Israel Is Not About to Attack Iran and Neither is the United States

Get Used To It

The radio superhero, The Shadow, had the power to “cloud men’s minds.” But nothing clouds men’s minds like anything that has to do with Jews or Israel. This year’s variation on that theme is the idea that Israel is about to attack Iran. Such a claim repeatedly appears in the media. Some have criticized Israel for attacking Iran and turning the Middle East into a cauldron of turmoil (not as if the region needs any help in that department) despite the fact that it hasn’t happened.

On the surface, of course, there is apparent evidence for such a thesis. Israel has talked about attacking Iran and, objectively, one can make a case for such an operation. Yet any serious consideration of this scenario—based on actual research and real analysis rather than what the uninformed assemble in their own heads—is this: It isn’t going to happen.

Indeed, the main leak from the Israeli government, by an ex-intelligence official who hates Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, has been that the Israeli government already decided not to attack Iran. He says that he worries this might change in the future but there’s no hint that this has happened or will happen. Defense Minister Ehud Barak has publicly denied plans for an imminent attack as have other senior government official.

Of course, one might joke that the fact that Israeli leaders talk about attacking Iran is the biggest proof that they aren’t about to do it. But Israel, like other countries, should be subject to rational analysis. Articles being written by others are being spun as saying Israel is going to attack when that’s not what they are saying. I stand by my analysis and before December 31 we will see who was right. I’m not at all worried about stating very clearly that Israel is not going to go to war with Iran.

So why are Israelis talking about a potential attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities? Because that’s a good way –indeed, the only way Israel has–to pressure Western countries to work harder on the issue, to increase sanction and diplomatic efforts. If one believes that somehow pushing Tehran into slowing down or stopping its nuclear weapons’ drive is the only alternative to war, that greatly concentrates policymakers’ minds. Personally, I don’t participate–consciously or as an instrument–in disinformation campaigns, even if they are for a good cause.

Why should Israel attack Iran now? Because one day Iran will have nuclear weapons that might be used to attack Israel.

Does Iran have such deliverable weapons now? No.

If Israel attacks Iran now does that mean Iran would never get nuclear weapons? No, it would merely postpone that outcome for at most a year or two more than it would take otherwise. And then it would ensure an all-out endless bloody war thereafter.

If Israel attacks Iranian nuclear installations would that ensure future peace between the two countries? Would it make it less likely that the Tehran regime uses such weapons to strike at Israel in future? No. On the contrary, it would have the exact opposite effect. Again, it would ensure direct warfare between the two countries and make Iran’s use of nuclear weapons against Israel 100 percent probable.

Why is this different from Israeli attacks on Iraqi and Syrian nuclear facilities? Because in those case a single strike by a small number of planes would be sufficient to destroy a single building. And the two regimes, precisely because of the strategic situation, would and could not respond. And if you believe Iran’s regime to be so totally irraitional then factor that point into how it would respond to a direct attack like that.

If Israel attacks Iran would it have backing from anyone else in the world? No, in fact the United States strongly opposes such an operation. Iranian retaliation against oil shipping and terrorist attacks would lead (not overly brave and already appeasement-oriented) Western governments to blame Israel, not Iran. Launching such an attack would ensure a level of international isolation for Israel far higher than what exists today.

Would such an attack by Israel be likely to succeed even in doing maximum damage to Iranian facilities? No, a great deal could go wrong, especially against multiple hardened targets at the planes’ maximum range. Planes could get lost or crash or have to turn back. Planes arriving over the targets could miss, or accidentally drop their bombs on civilians, or simply not do much damage. Many targets would remain unscathed.

Additional waves of attack would be needed in a situation where Iran would be better prepared to shoot down the planes. And the second wave would face huge Western opposition. But it would be too late either way since Israel would now be in a full war with Iran.

So given all of these factors why should Israel possibly attack Iran? It is an absurd idea.

The counter-argument is this: Iran’s regime is irrational and wants to destroy Israel even if the resulting counterattack would kill millions of Iranians and wreck the country. Yet while that analysis should not be totally ruled out, it is far from a certainty. Tehran is seeking nuclear weapons to make itself invulnerable to the costs of its non-nuclear subversion and support for terrorist and revolutionary forces. And a lot of what the Iranian leadership says is demagoguery to build support for itself at home, and to convince the masses to ignore its incompetence and mismanagement.

Yet given the points made above, even the Iran as irrational analysis–and even assuming it to be correct the probability of being right about Iran ever trying to launch a nuclear attack is far lower than 100 percent–does not justify an Israeli attack at this time.

