The Grounds for an Israeli Attack on Iran

“Israel would … be taking a very great gamble to think that the United States will save it from Iran’s nukes.”

By Elliott Abrams, World Affairs Journal

A broad international coalition agrees that Iran must freeze its nuclear weapons program and may not develop either of the ingredients—sufficient highly enriched uranium and a usable warhead and delivery system—that could result in a bomb for the Islamic Republic. The International Atomic Energy Agency Board of Governors, the UN Security Council, and the governments of almost every influential country—including the United States, Russia, China, Germany, Britain, and France, acting as the P5+1 negotiating group—have not only reached consensus on this demand but acted upon it. Increasingly tough sanctions have been imposed on Iran to force it to stop what is obviously a military program aimed at building a usable nuclear weapon. These diplomatic steps and these tightened sanctions reflect a wide consensus about the dangers that an Iranian nuclear weapon would bring.

But those dangers, ranging from the risk of further proliferation to the likelihood that a nuclear Iran would be an even bolder supporter of terrorism, do not affect all nations equally. In fact, they are a matter of principle but not much of a danger to many countries, while of much greater interest to Iran’s immediate neighbors and to the United States. And then there is Israel. The dangers it faces from an Iranian nuclear weapon are unique and, I will argue, are dangers no nation should be asked to accept.

The only case today in which a UN member country is calling for the destruction of another member is Tehran’s repeated threats to obliterate Israel, and there is no reason to believe the Iranians don’t mean it. Official Iranian comments about Israel are continually genocidal in nature. A good example is an article in the Iranian press in February—circulated by the Revolutionary Guard’s Fars News Agency but originating at the website Alef, which has ties to the supreme leader—that calls for the destruction of the Jews. The author, Alireza Forghani, a chief strategy specialist, is a significant figure in Iran; more important is that key regime websites are promoting his views. A report at the WND news website summarizes the central paragraph of Forghani’s analysis of the necessity for destroying lsrael and its people this way:

Under this pre-emptive defensive doctrine, several Ground Zero points of Israel must be destroyed and its people annihilated. Forghani cites the last census by the Israel Central Bureau of Statistics that shows Israel has a population of 7.5 million citizens of which a majority of 5.7 million are Jewish. Then it breaks down the districts with the highest concentration of Jewish people, indicating that three cities, Tel Aviv, Jerusalem and Haifa, contain over 60 percent of the Jewish population that Iran could target with its Shahab 3 ballistic missiles, killing all its inhabitants.

This call for genocide is acceptable discourse in the Islamic Republic. It follows various statements by Iran’s president calling for Israel to be wiped off the map, and as recently as February 3rd, Iran’s “supreme leader,” Ayatollah Khamenei, again called Israel a “cancerous tumor that should be cut and will be cut.”

It is not necessary to believe that Iran would launch a nuclear attack at Israel the day after acquiring that capability to understand that Israel cannot tolerate a nuclear weapon in the hands of this regime. In addition to the threat of state action, Iran could also provide such a capability to Hamas, Hezbollah, or some other terrorist group with which it has connections as a way of masking its own role in the attack. Iran could also use a newly acquired nuclear capacity to defend stepped-up terrorist activities, both against Israel proper and against Israeli and Jewish individuals and sites around the world. The recent attacks on Israeli Embassy officers in India and Georgia and the bombing of the Israeli Embassy and Jewish community headquarters in Buenos Aires in the 1990s were all conducted when Iran did not have the added protection of a nuclear weapon. Similarly, Hezbollah and Hamas rocket attacks and terrorist bombings and kidnappings have all occurred when their benefactors in Tehran did not yet have the bomb. How much more aggressive would the mullahs be if the threat of retaliation against such attacks were neutralized by nuclear warheads? Israel has paid a great price in blood and treasure to survive in the decades when it had a nuclear monopoly in the region. To confront the same hostility, terror, and aggression when that monopoly is gone could undermine its ability to survive.

