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.”
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.”
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.
Israeli civilians were killed and more than 200 wounded by Scuds fired from
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
“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
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?”