And, finally, Israel has other options. The alternative is this: As the Iranian regime works hard to get nuclear weapons and missiles capable of carrying them, Israel uses the time to build a multi-level defensive and offensive capability. These layers include:

U.S. early warning stations and anti-missile missile installations in the Gulf; Israeli missile-launching submarines; Israel long-range planes whose crews have rehearsed and planned for strikes at Iranian facilities; different types of anti-missile missiles capable of knocking down the small number of missiles Iran could fire simultaneously; covert operations, possibly including computer viruses and assassinations, to slow down Iran’s development of nuclear weapons; improved intelligence; help to the Iranian opposition (though the idea of “regime change” in the near future is a fantasy); and other measures.

If and when there was a clear Iranian threat to attack Israel, then Israel could launch a preemptive assault. And if no such threat ever materializes, Israel need never attack. Any future Iran-Israel war will happen if Iran’s regime makes it unavoidable, not in theory but in actual practice.

Note that attacking a limited number of missiles and launch facilities, that must be located closer to Israel within Iranian territory, is easy. Attacking multiple nuclear facilities buried deep in the ground anywhere in Iran is hard.

Ah, but what if Iran gives small nuclear devices to terrorists? Well ask yourself two simple questions:

1. Would an Israeli attack on Iran ensure that this didn’t happen? Answer: Not at all.

2. Would an Israeli attack on Iran ensure that Iran would definitely give nuclear devices to terrorists and try to strike against Israel as quickly and as frequently as possible? Absolutely yes.

Does this Israeli strategy assume that Iran’s regime is “rational” and “peace-loving” and will be deterred by Israel’s ability to strike back? Absolutely not. Indeed, quite the opposite. No such assumption is required. Israel will simply be ready and alert based on the assumption that Iran might attack some day. But such a war, however possible, is not inevitable. And since Israel cannot prevent Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons by attacking, there is no point in doing so.

Whether you hope for or fear an Israeli attack on Iran, it isn’t going to happen.

At the same time, a new theme in the America mass media–for example here and here–is that the United States is headed toward war with Iran either by electing a Republican president, the inevitable weight of events, or through having sanctions so effective that a cornered Iran will attack. The fact is that neither country wants to have an armed conflict and such a battle is easily avoidable. Ironically, those who claim Iran is going to attack are using the crazy Tehran regime concept that they reject when it comes to nuclear weapons. And the “watch out for the warmongering Republicans slogan” is part of the election campaign.

Warning against tough sanctions is a way of avoiding tough sanctions. The argument boils down to saying that sanctions better not hurt Iran or else the consequences will be disastrous. We will be hearing the same argument soon about Hamas, Hizballah, Egypt, and maybe even Libya or Turkey. The effort to use U.S. leverage will be said as triggering war or an anti-American explosion among Muslims. Thus, for example, whatever the Egyptian regime does toward Israel or its own people, we will be told that reducing U.S. aid is not an option.

Going to war with Iran is a mistake and the hysteria on this issue, including claims the regime is about to fall, that it can easily be brought down, or that an Iranian nuclear attack on others is inevitable, should be reined in. That’s precisely why sanctions and other measures should be applied to the fullest extent possible.

And there isn’t going to be any war unless Iran’s regime tries to use them or make a big mistake. It could, as Egypt did in 1967 or Saddam Hussein did in the late 1990s, rattle “nuclear sabers” enough to convince Israel that an attack is imminent. Even if it did not intend to attack, Tehran could push too hard and trigger an Israeli attack. By the same token, some Iranian attack on Western forces or on oil traffic in the Gulf–more likely triggered by a local commander without regime permission–could produce a slide into war with the United States.

But here’s what’s most likely going to happen: Iran will get nuclear weapons. Iran is not going to stop its nuclear drive (though it could stop short of actually building bombs or warheads ready to go). Western policies are not so bold or adventurous as to go to war; Israel’s interests and capabilities do not make attacking sensible. An attack would not solve but increase problems. And no matter how crazy you think Iran’s regime is, the inescapable predicable threat is not high enough to force policymakers to risk getting hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions of people killed, when the chance of avoiding such an outcome is very high.

Barry Rubin is director of the GLORIA Center, at IDC, and editor of MERIA Journal. His new book, Israel: An Introduction, has just been published by Yale University Press.