No nation, of course, can defend preemptively against an unexpected sneak attack. But if Iran acquires nuclear weapons (which it has already indicated a willingness to use), it will not come as a surprise to Israel or to its main ally, the United States. Instead, Tehran’s acquisition of such weaponry would give the lie to the stated determination of both nations to prevent that outcome. All the speeches about what we would and would not accept would be shown to have been mere talk; all the determination would be shown to have been mere show; and every observer would conclude that we allowed ourselves to be cowed by Iran into an inaction that would continue to have ramifications for years to come even if, by some miracle, Tehran did not soon act on its genocidal threats. We would have watched their program grow year after year, and done nothing—or nothing that worked. So the image of Israel as indestructible, resolute, tough, and ready to act—as it acted against the nuclear programs of Iraq in 1981 and Syria in 2007—would be gone, as would the United States’ own image as the dominant power in the Middle East and one committed to preserving Israel’s existence.

And what will the Middle East be like when Iran possesses that nuclear weapon and its top officials continue to say that Israel must be eliminated? It would be easy for Iran to bring Israeli life to a standstill by launching a missile or a plane whose mission might, just might, be a nuclear attack. The chances that miscalculation or misperception would bring war and catastrophe would be enormous.

All of this helps explain why the so-called “international community,” an entity not known to be friendly to Israel, has nonetheless almost unanimously said Iran must not be permitted to acquire nuclear weapons. The question is therefore whether we mean what we say. There is a great gap between saying an Iranian nuclear weapon is so terrible to contemplate that we will speak against it and sanction Iran’s economy, and saying we will act to prevent it. While some American leaders, mostly Republican candidates for office, have said we should use military force to stop Iran, that is not the official position of the United States. In 1980, the Carter Doctrine announced that “an attempt by any outside force to gain control of the Persian Gulf region will be regarded as an assault on the vital interests of the United States of America, and such an assault will be repelled by any means necessary, including military force.” No president has said anything like that regarding Iran’s nukes. The more anodyne “all options are on the table” formula has not scared the ayatollahs and never will.

Given this lack of urgency, Israel would, then, be taking a very great gamble to think that the United States will save it from Iran’s nukes. We might, under this president or the next, or we might not. Iranian nuclear weapons are, after all, an existential threat to Israel, not to the US. It is not America that is regularly threatened with genocide by Tehran, however much its rulers may believe it the Great Satan.

Should Israel then take it upon itself to act? There are three main arguments against such a course. The first is that it is impossible: Israel can’t do the job, and would only set Iran back a few months by an attack that would nonetheless bring significant reprisals. If it is true that the “window” has already closed and Israel cannot much damage the Iranian effort, the argument is over. If it can do substantial damage, there is not much point in arguing over whether setting Iran back three or five or seven years is sufficient to justify the attack. There is no magic number here, any more than there is a magic number revealing how many years this hated regime will rule in Iran before the people rise up against it. A corollary to this argument suggests that an Israeli attack would give the regime a new lease on life by rallying all Iranians, including the presumably growing numbers of dissidents, to the flag. But who knows if this is true, especially given the fact that the attack would be over before Iranians were even aware it had happened; that civilian targets would have been spared; and that the mullahs’ regime is very widely despised? It could equally be argued that an attack would have the same consequences as in the late Soviet period, when military setbacks (Afghanistan, Central America) hastened the demise of the regime by showing its weaknesses and by intensifying internal tensions. The same might be true in Iran if it were shown that its much-vaunted, immensely expensive nuclear program had now gone up in smoke, and that the years of privation and isolation under sanctions had been for naught. In any event, the goal of an attack would not be to decapitate or overthrow the regime, but only to destroy or slow down its nuclear program.

