By Daniel Wagner and Michael Doyle
While official rhetoric from Washington and Tel Aviv remains subdued, the internet remains rife with chatter contemplating an Israeli strike against Iran’s nuclear facilities. Whether Israel should conduct a strike, and whether the US and other western countries should assist in such an attack, remain hotly debated questions, and are unlikely to be resolved unless an attack actually occurs. However, it is worth considering some of the likely consequences of an Israeli strike on Iran, even if the outcome is by no means well defined or certain, as the repercussions are likely to be severe and far reaching.
Very Limited Retaliation
If Israel’s 1981 strike against the Osirak nuclear reactor in Iraq and its 2007 strike against the al-Kibar reactor in Syria are any guide, Iran’s retaliation could well be limited, despite its bluster. Facing a larger threat from Iran at the time, Saddam Hussein ultimately chose not to retaliate – nor did Syria retaliate. Iran’s political leaders have promised swift reprisal to any attack against the country’s nuclear facilities, but this would involve flying missiles over Saudi Arabia and Jordan – who would undoubtedly support such an attack on Iran. They would presumably not wish to risk an errant missile hitting their own territory, and could shoot the missiles down before they ever get to Israel for fear of landing on their territory.
Full Retaliation and Regional War
Given the current fissures among the country’s conservatives, Iran’s leaders may not wish to risk losing face by backing down on their previous threats to retaliate. If so, Iran may conduct a full retaliation against Israel and its perceived allies. Under this scenario, Iran would attempt to strike Israel and US bases in the Arabian Gulf, Turkey, and Afghanistan with long-range missiles. Iran has hundreds of these missiles, and some are capable of reaching southeastern Europe. Iran could also strike at the West through its proxies, encouraging Hezbollah to attack targets in northern Israel and supporting Afghan insurgents targeting NATO troops in Afghanistan. It could also conduct terrorist attacks against Western targets in the Gulf, and has influence over Shia extremists throughout the region. They could certainly attempt to create havoc in Iraq by assassinating leaders believed to be anti-Iranian and targeting western Embassies, aid workers, and diplomats. The Iranians would also presumably attempt to block the Strait of Hormuz, thereby threatening nearly 20 percent of the world’s oil supply, and precipitating yet another economic crisis. Such action by Iran could precipitate a full-blown regional conflict.
However, full retaliation carries a variety of costs and risks to Iran. For example, attempting to block oil shipments from the Strait of Hormuz would infuriate the international community, further isolating Iran. It would also prevent Iran from exporting its own oil, adding further pressure to its struggling economy. Although Iran could use mines, submarines, and anti-ship missiles to intercept sea traffic for a period, it could not possibly hope to hold the Strait captive indefinitely. While it would not be easy, the combined navies of the region are quite capable of neutralizing Iran’s capacity to block the Strait.
Moreover, such an action would open the door for a massive retaliation by the US, Israel, the Gulf states, and perhaps even Turkey. This awkward coalition would almost certainly target the powerful Iranian Revolutionary Guard. Iran knows such a massive counterstrike remains a distinct possibility and threatens the existence of the regime. There are Western fleets and bases in Turkey, the Gulf states, Afghanistan, and the waters of the Arabian Gulf and Arabian Sea. Iran is literally surrounded, and it knows it.
A more likely scenario is that Iran will retaliate enough to save face, but not enough to trigger a regional war. In this scenario, Iran would forego a massive regional missile barrage. Instead, it would choose to launch a modest volley of conventional missiles towards Israel. It would also leverage its relationship with regional Shia extremist organizations and terrorist groups in order stir up trouble in Iraq and Lebanon, and conduct terrorist attacks against western military personnel and installations in the Middle East and Afghanistan. However, Iran would act very carefully to ensure that the conflict does not incite other powers – particularly the US or Gulf states – to join the conflict.
