Everyone calm down: Israel is not going to bomb Iran. Well, at least not in 2012.
Worried about a war with Iran, regional instability, more terrorism, rising oil prices or plunging markets? Don’t be — at least not yet. Think 2013. If Israel can’t get assurances that the U.S. is prepared to use force, then Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak will act later this year or early next.
But for now, there will be no war and certainly no deal over the nuclear issue. And the reason for that is pretty compelling: the mullahs, the Israelis, and the Americans all don’t want one right now — and here’s why.
1. It’s not necessary
Nobody should trivialize the danger posed by a nuclear Iran or underestimate Israel’s concerns about that possibility. Even if we had divine assurance that Iran wouldn’t use nukes against Israel, an Iranian bomb would embolden Tehran’s regional aspirations, erode American deterrence, trigger an arms race in the region, and give a repressive power an additional hedge on its own security.
At the same time, few buy the case for an immediate strike, either. Indeed, let’s be clear about something: Iran doesn’t have a nuclear weapon. As far as we know, it hasn’t tested one, produced enough fissile material for a sustainable program, or mastered the weaponization of a nuclear warhead — yet. Right now, in August 2012, there’s only one country that believes it’s imperative to strike Iran: Israel. And even that is somewhat misleading, because there’s no consensus within the Israeli public, political elite, or security establishment about the need to attack. According to one recent poll, 60 percent of Israelis were against an Israeli strike.
Still, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has framed the idea as one of necessity. For just about everyone else in the world (though actually, the Saudis might want someone to take a whack at Teheran so long as the mullahs don’t take it out on them), including the United States, Israel’s closest ally, attacking Iran’s nascent nuclear capacity would be a war of choice — and a galactically risky one at that.
Look at the return-to-risk ratio. The attack might go badly, in which case planes and pilots would be lost or taken hostage. Even if everything goes according to plan, oil prices could surge, markets and fragile economies might tumble, terror would likely increase, and Iranian missiles could conceivably strike Israel. Attacks against Americans in Afghanistan would almost certainly intensify, and Israel’s stock abroad, perhaps even in America, would plummet precipitously.
And for what? The possibility that Iran’s nuclear program will be set back for a few years? And who’s going to measure how much damage has been done? Or turn around and tell the Iranians they don’t have a legitimate reason to ramp up their nuclear program? What happens to sanctions, without which Iran would probably already have a nuclear weapon?
For Israel to court those kinds of risks on the grounds that within three to six months, Iran will have entered a nebulous zone of immunity where its sites will be so redundant, so hardened, and so diffused that they will be beyond Israel’s capacity to strike effectively is not a sufficient or credible basis on which to trigger an international crisis with global financial, security, and economic consequences. This is doubly true when you consider that the returns — a temporary crippling of Iran’s nuclear program that isn’t even guaranteed — are so tentative.
2. Israel doesn’t really want to do it
And the Israelis know it. The fact is they have no intention of doing anything now; for the time being, it’s far less risky to maintain the status quo. Sanctions are tough and might get tougher, cyber and covert war have had some effect, and the unraveling situation in Syria — where Iran has remained a stalwart ally of embattled President Bashar al-Assad — has isolated Tehran even further. Meanwhile, the Israelis can keep the world focused on their agenda and on the edge of their collective chairs, worried about a military strike and perhaps willing to do even more to hammer the Iranians. It’s far from ideal, but not half bad for a strategy that doesn’t require firing a single shot or missile.
Make no mistake: The Israelis are prepared to strike Iran. Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak has a plan and believes it can succeed. But he knows Israel’s capacity to inflict a crippling blow to Iran’s nuclear program is limited. It’s akin to mowing the grass, really — a move that would buy Israel a couple of years at most. What a unilateral strike will do, however, is not only to legitimate Iran’s quest for nuclear weapons but also accelerate it. That’s precisely what happened when the Israelis struck Saddam Hussein’s plutonium reactors in 1981. And the Israelis know that, too.
3. Let America do it
What the Israelis really want is to persuade the United States to bring the full force of its military might to bear on the problem. Washington could do extensive damage to Iran’s unconventional and conventional military capacity. Ultimately, however, a U.S. attack would probably also fail to stop Iran’s nuclear program permanently — producing only a more substantial delay.
But for the Israelis, the advantages of letting Washington take the lead are considerable. They would avoid a crisis in their relationship with the United States as well as the international censure that would accompany a unilateral strike. The damage to Iran’s nuclear facilities would also be much greater.
And while the mullahs could handle, and perhaps even profit from, an Israeli strike, a war with America — involving a sustained air and missile campaign that lasts for weeks — is not something they want. The "rally around the flag" effect could be dampened by the severity of an American attack and, who knows, questions might even be raised about the wisdom of pressing ahead with the nuclear project. The Israelis probably even have dreams of regime change in Tehran.
All of this augurs for putting the proverbial ball in America’s court — and not surprising and alienating the Obama administration by striking before the November elections. The last thing Netanyahu wants is a reelected and angry American president. Sure, Netanyahu doesn’t want to see Barack Obama reelected at all. But the one way to guarantee that would be to strike before the elections. There’s probably no way America could stay out, depending on the nature of Iran’s response. And if the United States did become involved militarily, there would be a positive rally-round-the-president effect. Mitt Romney would be left applauding from the sidelines.
Still, the Israelis really do have a problem. Sanctions aren’t doing nothing, but they aren’t enough to stop Iran from going after a weapon, and negotiations aren’t working either. At the same time, Iran is committed to at the very least developing the capacity to weaponize, should it decide to do so. And the fall of the Assads, when it comes, may only add to Tehran’s fear of Sunni encirclement and accelerate its drive for the ultimate weapon.
None of this means it ain’t gonna happen. If you’re betting on a war with Iran, think year’s end or early next. Netanyahu will probably split the difference: delay his strike until after November to placate Obama and give the Americans one last chance to persuade him they will do it themselves. But the prime minister could be waiting for a long time. Obama’s heart just isn’t in this one.
Ultimately, Israel will act. No Israeli prime minister, certainly not this one, will ever be fingered as the guy who allowed the Iranians to weaponize without doing everything in his power to stop it, even if an attack only delays the program and causes Israel a lot of grief in the process. The kaboom is probably coming — just not quite yet.
Aaron David Miller is a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and a former State Department Middle East analyst and negotiator in Republican and Democratic administrations. He is the author, most recently, of The End of Greatness: Why America Can’t Have (and Doesn’t Want) Another Great President. Twitter: @aarondmiller2