By Riad Kahwaji and Sabahat Khan
During his latest visit to the United States, the Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu succeeded in getting a firm public commitment from Washington to pursue the military option against Iran if the latter refused to quit its nuclear program. Netanyahu even issued his latest warning that the time to stop the Iranian nuclear program is running out, and that Israel is prepared to take unilateral military action against Iran over the issue. The message was directed as much at the Obama administration as it was at the Iranian regime: Israeli tolerance for a nuclear-armed Iran is much lower than not only the potential costs of Iran as a nuclear-armed state, but also lower than the potential costs of a failed military action against the largest state in the Gulf region. Netanyahu and other Israeli and American officials have frequently spoken about the military option against Iran. However, in all their talk and assessments, advocates of the pro-military action have failed to provide an exit strategy to an action that could possibly lead to a full-scale regional war.
Differences between U.S. President Barak Obama and Netenyahu remain profound – and Iran remains a highly divisive issue between friends and foes alike. For many, while military options must remain on the table, how to apply such options against Iran remains a troublesome and difficult question. Most observers agree that while any full-fledged invasion of Iran is out of the question, precision airstrikes offer a course of action. Key questions here are whether such strikes would target a combination of the program and the regime’s military assets (air defenses, command and control and naval power), or just the program, if this was possible – and how the Iranian reaction would likely differ between the two possibilities. If successful, precision airstrikes will throw back the Iranian nuclear program some years, possibly weaken the regime, and possibly lead Iran to giving up its suspected nuclear weapons efforts – but Iran would be sure to retaliate using its large arsenal of ballistic and cruise missiles as well as artillery rockets and naval assets. If unsuccessful, the airstrikes will still unleash Iranian retaliation across the region, likely speed up the military dimension of its nuclear program, and set the scene for a much more serious and prolonged confrontation.
For Israel, drawing the United States openly into a military confrontation with Iran even if it were the initiator would relieve pressure on its own forces and population, as Iran would be certain to turn its primary attention to the more important but also more exposed American adversary. Israeli leaders know it would be impossible for the United States to not enter a confrontation Israel may choose to initiate by itself against lran – and any reluctance from Washington would need to be short-lived. This is where U.S. diplomatic influence over Israel will be tested: Can Washington successfully hold back an Israeli attack until everyone – not just Israel – becomes convinced it is the last resort? The message coming from Israel however is: It will be the “master of its own destiny” and that consensus is not a higher priority for its leaders than speed in relation to the Iranian threat. The Israeli government line rests on the belief that military airstrikes will resolve the Iranian nuclear issue – this may well prove false, but if and when it were to act, Israel could provoke a prolonged regional clash that is partly premature and which leads to possible “nuclear disasters” in Iran as well as possibly within Israel itself.
Therefore, whether Israel leads the U.S. into a war with Iran by initiating the first assault or by pushing the U.S. into firing the first shot in a war with Iran, it will be primarily up to Washington to end the war one way or another since it would be the strongest power involved. Hardly any of those who advocate and support a military action – Israelis and Americans – has given a clear exit strategy to a war with Iran. At the same time, none of them are giving a firm legal ground for attacking Iran. The excuse given so far is that since Iranian leaders refused to implement United Nations Security Council resolutions calling for halting Iranian uranium enrichment activities, and rejected the holocaust and openly threatened to wipe Israel off the map, and is possibly building a nuclear bomb, then a pre-emptive military action must be taken against Iran. From the perspective of many international law experts, this argument is very weak.
The former Israeli Mossad chief Meri Dagan came on record to say that talk of an Israeli air campaign against Iranian nuclear sites was the “stupidest thing” he had ever heard. For one, any strike on Iranian nuclear sites would cause a nuclear disaster and significant humanitarian implications – leaving aside for the moment the political impact on the region once Iran responds. From a perspective of strategy, Israel by itself could well find itself overwhelmed against a sustained Iranian retaliation – raising the specter of Israel mobilizing its nuclear arsenal against Iran in line with its policy of using its nuclear weapons as a “last resort.” Dangerously, as a part of its retaliation, Iran could also attempt to target the Israeli nuclear program and its key nuclear facilities in Dimona. The possibility of Iranian missiles hitting Dimona is good despite the anti-ballistic missiles defense system Israel has deployed in the country. The dangers, then, of a series of nuclear disasters in the Middle East are higher than ever before. Furthermore, what could Washington do if Iran proved more resilient in a war than anticipated and refused to stop firing salvos of ballistic and cruise missiles at targets for the U.S. and its allies. Seeking a cease-fire with Iran would turn Tehran into a regional hero for surviving a major war with America and its allies. So the only acceptable option for Washington and its allies would be a clear surrender by Tehran, which could only be achieved through a full-scale invasion of Iran or through use of nuclear weapons against it calling up a Hiroshima scenario. This will have a profound impact on the entire Gulf region and international security.
It would have been impossible for Israeli intelligence to rule out a nuclear incident as a result of the Stuxnet virus when it was successfully used to interrupt Iran’s uranium enrichment activities for a few months, so key Israeli decision-makers may have already made clear their aversion to the Iranian nuclear program in a way that marks it out to the level of risks other key stakeholders are currently prepared to tolerate – political, strategic and humanitarian – as they revive efforts to reach a negotiated settlement with Iran over its nuclear activities. Former U.S. Assistant Secretary of State PJ Crowley has said, “If President Obama sticks to his current position… Prime Minister Netanyahu might decide to take a shot at Iran sooner.” Election year may make it politically suicidal for President Obama to change his position now, and Israeli leaders will not only be aware of that but may sense an opportunity to get things moving forward in the way they like by forcing the hand of its American ally into action. The U.S. Secretary of Defense Panetta last month shared concerns an Israeli attack on Iran may now only be months away. Not taking seriously the threat of Israeli seriousness to preemptively hit Iran just because of the stakes it carries for other actors would be unwise in the current climate. Still, history has taught us over and over again that poor judgment, false threat perceptions and miscalculations often lead to disastrous wars and other undesired outcomes – the invasion of Iraq is just one recent example.
Riad Kahwaji, CEO, INEGMA and Sabahat Khan, Senior Analyst, INEGMA