first shot with a narrowly tailored attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities. Paradoxically, Israel’s leaders might then prefer Iranian retaliation, which would then give Israel the justification for broader strikes against Iran’s oil industry, power grid, and communication systems. Even better if Iran were to block the Strait of Hormuz or attack U.S. forces in the region, which would bring U.S. Central Command into the war and result in even more punishment for Iran. Israel’s leaders may believe that they enjoy "escalation dominance," meaning that the more the war escalates, the worse the consequences for Iran compared to Israel. Israel raided Iraq’s nuclear program in 1981 and Syria’s in 2007. Neither Saddam Hussein nor Bashar al-Assad opted to retaliate, very likely because both knew that Israel, with its air power, possessed escalation dominance. Israel’s leaders have good reason to assume that Iran’s leaders will reach the same conclusion.
What about the rockets possessed by Hezbollah and Hamas, Iran’s proxies north and south of Israel’s population centers? Israel’s leaders may believe that they are much better prepared to respond to these threats than they were in 2006, when the Israeli army struggled against Hezbollah. There is no guarantee that Hezbollah and Hamas will follow orders from Tehran to attack — they understand the punishment the reformed Israeli army would inflict. Hezbollah may now have an excellent reason to exercise caution. Should the Assad regime in Damascus collapse, Hezbollah would likely lose its most important protector and could soon find itself cut off and surrounded by enemies. It would thus be a particularly bad time for Hezbollah to invite an Israeli ground assault into southern Lebanon.
4. Managing the endgame
An Israeli raid on Iran’s nuclear complex would probably not lead to the permanent collapse of the program. Iran could dig out the entrances to the Fordow site and establish new covert research and production facilities elsewhere, perhaps in bunkers dug under residential areas. Israel inflicted a major setback on Iraq’s program when it destroyed the unfinished Osirak reactor in 1981. Even so, Saddam Hussein covertly restarted the program. Israel should expect the same persistence from Iran.
So is there any favorable end-state for Israel? Israeli leaders may envision a long term war of attrition against Iran’s program, hoping to slow its progress to a crawl while waiting for regime change in Tehran. Through sporadic follow-up strikes against nuclear targets, Israel would attempt to demoralize the industry’s workforce, disrupt its operations, and greatly increase the costs of the program. Israeli leaders might hope that their attrition tactics, delivered through occasional air strikes, would bog down the nuclear program while international sanctions weaken the civilian economy and reduce political support for the regime. The stable and favorable outcome for Israel would be either Tehran’s abandonment of its nuclear program or an internal rebellion against the regime. Israel would be counting more on hope rather than a convincing set of actions to achieve these outcomes. But the imperative now for Israel is to halt the program, especially since no one else is under the same time pressure they are.
Israel should expect Tehran to mount a vigorous defense. Iran would attempt to acquire modern air defense systems from Russia or China. It would attempt to rally international support against Israeli aggression and get its international sanctions lifted and imposed on Israel instead. An Israeli assault on Iran would disrupt oil and financial markets with harmful consequences for the global economy. Israel would take the blame, with adverse political and economic consequences to follow.
But none of these consequences are likely enough to dissuade Israel from attacking. A nuclear capability is a red line that Israel has twice prevented its opponents from crossing. Iran won’t get across the line either. Just as happened in 1981 and 2007, Israel’s leaders have good reasons to conclude that its possession of escalation dominance will minimize the worst concerns about retaliation. Perhaps most importantly, Israel is under the greatest time pressure, which is why it will have to go it alone and start what will be a long and nerve-wracking war.