Israel must maintain a credible threat of military action against Iran’s nuclear program, analysts said Wednesday, and must follow through on that threat if all other options fail.

“There is a real danger in making a threat if you’re not prepared to follow through on it.

The threat has to be credible,” a former highranking Israeli official said in a closed seminar at the Institute for National Security Studies (INSS).

“Israel is independent – it will do what it has to do,” he said. “I would remind you that the Israelis have surprised the world in the past, and we could do the same again.”

The ex-official said time remains to explore non-military options against Tehran, including negotiations with Iran’s government, covert action and most importantly, levying harder-hitting sanctions on the Islamic Republic’s ailing economy. Iran has been subject to four rounds of UN Security Council sanctions, and last month the European Union agreed to an oil embargo and a freeze on assets in the Iranian central bank.

“Crippling sanctions can be effective,” he said. “Now the Iranians are paying attention – during the first four rounds of sanctions, they weren’t.”

In October the US revealed it had foiled a suspected Iranian plot to assassinate the Saudi ambassador in Washington. Last week Tehran was implicated in failed attacks on Israeli diplomats in Georgia, India and Thailand, and on Tuesday authorities in Azerbaijan uncovered the second foiled plot against Israeli officials there within a month.

INSS researchers said Iran’s increasingly erratic – and, they said, amateurish – behavior is evidence of a regime growing desperate under ever-tightening international pressure.

The former official said he believes Iran intends to reach “breakout capacity” whereby it would develop all the capabilities to build an atomic weapon but would remain at the nuclear threshold until a time of its choosing. “Iran will likely be at that threshold for years, not months,” he said.

A policy of containing or deterring a nuclear Iran, he said, is all but impossible: “Are we able to contain a non-nuclear Iran? Hardly. How then will we ever contain or deter a nuclear one?” Critics of an Israeli strike say a military operation would destabilize the Middle East, but the official said that conclusion is predicated on the wrong variables. “The proper comparison is not between the regional stability we have today and what we would have after a military strike,” he said. “The comparison should be between today and the day after Iran gets the bomb.”

The Iranians’ ability to respond to an Israeli strike, he said, falls far short of their leaders’ bluster to eliminate the Jewish state. He acknowledged that while Iran's nuclear program could not be eliminated in a single strike – as Israel did with those of Iraq and Syria in 1982 and 2008 respectively – a surgical strike could deliver a powerful message of what might be in store should Tehran stay its current course.

“We will not see the doomsday prophecies Iran has warned of,” he said. “That would be against Iran's interest, and beyond its capabilities. Iran is very vulnerable.”

“If Iran is struck surgically, it will react – no doubt,” he added. “But that reaction will be calculated and in proportion to its capabilities. Iran will not set the Middle East on fire.”

INSS researchers gave contrasting predictions about the scope of an Iranian counterstrike.

The ex-official predicted a response tantamount to the sum total of three attacks on Israel and its interests in the past two decades: Saddam Hussein’s 1991 Scud missile attacks during the Gulf War, the 1992 and 1994 bombings of Israeli targets in Argentina and Hezbollah’s rocket barrage during the 2006 Second Lebanon War.

Two Israeli civilians were killed and more than 200 wounded by Scuds fired from Iraq.

More than 100 people were killed and hundreds were injured in the bombings of the Israeli Embassy and a Jewish center in Buenos Aires, which were later attributed to Hezbollah and Iran. In the 2006 war with Hezbollah, 44 Israeli civilians were killed and more than 100 seriously or moderately wounded. Israel suffered an estimated $3.5 billion in total damages, and had to evacuate more than 350,000 people living in the country’s North to bomb shelters or locations farther south.

The former official said Hezbollah would likely respond to a strike on its patron Iran with another rocket assault, and this time the casualties and damage would be far greater than in 2006. “This time it will also launch missiles on Tel Aviv,” he said. “Is 40 missiles on Tel Aviv nice? No – but it’s better than a nuclear Iran.”

Another INSS researcher disagreed, predicting Hezbollah may stage a limited response or remain on the sidelines altogether.

“Hezbollah is not interested in a confrontation now,” the researcher said, pointing to recent remarks by its leader Hassan Nasrallah that the group would decide for itself – and not under Tehran’s direction – whether to respond and with what method.

The Iranians, the analyst said, are working to expand their ballistic missile range as widely as possible – and it is crucial for the international community to realize a nuclear Iran is not an Israeli problem but a global one.

Last month The New York Times quoted former CIA director Michael Hayden as warning that an effective strike on Iran is “beyond the capacity” of Israel, while this weekend the paper quoted an unnamed US defense official as conceding that the Pentagon does not have “perfect visibility” regarding Israel’s military capacities.

On Wednesday the Israeli ex-official dismissed the idea that Israel is incapable of waging an effective strike by posing a question of his own: “In that case, why is everyone so worried?”

Click here for full Jpost coverage of the Iranian threat


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