Among the supporters of a strike on Iran the only two things that can reliably be said are that none believe in Murphy’s Law or the law of unintended consequences.
The possible outlines of an Israeli attack have become a source of debate in Washington, where some analysts question whether Israel even has the military capacity to carry it off. One fear is that the United States would be sucked into finishing the job — a task that even with America’s far larger arsenal of aircraft and munitions could still take many weeks, defense analysts said. Another fear is of Iranian retaliation.
“I don’t think you’ll find anyone who’ll say, ‘Here’s how it’s going to be done — handful of planes, over an evening, in and out,’ ” said Andrew R. Hoehn, a former Pentagon official who is now director of the Rand Corporation’s Project Air Force, which does extensive research for the United States Air Force.
Enter, Edward Luttwak, champion of the “small, overnight strike.” He argues this is the only option worth considering and were it not for alarmists in the Pentagon, this is the option Obama could employ. Obama and Bush have been hamstrung by planners who only offer an air war rather than an air strike.
[T]his war planning denied to the president and American strategy the option of interrupting Iran’s nuclear efforts by a stealthy overnight attack against the handful of buildings that contain the least replaceable components of Iran’s uranium hexafluoride and centrifuge enrichment cycle — and which would rely on electronic countermeasures to protect aircraft instead of the massive bombardment of Iran’s air defenses.
That option was flatly ruled out as science fiction, while the claim that Iran’s rulers might be too embarrassed to react at all — they keep telling their people that Iran’s enemies are terrified by its immense might — was dismissed as political fiction.
Yet this kind of attack was carried out in September 2007, when the Israeli air force invisibly and inaudibly attacked the nuclear reactor that Syria’s Assad regime had imported from North Korea, wholly destroying it with no known casualties. To be sure, an equivalent attack on Iran’s critical nuclear nodes would have to be several times larger. But it could still be inaudible and invisible, start and end in one night, and kill very few on the ground.
The resulting humiliation of the regime might be worthwhile in itself — the real fantasy is a blindly nationalist reaction from a thoroughly disenchanted population. In fact, given the probability that an attack could only delay Iran’s nuclear efforts by several years, the only one worth considering at all is the small, overnight strike.
What’s curious about Luttwak’s argument is that he hangs short of advocating that Israel should overcome America’s trepidation. When he says that the overnight strike he envisions would need to be several times larger than Israel’s 2007 strike on Syria, he declines to specify whether this puts such an operation inside or outside Israel’s capacity. The implication seems to be that what Israel might choose to do it will only be forced to do because the U.S. failed to take on the responsibility.
Perhaps the most revealing element in Luttwak’s argument is his throwaway remark towards the end: that an attack on Iran’s key nuclear installations might be worth conducting if for no other reason than to humiliate the regime by showing that such an attack could not be prevented. Luttwak might not be an Israeli, but he thinks like an Israeli. This has less to do with protecting Israel from an existential threat and much more to do with asserting dominance.