The second argument against Israeli action is that it would set off a giant Mideast war, a spreading conflagration of immeasurable size and consequence. This is not persuasive either. Who would fight for Iran, especially given that its only client and ally in the region, Syria, is currently embroiled in an internal war of its own against its own people? There will be no wider war because Arab governments do not want Iran to acquire nuclear weapons either, and would not react much to an Israeli strike. Demonstrations against Israel, which are predictable, would pass after a few days. Iran’s threats to close the Strait of Hormuz or to attack American bases and allies in the Gulf are not really credible either, and are almost surely a sort of psy-op against Washington. Such actions would draw the United States into a conflict with Iran when the US acted to re-open the Strait, which it could and would do—with world support—and these actions would bring far more damage to Iran’s military (especially naval) capacity than an Israeli attack would accomplish. Why would Iran call down US power on the head of its Islamic revolutionary state? Why would it attack American bases and thereby kill hundreds of Americans, knowing that this would bring devastating retribution from the United States? Similarly, would Iran really attack Arab states across the Gulf, some of which have decent air forces of their own (the UAE and Saudi Arabia) and can expect to rely on American help? If the Iranian leadership would engage in such suicidal actions, it confirms the Israeli position that such an irrational group cannot be permitted to have nuclear weapons in the first place.

Israel must expect Iranian terrorist attacks, and missiles targeting its own nuclear facilities at Dimona. The real danger, and the only one that might trigger a war, is an attack by Hezbollah. If it threw all of its arsenal at Israel, another conflict perhaps larger than the 2006 war would ensue. But is it certain that Hezbollah would sacrifice its future for Iran at this juncture? Recall that its leader, Sheik Hassan Nasrallah, said after the 2006 war, “If I had known on July 11?.?.?.?that the operation would lead to such a war, would I do it? I say no, absolutely not.” And that was said when Iran and the Assad regime in Syria were riding high, and able and willing to rearm the group after the conflict—as they indeed did. With Assad desperately focused on his own survival and Iran’s own prestige and power damaged by an Israeli strike, would Nasrallah push Lebanon into a war its people cannot possibly want and that would do immense and possibly irrecoverable political and military damage to Hezbollah? Israel must anticipate the worst and prepare for it, but that is not to say it will happen.

The third argument against an Israeli strike is that a nuclear-armed Iran could still be “contained.” It is never explained how this would be achieved. Containment is not a diplomatic strategy but at bottom a doctrine enforced by military power: red lines are set and may not be crossed without clear consequences. If Iran gets nuclear weapons, this would mean that all such red lines had been crossed and that US warnings had been proved to be mere words. After Iran has gained status as a nuclear weapons state, how could Washington threaten war to contain it when it was unwilling to act when it did not have nuclear weapons? This cannot be seriously advanced as a realistic proposition to make Iran think twice about the course it has set.

President Obama, like many world leaders, has called an Iranian nuclear weapon “unacceptable.” He is right, and that should remain the US position—not just that it would be a bad outcome, not just that we would be angered by it, but that we refuse to accept it and, as the president also once said, will prevent it. If we are unwilling to act, or to act soon enough, it should be our position that Israeli action is justifiable.

Elliott Abrams served as deputy national security adviser from 2005 to 2009 and is currently a senior fellow for Middle Eastern studies at the Council on Foreign Relations.

May 16, 2012 | 14 Comments »

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  1. @ Nigel:

    Because your theory is too over the top to warrant all that tedious work on my part.

    If you said the moon was made of green cheese I wouldn’t spend too much effort trying to conclusively disprove that, either.

    There are many ways to screw Israel short of your doomsday scenario.

    As I pointed out above in my original post, all there has to be is American body bags that result from a chain of events that begin with Israeli military action, and the associated stock market crash. Obama and his various cohorts in the media will make plenty of hay with that, I’m sure. If Obama did not promptly re-open the S of H, he’d be toast in the election. He doesn’t want that. No, he has to be the “decisive, resolute leader”….and the Saudis and other Gulf Sunni Arabs – Obama’s most important constituency – need to get their oil to market in order to pay for all the palaces, concubines, etc.

