Is a preemptive strike on Iran the answer?

Israel has plenty of options to employ against Iran’s nuclear program, but a military strike would enhance, not reduce, the level of danger to the country.

Iranian missile with flag 300 R (photo credit: REUTERS/Morteza Nikoubazl)
Iranian missile with flag 300 R
(photo credit: REUTERS/Morteza Nikoubazl)
Israel has plenty of options to employ against Iran’s nuclear program, but a military strike would enhance, not reduce, the level of danger to the country.
Recent declarations by President Shimon Peres and Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu that Iran’s nuclear ambitions will be stopped by “whatever means necessary” suggest that strikes on Iran’s nuclear facilities are on the horizon. A preemptive military campaign to downgrade Iran’s nuclear program would be expedient. It would serve a blow to Iran’s nuclear goals. It would also be unwise.
To date, sanctions have failed to diminish Iran’s nuclear ambitions and negotiations have failed to lay bare Iranian intent. Netanyahu is correct in his assertion that a nation’s security posture cannot rest on defense alone. But so, too, can a nation take action in the name of security and in the process make itself less secure and more vulnerable to violence.
Should Israel choose to act on her leaders’ intensifying rhetoric, here are few suggestions that could help ensure success:
1. Publicly, Israel should acknowledge interest in and support for engagement with the Iranian regime and call for dialogue, stability and transparency. Privately, Israel should act with covert force to frustrate and set back Iran’s nuclear program. This could involve the co-opting of scientists involved in developing critical aspects of Iran’s nuclear capabilities. It should involve increased espionage, including the recruitment of assets on the ground and the placement of individuals in Iran with a spectrum of covers. It must involve a high-tech cyber campaign to temper Iranian efforts to expand existing operational capabilities.
Tactical military strikes should be abandoned in support of a covert campaign to diminish, downgrade, frustrate, set back, and increase the cost of Iran’s nuclear pursuits. The preference for multilateral action on the world stage notwithstanding, Israel should act alone and in the shadows. It’s unlikely that such actions would be opposed by the US, Europe, or even regional actors, all of whom perceive a nuclear armed Iran to be a threat to regional stability.
2. Short of an interest in maintaining an ongoing and indefinite campaign to deter and contain Iran’s nuclear aggression, Israel should expand its support of opposition movements. With civil and political repression at an all-time high in Iran, indigenous and exiled dissident organizations, like the ones that fueled the Arab Spring, represent an alternative to the existing theocratic order in Teheran. Dissident movements that show political potential should be embraced and governments in exile should be given support to expand their operations. MEK, the expatriate organization long reviled by the current regime in Iran, is a good place to start. Growing US and European recognition of that organization as a secular, political alternative to Iranian Mullahs should be supported by Israeli financial and logistical support.
3. The recent failure of the UN and NATO to take decisive measures to curtail Iran’s pursuit of nuclear technology should not be perceived as an unwillingness of international bodies, including the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), to provide oversight of the peaceful application of this technology and the safeguarding of nuclear materials.
Recent reports by the IAEA, the world’s nuclear watchdog agency, highlight a growing concern that Iran’s nuclear program is designed to build atomic weaponry and not provide for a source of energy.
Israel should bring a regional perspective to this discussion, further highlight security concerns, and demand that the IAEA live up to its mission and do more than simply issue reports while threats gather and the proliferation of nuclear technology ensues.
If Israel chooses a unilateral military solution, she should prepare for worldwide condemnation and potential retaliation that will fall squarely on its own shoulders. US and European leaders will have no choice but to publicly rebuke Israel for its actions, regional hostility and calls for retribution will intensify, and the international reaction will be fierce. A diplomatic standoff will ensue, sympathy for Iran as a target of Israeli aggression will increase, and Teheran will buy time with which to continue its development of a nuclear arsenal – one that will tip the balance of power in the Middle East.
US President Barack Obama clearly wants no part of such a scenario and, sensing the possibility that this situation could unfold, even went so far as to dispatch Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta to Israel last month. The message? The US wants no part of an additional conflict in the Middle East.
Netanyahu’s sober warnings and escalating rhetoric about the Iran threat may soon require Israeli action. But it is the nature of the action that will determine its success.
A consistent, deliberate, and restrained Israeli show of covert force aimed at disrupting and frustrating Iranian goals will avoid military conflagration and allow the US to look away. The American body politic, consumed with a domestic fiscal crisis, exhausted by the quagmire in Afghanistan, and distracted by an upcoming election, won’t be stirred to demand that its leaders oppose Israeli efforts. Opposition from the regular cast of characters aside, most of the world is unlikely to register significant resistance either. Such a course will allow Israel to spare the empty rhetoric, neutralize an enemy and safeguard its future.
Recent reports indicate that Netanyahu has the internal support necessary for military strikes.
Defense Minister Ehud Barak and Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman are apparently on board and the IDF is, by some accounts, positioning itself for military engagement. Is this indicative of an inclination toward a military solution or simply an offensive posture designed to deter? We’re likely to find out in the coming weeks. But, as Shimon Peres indicated in an interview last week, “There is a long menu as to what can be done.”
How and what to choose from that menu is the difficult part. Sometimes the most sensible answer is not the most obvious one.
The writer is the director of the Negotiation and Conflict Management Program in the School of Public and International Affairs at the University of Baltimore.