Impact on Iran
Let us examine how an Israeli attack might impact Iran internally. First, such an attack would probably strengthen and galvanize a regime that is currently fractured and unpopular. It would also dash any hopes that Iran’s Green Revolutionaries have of internal political reform in the near future. Secondly, an attack would also trigger an Iranian arms build-up, which would unfortunately not necessarily be confined to conventional weapons. In the wake of an attack against its nuclear facilities, Iran could conclude that having a nuclear weapon is now more important than ever. It would in all likelihood redouble its effort, rather than abandoning the program. Regardless of Iran’s external response, internally, Iran’s regime will be strengthened, with its military expanded and its determination to develop nuclear weapons intensified. This supposes, of course, that Iran is not crushed by external sanctions or foreign military action.
Iran has multiple nuclear installations spread across the country, many of them fortified and underground. GlobalSecurity.org lists 26 separate Iranian nuclear facilities. Regardless of how effectively any Israeli strike is executed, Iran would eventually be able to rebuild its program. Therefore, an Israeli strike will only delay an Iranian bomb, not ultimately prevent it from being developed. The Israelis of course know this, but their near-term objective is to delay – by as long as possible – further development of the Iranian nuclear program. If Israel can provoke Iran into starting a regional war, coupled with crushing international sanctions, there is hope of crippling the Iranian state to the point where it no longer poses a near- or medium-term military threat to Israel.
Given our presumption that Israel does not have the capability to delay the Iranian program for more than a few of years, if Iran chose to respond with very limited retaliation, Israel could hit Iran’s nuclear facilities again in a few years without fear of international retribution. However, Israel does not want an Iran that conducts controlled retaliation, as it would have to deal with a small-scale war every couple of years, and a Hezbollah made more robust by increased Iranian funding. In such a scenario, Israel may prefer a regional war to controlled retaliation. That would eliminate the Iranian threat for the foreseeable future and give Israel the cover to aggressively target Hezbollah while other nations would do most of the fighting.
However, Iran could anticipate that it is being lured into a trap, or fear that controlled retaliation could spiral out of control. If Israel’s strike is not particularly effective and can be downplayed internally, Iran might choose not to retaliate, or to conduct very limited retaliation through proxy groups. Even if this results in a loss of face, Iran may see it as superior to risking a regional war. Moreover, Iran may be able to use its newfound victim status to attempt to wiggle out of international sanctions, though this seems less likely, as China and Russia are more likely to fall into line supporting future sanctions if the strike is ultimately successful in its core mission, and the international community resoundingly supports the Israeli action. Publicly, the region’s state may ‘officially’ oppose an Israeli strike, but privately, they are all likely to applaud it.
In short, it is reasonable to believe that Iran will conduct only controlled retaliation if it is struck by Israel, and that Israel would prefer either very limited retaliation or a regional war, seeing controlled retaliation as the worst possible outcome. Given that Israel cannot afford to get into smaller-scale conflicts with frequency – especially if Iran continues to upgrade its military capability – it may try to provoke Iran into a massive regional retaliatory strike.
The final outcome will ultimately depend on the effectiveness of any Israeli strike, the valuations Israel and Iran place on Iran’s retaliatory options, the preferences and influence of the US and the Gulf states, and, critically, on the evaluations all these actors have made of each other. We are of the view that it is likelier that Israel will attack Iran than not, particularly given that the US has quietly delivered to Israel this year its long sought ‘bunker buster’ bombs – a precursor to any attack. Given the increasingly negative developments of the Arab Spring in recent months, and that Israel faces the very real prospect of being almost completely surrounded by states that seek its destruction, Israel’s leadership may feel they have little to lose, and a lot to gain, by proceeding with an attack. Implications for the Gulf are uncertain, but a doomsday scenario seems unlikely.
Daniel Wagner is a Non-Resident Scholar with INEGMA. He is CEO of Country Risk Solutions(CRS), a cross-border risk management consulting firm based in Connecticut (USA), and author of the forthcoming book Managing Country Risk (March 2012). Michael Doyle is a research analyst with CRS.
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