    Israel is useful in many ways, due to her technology, etc. I have this outrageous conviction that the world doesn’t want to lose the useful stuff. The anti-Israel elements of Western elites just want to lose Israel, the country, in order to appease Islamist sensibilities. Jews are fine as long as they come up with goodies for the rest of the world, and beyond that, know their place as a subject people. Think the attitude of Helen ‘get the hell out of Palestine’ Thomas.

    It doesn’t have to happen all at once, and that is not Obama’s plan, in my estimation. The idea is to make life so miserable by degrees for Jews in Israel that they’ll pick up and go someplace else. They’ll tire of maintaining the Zionist enterprise in the face of increasing pressure, so the theory goes, and move to Miami.

    Obama would love to have them all. Look at how many he has working for him. Why, they even have Passover seders in the White House! And all the Jews here say ohhh and ahhhh how wonderful that is, AND THEY JUST DON’T GET IT. They say, “How can he be anti-Israel when he goes out of his way to show how much he likes us?”. The real message, of course, is “YOU DON’T NEED ISRAEL! YOU HAVE EVERYTHING YOU WANT OR NEED HERE!”

    My script doesn’t involve a global economic collapse that is blamed on the Jews.

    Mine goes like this:

    – Israel hits Iran, defying Obama. Part of the choreographed reaction to this is a third Intifada, among all the other fighting.

    – The UN, with the not so subtle support of Obama, is all in a rage over this. Remember that PA statehood bid? Funny how nobody is talking about that lately. So, that suddenly comes up for a vote. Those poor beleagured Palestinians, Israel is using the resulting conflagration to put them down once and for all, and cheat them out of the state they deserve in the West Bank! Those scoundrels!

    – SO, the UNSC vote on the PA state is brought out forthwith, and approved to include an affirmative US vote. Israel either complies immediately, or a Chapter 7 – the enforceable kind – UNSCR is passed against Israel, to include sanctions until they cry uncle and concede to the PA/UN demands. Israel is now Aparthied S. Africa, or the Rhodesia of the 70s, to be “pariahed” out of existence by economic and political strangulation, with a bit of terrorism thrown in for spice.

    That, folks, I believe is the plan. No need to collapse the world economy. Will it work?

    I doubt it. How many of Obama’s other schemes have worked up to now?

    Much depends on the efficacy vs. messiness of a prospective Israeli strike on Iran. If it is decisive, short, effective, and not a huge amount of collateral damage, and whatever Iran does in retaliation is contained without too much trouble, I think too many parties in the world community will be at least privately relieved that Israel did the heavy lifting for the rest of the world that it will be hard to get up a genuine head of steam against Israel in the world community. If it turns into a big mess, well…..

  2. I was issued my gas mask yesterday by the Homeland command, so I guess they can start the war.

    I figure they already have at least 4-5 nukes. Their problem seems to be fitting them on ICBM’S. They have been working on this project for over 20 years with the help of Pakistan, N.Korea Russian scientists and European and American industries. Hard to believe they haven’t already solved the Nuke bomb problem after all these years , all that money spent and all that help.

    This discussion I found interesting between CBN Stackleback, Frank Gaffny, General Tommy Boykins and Glenn Beck

    Major War Coming Within Months Involving Israel, Russia, USA – NEW UPDATE Begins at around the 4 min. mark

  3. @ Nigel:

    And I thought I had a high JPQ (Jewish Paranoia Quotient).

    There is NO WAY that the industrialized world is going to “let” Iran close the S of H. Just to screw Israel. Now, that is really over the top.

    C’mon, man. Things are scary nowadays, but the whole world is not Nazi Germany redux. I think you need a vacation.

  4. We like to ignore the fact that Iran is considered to be the key enabler of worldwide terrorism. At some point this must be stopped. There is a prize. Terror is a lot more expensive. The world leaders have made it a way of life. This is totally unacceptable.