January 26, 2012 | 12 Comments »

Subscribe to Israpundit Daily Digest

Leave a Reply

12 Comments / 12 Comments

  1. Too bad Rubin doesn’t know or doesn’t beleive that Ahmadinejad said he would be willing to pay the price of the destruction of half of his country in order to destroy Israel. (Iran has a population of 66 million, so that would be 33 million of his countrymen, women, and children.) Too bad Rubin didn’t read the editorial in Iran’s daily newspaper the Kayhan which said, “When the missiles are launched from Iran, Israel will become a scorching hell for the Zionists.”
    I am so SICK of the ARROGANCE of columinists and commentators who think they can speak for Iran better than Iran’s elites can. Go back to your ivory towers and let Iran speak for itself. And believe that they will do what they said they will do, as soon as they are capable of it. And act accordingly.

  2. Appeasement. Slice it and dice it anyway you want, it adds up to appeasement – a very close relative of surrender.

  3. An Israeli Prof. specializing in Iranian (Persian) affairs said weeks ago that the best way to deal with the mad Ayatollas is to support the opposition. The latest news is that the sanctions on Iran are beginning to erode the regime. Their downfall will end the crisis, since extremist Muslims won’t be taking over from them like in other ME countries – as far as I know.

  4. “And, finally, Israel has other options: U.S. early warning stations and anti-missile missile installations in the Gulf…”

    If Iran launches nuclear weapons at Israel, I’m afraid the “options” Mr. Rubin discuss will be of little value. The difficulty here is trying to predict who will be leading Iranian five years. As we have seen lately, it is hard to predict Arab leadership changes. Probably the smartest thing Israel and the US can do is to strongly support the counter movements in Iran and/or outside elements who would push to overthrow the current government and replace it with a more sympathetic one.

  5. I agree with Mr. Rubin — up to a point.
    Israel will not attack without support and assurances from the US and while Obama is president, that will never happen. All will stay quiet until the election. Meanwhile Israel will invest heavily in missile defnce and other measures as Rubin has noted. Should Tge Republicans win the election a lot of options open up, including SERIOUS sanctions.
    In the long run, defence plus credible second strike capacity is key. Time is noton ziran’s side and Iran knows this. Why else all the saber-rattling by Iran in the Gulf. Iran would like a small war this summer (as would Obama). A small war wold allow Iran to send in its proxies to harass Israel and at the same time insure the election of a US president not known for his anti-Muslim tendencies. Americans will not change presidents in time of war.

  6. I consider Mr. Rubin one of the very best commentators today, but on this particular issue, I also believe he is dead wrong.

    There is no question but that Iran’s leadership wants to destroy Israel. They only way they can do this is with nuclear weapons. This is not their “final” strategic goal; remember, the U.S. is the “Great Satan”, whereas Israel is only the “Little Satan”, but just as Hitler’s Holocaust was not the primary objective of his war, it was certainly an important objective nonetheless.

    And, just like when Hitler said so in the 1930s, we need to take Iranian leaders at their word. They are serious about this.

    They are serious even as they know that Israel possesses nuclear arms and will launch a devastating retaliation. Is that so wildly irrational? Consider that during the Cold War, far better educated and more “civilized” modern Western leaders, along with their Soviet counterparts, contemplated the “winnability” of nuclear war. And that was with two superpowers of comparable size, thousands of warheads each, with much longer flight times. It is perfectly understandable that Iranian leaders would believe, given their proximity to Israel and the great disparities between the two in land and population, they can “win” a nuclear exchange with Israel.

    Now, consider Hezbollah. What is their purpose? What does Lebanon do for Iran? Provide a warm-water port? They already have that. Markets for their goods? The thriving, dynamic Lebanese economy? Does Lebanon have some scarce resource Iran needs? Like baklava, perhaps?

    What can Hezbollah do? They don’t have tanks, APCs, or a modern air force. They cannot seriously harm the Israeli armed forces. Other than terrorizing the population of Israel, killing some random civilians here and there, and scaring off tourists, taken in isolation, they can’t do very much. They can’t “invade” Israel, they can’t seize Israeli territory. What can they do?

    Interestingly, Hezbollah has been around for about as long as the Iranian nuclear program. Some coincidence, eh?

    What they are there to do, people, is provide an irresistable “tripwire” so that Iran has an “excuse” to launch a nuclear attack on Israel. That is their purpose. To harass Israel in a fashion that NO government could ignore without invading.

    Some might ask, “Why does Iran need this pretext?”

