When an attack on Iran’s nuclear program is debated in public, the main focus is
on the Iranian response.
Quite obviously, the day or week following an
attack would be more difficult than the day or week following any hypothetical
day on which such an attack was not made, but such a comparison is demagogic.
The more correct comparison would be between the long-term effects of the two
scenarios. In my judgment, even in the short term Israel will suffer greater
harm if it does not attack the Iranian military nuclear program than if it
The questions addressed here are: How will Israel’s armed,
non-nuclear confrontations change if Iran becomes a nuclear power; what
strategic trends will be initiated as a result of Iran becoming a nuclear power;
and whether a confrontation is liable to be created in which nuclear weapons
will be used.
Iran becoming a nuclear power will change the face of
Israel’s conventional confrontations. Iran’s position as a regional power will
be immensely strengthened, and its ability to influence the policies of and
deployment of force by its cronies will increase.
A nuclear Iran will
strengthen its partners, and grant them far greater freedom of action. For
example, they will be subject to many fewer restraints in terms of causing
extensive damage to the Israeli home front. At the same time, Israel’s freedom
to act will be reduced. It will be required to think “more than twice” before
deploying force for decisive ends, such as defeating Syria and bringing down the
regime in Damascus, or defeating Hezbollah and causing it significant damage
deep inside Lebanon.
Israel’s freedom of action will also be reduced with
regard to more moderate responses to continued terrorist attacks in Israel. A
situation is liable to arise in which Israel is forced to exercise restraint for
longer periods of time before retaliating against terrorist attacks, and
consequently the population will suffer over an extended period of
In addition, Iran becoming a nuclear power will portray the US and
Israel as presenting an empty strategic threat. This will have happened despite
the unambiguous opposition of the US and Israel, and despite the fact that they
have done everything that they have dared (but not everything that they could
have done) against the aforesaid process. On the other hand, Iran will be seen
as possessing the daring and the decisiveness to overcome the will of the
Americans and the Israelis.
This fact, together with the way in which
Iran overcame the US in the struggle for hegemony in Iraq, Israeli military
failure in 2006, and other Iranian achievements, have created a strategic
erosion that has played into Iran’s hands. The US is liable to significantly
reduce its involvement in the Middle East, distance itself from the risks
(including the nuclear ones) and leave Israel to fend for itself.
a scenario, further peace agreements will not materialize, existing ones will be
threatened and the military daring of Iran and its allies will
increase. American-Israeli deterrence will continue to be eroded, and the
probability of war or a sequence of wars will increase.
IRAN BECOMING a
nuclear power is liable to lead to nuclear crises in a variety of ways. First,
the possibility of Iran employing nuclear weapons in certain scenarios cannot be
ruled out. Primarily, if it were to feel threatened (including by the risk of
the fall of the regime as a result of internal Iranian processes), or if it were
to initiate crises in nuclear brinkmanship.
Iran is liable to assume that
it can conduct limited nuclear crises, including the employment of small nuclear
weapons or the demonstration of nuclear weapons. For example, in fostering their
interests, Iran could be emboldened to launch a “small” nuclear missile against
the Negev as a strategic signal.
Iran would declare that if there was no
nuclear response it would not continue the attack. It would assume that after a
single missile had been fired, the Americans and the Israelis would “think
again” before retaliating and starting an all-out nuclear war. Public
opinion in the West would apply pressure to avoid retaliation. The Iranians
might assume that there would be no real response to such a signal. It can be
assumed that if this really were to happen, the West’s deterrent capacity would
sustain a fatal injury.
Second, Iran’s becoming a nuclear power is liable
to lead to a regional nuclear arms race, creating a multilateral nuclear system
of states with limited nuclear capability. Such a system will not in the least
resemble the two-power system of the Cold War, and the chances of these nuclear
weapons being used are far higher.
Third, Iran’s becoming a nuclear power
is liable to cause Iran and its allies to assess that they have greater freedom
of action to employ chemical weapons or a “dirty bomb,” and such an event may
deteriorate into the use of nuclear weapons. Iran could also equip terrorist
organizations with “small” nuclear devices and employ them in its wars with the
West, without Iran being identified as the aggressor. They will estimate that as
a result, the chances of a nuclear response will be reduced.
against the Iranian nuclear facilities would first and foremost be a testimony
to Israeli strategic resolve – in the face of the risk of military response and
of the political significance of such attack. Such resolve would reinforce the
image of Israeli might, and even if the US initially object to the attack, by
the following day, American calculations will have changed and they will
virtually have no alternative but to participate.
together with the later American participation, will strengthen the forces of
moderation in the Middle East, and weaken Iran and its allies. Allies such as
Hezbollah will hesitate to join the Iranian response, since in the light of
Israel’s strategic determination and the clear readiness on the part of Israel
to employ force, it will not be easy for Hezbollah to decide to join in the
The major dilemma related to such an attack arises from the question
of whether to allow the US more time to attempt to achieve the goal in its own
way. There are two considerations in support of an immediate attack:
First, until now, American policy has not proven itself and Iran has not changed
its policy. In general, the US has failed most of the tests that it has
faced in recent years, from Iraq through Syria to Lebanon.
Second, it is
not clear whether the Obama administration is acting to prevent Iran’s becoming
a nuclear power or to prevent an Israeli attack. The declarations (and mainly
the change in their drift), the sanctions and the other steps appear to be more
of an attempt to buy time from Israel than to prevent Iran becoming a nuclear
The major fear is that Obama’s entire purpose is to prevent an
Israeli attack before the US elections in November, and then attempt to contain
– if not prevent – Iran from becoming a nuclear power. However, time is not on
Israel’s side. Waiting until November will permit Iran to enter the “region of
By then, Iran will have made considerable progress in the
development of its program. In general, an attack before the elections in the US
is preferable to one made after the elections. (There is a slight possibility
that the American declarations are intended to mislead, in preparation for an
attack in the near future, in which case the discussion will be totally
If the American statements intend to mislead, then it would be
better to avoid public discussion. However, when weighing the low probability of
the Obama administration succeeding in irreversibly changing Iranian policy, and
the possibility that its sole aim is to placate Israel until November and then
change its declarations once again, it seems preferable to attack immediately.
This, because the damage to Israel, in the short and long term, in the absence
of an immediate attack, will be unsustainable.
I do not envy Prime
Minister Netanyahu, or even Defense Minister Ehud Barak and Strategic Affairs
Minister Moshe Ya’alon who are to decide, consider, and give advice on this
fateful matter. However, I suggest that we put our trust in our leaders to make
the right decisions.
The writer, a retired IDF general, is the ex-president of Israel’s Industry Association.