  5. While it is obvious that Israel’s geographic proximity to an anti-Semitic Iran creates an existential danger to that country, no one grounded in reality should imagine that a nuclear Iran would be satisfied with anything less than the complete destruction of the West. Iran has long included the United States in its list of ‘Satans’ to be eliminated as part of the annihilation of Western civilization. The goal of radical Islam is the creation of a global caliphate with sharia law for all.

    Iran would like nothing more than a full, strictly Islamicist Middle East from which to attack Europe and subjugate the world’s democracies. This can be accomplished simply by the existence of a nuclear Iran and the possible threat of destruction. Iran with nuclear capability would serve to encourage certain other countries to do the same – without fear of consequences.

    The only possibility for avoiding such global crisis must be the elimination of the capability of the purveyors of large-scale murder. Optimally, a large international group should convey direct warnings to Iran that its destructive nuclear ambitions must immediately cease and that an attack on any country would unleash military retaliation to force that end.

    Despite words like ‘never permitting Iran to have a nuclear bomb’ uttered by Pres.Obama, Iran’s leaders have been playing for time while useless sanctions are increased, apparently to lull the West into believing that something is being done to prevent the worst. There are only 2 alternatives: one can continue to believe that there is a diplomatic solution or understand that since this has not worked and the clock has continued to tick toward the inevitable, it is time for the only language that aggressors understand – military force. Given the indecision and impotence of strong Western leadership it may be necessary for the tiny democracy, Israel, to act in its own behalf as well as that of the larger civilized world.

  6. Hmmm. So an Iran-Contra criminal wants the Jews to attack the Persians.
    While it’s certainly important to listen to the views of CFR psychopaths like Abrams, any Jewish patriot who takes them at face value is a fool.

    It is certainly possible that the Globalist’s puppets in the Israeli Establishment may end up attacking Iran. If that happens, considering the generally pro-Islamist agendas of the Globalist Criminal Syndicate, I can see something like the following script playing out:
    1) Iran will “show restraint”, perhaps limiting itself to blockading the Straight of Hormuz.
    2) The US will make angry noises and threats about this, but various excuses will be articulated to explain why the US doesn’t act on them – everything from “The US is scared of Iran” to “the US doesn’t want to start a war with Russia” to “Obama’s a closet Muslim” will be deployed to hoodwink various target audiences.
    3) The blockade will cause – or will be made to appear to cause – a major economic crisis in the West, leading to increasing hostility and resentment towards Israel by ordinary Westerners.
    4) Iranian patriots who generally aren’t anti-Israel and who despise the Islamic regime, will be effectively neutralised and will likely be supportive of any countermeasures the regime puts in place. The Iranian Islamists will be strengthened.
    5) It will be revealed to the World that indeed Iran was not attempting to acquire nuclear weaponry, and that all the Israeli attacks on Iran’s nuclear facilities have accomplished is to create a nuclear contamination crisis.
    6) The Global public will be outraged at this, and antisemites the world over will sing in unison “See!! We told you the Jews start wars!”
    7) With the West “weakened” economically, and with such a major mood swing in Global public opinion, the West will have an “excuse” for not intervening as Israel is destroyed.
    There are of course other ways it could play out, but this is the broad pattern I see unfolding if the Geopolitical theatrics move in the direction of an actual Israeli attack on Iran.

    Consider this: If you were a psychopathic Globalist strategist who wished to destroy the Judeo-Persian World – and, more importantly, its influence – once and for all in order to impose a Greco-Roman-Islamic one, could you think of a better way to do it?

  7. Even if Israel does away with Iranian nukes tomorrow, the possibility of Iran- backed nuclear blackmail (eg “Do what I want or there’s a shiny suitcase in a cargo container in Port x/y/z ready to go off”) will be visited upon us all …in the not so distant future.

  8. Interesting point, Jerry.

    My only problem with Abram’s analysis is that he too easily dismisses the chances of an Iranian attack on the U.S. Navy and other locally based U.S. forces.