    Heck, why did Hitler go to the trouble of taking concentration camp prisoners, dressing them up in Polish army uniforms, trucking them to the German-Polish frontier, and gunning them down so as to provide “proof” that Poland “invaded” Germany? I guess they needed something for the ‘history books’ they intended to write after the war….

    Today, Israel faces a Hezbollah in Lebanon armed with 50,000 rockets, plus whatever Hamas has in Gaza, plus whatever there is in Syria, and maybe before long, a satellite in Iraq. These enemies cannot defeat Israel on the battlefield, and everybody knows this.

    What they can do is provide a provocation that Israel simply cannot resist.

    She’ll have to face these forces if she attacks Iran. But she’ll ALSO have to face these forces if she DOESN’T attack Iran, sometime in the future, WHEN IRAN CAN BACK THEM UP WITH A NUCLEAR THREAT AGAINST ISRAEL.

    Now, if you are leading Israel, which scenario would you prefer?

    That is why this observer is 90% certain that Israel is going to hit Iran’s nuclear sites before this year is out.

    I don’t know if this is going to happen in three weeks or eight months, but it is practically certain to happen.

    I don’t know how effective it is going to be. I agree that this probably should have been done a few years ago.

    But at the end of the day, I don’t see where Israel really has much choice. There are some who say Israel has a choice, that Israel can instead support opposition groups that would topple the Iranian mullahs. That sounds great…where is there a precedent where this has been carried out, where it has worked, in the Middle East? Israel could not even control the outcome of political events in Lebanon, where Iran’s proxy is now in control, where Israel had a large sympathetic community of Christians as allies. But Israel is going to engineer the overthrow of Iran’s sitting government???!!

    This is going to be awful. At the other end of this terrible situation, what will probably be the biggest war ever fought by Israel, will be unprecedented casaulties and destruction inside of Israel. But there will still be Israel. And not acting may well mean that a few years down the road, there won’t be Israel. That is the choice.

  7. This all so stupid destroying N. sites –you bomb the Majlis while in full station–the “Elders of Zion” have been watching too many Western films where you shoot the gun out of the badmans hand–wake up you shoot the badman in the heart or head perio

  8. OK. So it is important to remember all these “leaders” want power and play off each other, but the real power is what does our one true and living God want.

  9. It is very simple, the possible consequences of a military attack by anyone on Iran would bring about a short term and middle term economic catastrophe which could easily last for generations. There is also a good chance that the war that would be ignited would spread to the rest of the world.
    The possible consequences of an Iranian nuclear weapon would probably mean a Middle East nuclear arms race and the total economic, diplomatic, financial, social, political, and technological isolation of Iran.
    The second set of circumstances are far more acceptable to the international community, far more rational, and far more likely than the first.
    Ergo, Iran is immune from military intervention by Israel, the US, the EU, and everyone else.

  10. Imminent means when the timing is opportune
    No question in my mind that the Arabs will attempt a joint attack – Hez+ Hamas + Iran + Syria if Assad left and not disposed of. Question is, when is it imminent for them?

  11. I’ve been hearing of an imminent attack by Israel and or the USA on Iran since 2006–I’ll believe it when it happens! The best time to attack was years ago–is well past!

  12. I think that Barry Rubin is dead wrong. He just does not seem to accept the realistic possibility that the Iranian leaders are set to start a nuclear war intentionally. He writes “The counter-argument is this: Iran’s regime is irrational and wants to destroy Israel even if the resulting counterattack would kill millions of Iranians and wreck the country. Yet while that analysis should not be totally ruled out, it is far from a certainty.”

    Of course it is not certain, but even if the probability were 10 percent it would still be unacceptable. That this probability is not negligible say scholars of Islam like Bernard Lewis and Raphael Israeli who know Islam better than Barry Rubin does. This opinion is shared by Reza Kahlili who spent 10 years working under cover among the Republican Guards as a CIA operative. Some would say that Reza Kahlili is a self proclaimed ex-CIA spy. But if Raza Kahlili were a fraud the former CIA director James Woolsey would not have shared the platform with him at the National Press Club

    We should take more seriously what experts in their fields tell us and not reject them just because it all seems so horrific. There are many more who are of the same opinion, see MAD is Dead

    Israel does not have other options . Barry Rubin writes “As the Iranian regime works hard to get nuclear weapons and missiles capable of carrying them, Israel uses the time to build a multi-level defensive and offensive capability.” However, since no defense is full proof there is always the probability that one of the rockets will get through launched by the undeterred Twelvers. That can only be stopped if Iran never gets the bomb in the first place.