The conventional wisdom among a lot of US pundits, particularly on the right, is that if Iran continues to push forward on the nuclear front, Israel will attack.
Bill O’Reilly, in his recent interview with Sarah Palin: “The Israelis are getting very, very close.”
Former UN Ambassador John Bolton: “I think Israel views an Iran with nuclear weapons as an existential threat to the state of Israel, and I think as the Israelis demonstrated last December when they destroyed that North Korean reactor in Syria that they’re prepared to take the necessary steps.”
Bret Stephens of The Wall Street Journal: “Events are fast pushing Israel toward a pre-emptive military strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities, probably by next spring.”
And so on.
Count me a skeptic. If the Israelis truly thought bombing Iran was a feasible option, they likely would have done it already. Consider the history:
In 2007 the Israelis did in fact destroy a suspected nuclear facility in Syria. What the Israelis pointedly didn’t do, however, is spend the better part of a decade telling the Syrians they better stop building it or else, thereby giving the Syrians time to build tunnels and reinforce everything with massive concrete slabs and develop sophisticated anti-aircraft defenses. Same goes for the bombing of Iraq’s Osirak reactor in 1981. Days before French nuclear fuel was scheduled to be delivered, the Israelis carried out an attack that caught the Iraqis, and much of the rest of the world, at unawares. In both instances, the Israelis acted well before the Syrian or Iraqi nuclear programs were anywhere close to being as developed as Iran’s are now. And Israel certainly didn’t telegraph their plans before carrying them out.
Below are a few relevant milestones in Iran’s nuclear program, none of which resulted in a pre-emptive Israeli attack, but all of which Israel likely viewed as a threats equal to or greater than those posed by Syria or Iraq:
In 1993, Argentina delivered enriched uranium (19.75%) to Iran for use in the US-built Tehran Nuclear Research Center.
In 2002, the National Council of Resistance of Iran disclosed the existence of a uranium enrichment facility in Natanz, and a heavy water facility in Arak.
In 2006, Ahmadinejad announced that Iran had successfully enriched uranium to 3.6% through the use of centrifuge technology. In that same year, satellite data was released indicating tunnels had been dug around Esfahan, and that much of the Natanz facility had been buried and further protected by layers of concrete.
In 2007, Iran announced they had 3000 centrifuges working to enrich uranium. Also in that year, Russia finally delivered nuclear fuel to the reactor under construction at Bushehr.
In 2009, Iran announced the existence of a second uranium enrichment facility, located north of Qom.
In 2010, Iran and Russia announced they plan to start the nuclear plant at Bushehr in March.
The list above is by no means exhaustive. The point is that year after year, when it comes to Iran’s nuclear program, the Israelis have threatened to attack while actually exercising restraint—whereas with Syria and Iraq, they attacked early on, without real warning, despite being faced with what arguably were lesser provocations. The reason the Israelis have held back is threefold:
1. It would be difficult, if not impossible, for them to stage such a long-range attack on their own. And even if they could get the planes there, the targets are heavily protected. And the Israelis may not even know where all the targets are.
2. Although they’re certainly gravely concerned, the Israelis probably don’t consider a nuclear Iran an existential threat. After the disputed election, it seems clearer than ever that the primary goal of the IRI—above even promoting their questionable interpretation of Twelver Shiism—is maintaining power. Using a nuclear weapon against Israel, or slipping one to Hezbollah for the same purpose, would likely mean the end of their power. After all, Israel could retaliate with their own nukes and destroy 80% or so of the heavily-urbanized Iranian population in a day. My God. The IRI may be crazy (and certainly they are anti-Semitic), but they’ve given no indication that they’re that crazy. They haven’t, for example, given biological or chemical weapons to Hezbollah. To get to the nuke-Israel level of crazy, you have to descend into the Sunni suicide-bomber mindset. Which is why Pakistan’s existing nukes should be more of a concern than Iran’s theoretical ones. I have to believe Israeli defense experts appreciate the difference between the IRI and nihilistic Sunni radicals.
3. The costs of an attack would outweigh the benefits. Some of the costs are obvious: innocent lives would be lost, oil prices would spike after the Straight of Hormuz was temporarily blocked, US troops would be attacked in Iraq, Israel would be attacked by Hamas and Hezbollah and likely by Iran directly, etc. The less-obvious and less-quantifiable consequence is the extra time an attack could buy the IRI. Ninety percent of Iranians support Iran’s nuclear program. In the past, the Shah supported it, and in the future, if they ever come to power, the Greens will support it. If Israel or anyone else tries to disrupt Iran’s nuclear program militarily, it’s going enrage a lot of people across the political spectrum. When Iranians rally around the flag after an attack, as many will, how many extra years will that give the IRI? Ten? Twenty? Who knows, but I bet the IRI would gain more years from an attack than the few years (at most) the nuclear program would be delayed.
The Israelis are aware of all this, despite the bluster. Which is why, unless something happens to fundamentally change the cost-benefit equation, they’ll just continue to push for sanctions—sanctions that will be meaningless because Russia and China won’t support them, but that’s another article.