    By our standards, yes, this would be “irrational”…but we are dealing with a demonstrably irrational regime.

    While he admits the possibility of such an attack, he does not acknowledge the Iranian version of ‘rationality’ behind such a move.

    The point of dragging in the U.S. in the wake of an Israeli strike is to produce U.S. body bags which – at least in terms of the news cycle of a hopelessly currupt media – are the direct “result” of Israeli action.

    This is exactly the moment the John Mearsheimers, Michael Scheuers, Pat Buchanans, RON PAULS, ad nauseum, are waiting for to jump all over Israel and their supporters here for provoking a “needless” war that kills at least some Americans.

    With the above in mind, I would not dismiss this possibility as remote at all. I consider it highly likely. One of their primary objectives is to drive a political wedge between the U.S. and Israel. This would be a good way to do it, particularly given the manner in which Obama has so frequently and publicly warned Israel against “unilateral action” (thus setting the stage…the Iranians just can’t buy this stuff…or can they?).

    Still, none of what I say here should be construed such that I am coming out against Israeli action. Far from it.

    While I disagree with Bland Oatmeal that the religious issue is illusory – I submit that it sure is not for most of SW Asia/NE Africa – I agree with him that if Israel needs to act, she should, while she still can, if she still can. Abrams is absolutely right that Israel cannot trust the U.S. to act. Least of all under Obama, but probably under any realistically prospective U.S. president. Would Romney have the guts to move on Iran? Maybe, but I doubt it.

  9. Contrast North Korea with Israel. North Korea has a few nuclear weapons and everyone is afraid to disarm them. Israel has hundreds of nuclear weapons that could destroy the entire Middle East along with the oil wells. That would cripple western economies that are already fragile. Yet no one is afraid of Israel and the only talk is of Israel’s inability to permanently disarm Iran by conventional means.
    Suppose Israel announced an ultimatum that the U.S. and NATO have 30 days to disarm Iran. After that Israel will act with ALL necessary force including nuclear weapons. Until and unless the west fears Israel more than it fears Iran Israel will be considered expendable.

  10. As is usual in the type of analysis that Abrams has engaged in, it is not exhaustive. A fourth possibility is that Iran already has available to it nuclear weapons in the single digits or radiation dispersal bombs that would make living in Israel impossible. The regime only awaits Israel’s direct attack to feel justified in using its small arsenal. Everyone who is important already understands that this is the case and so they are circumspect in pushing matters too far and too fast. The world community must stop Iran’s nuclear development, but not through triggering a confrontation.

    I state this possibility without knowing that this is the case, but all possibilities must be considered given that we have not been able to rule it out.

  11. There are at least five major players in the Middle East today:

    1. The United States & allies. The allies include Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Pakistan, Iraq, Afghanistan, most of NATO, and others.

    2. Russia and allies. The allies include China, India, Iran and others

    3. Israel and sometime allies. Allies include Greece, Cyprus, Romania, Ethiopia and others

    4. Neutrals opposed to Israel. This include most of the world, along with the Islamic Brotherhood, etc.

    5. Al Qaeda — They answer to nobody.

    Most people, it seems, see the conflict as being a cultural one, between Islam and the rest of the world. I don’t see it that way. I look at where the power is: It’s mainly in the US and its minions; and its major impediment to world domination is the “opposition” of BRICS, with “I” standing for both India and Iran. Eurasia is allied with East Asia against Oceania. The religious stuff is simply the latest variant of “Imanuel Goldstein”. Goldstein can be either Jewish or Moslem, or both, depending on the audience.

    Israel has grounds to attack anyone it wants, anytime it wants. With the whole world against it, a day doesn’t go by in which some statement or incident comes up that could be a casus belli. Israel SHOULD attack, when it’s in its best interests; and I think that time may be upon us.

  12. Well summarised unfortunately correctly. Israel will stand alone to save the Jewish people from the coming holocaust