Israel is on its own vis-à-vis Iran

For 60 years, America has rejected military action against nuclear programs. Iran won’t be the exception.

Us army chief Dempsey meets Netanyahu (photo credit: GPO)
Us army chief Dempsey meets Netanyahu
(photo credit: GPO)
If I could ask every cabinet minister to read one thing now that the holidays are over and they are getting back to business, it wouldn’t be a great classic or a scholarly tome. It would be an 800-word journal article by a PhD student arguing that regardless of who wins November’s US presidential election, there’s no chance America will ever take military action against Iran’s nuclear program.
Other pundits have advanced this claim before, often persuasively. But what makes Gabriel Scheinmann’s piece in The National Interest unique is that he doesn’t ground it in either domestic or foreign-policy considerations, which could theoretically change. Rather, he points to a consistent, half-century-old policy tradition in which successive US governments, both Democratic and Republican, have repeatedly considered preemptive military action against nuclear programs, and always decided against it – from the Soviet Union in the 1950s through China in the 1960s all the way to Syria in 2007.
Indeed, as another article published recently by the Washington Institute reveals, US governments have sometimes gone to extraordinary lengths to avoid having to take action: In the 1980s, for instance, Washington knew Pakistan “was producing all the parts for a nuclear weapon—indeed, for several such weapons—and almost entirely assembling them. Yet because the last screw had not been tightened in Pakistan’s case, the US government certified to Congress each year that Pakistan did not have a nuclear weapon.”
Scheinmann doesn’t detail why successive governments rejected military action, but the reasons are fairly obvious: Most of the same arguments – from reluctance to be seen as the aggressor through belief in the feasibility of containment to fear of sparking a war – are made today by opponents of military action against Iran. But there’s another, even more important reason that often goes unspoken: America is a superpower. Hence even another nuclear superpower like the USSR doesn’t necessarily pose an existential threat to it. And a mere regional power like Iran certainly doesn’t.
This doesn’t mean a nuclear-armed Iran couldn’t cause America plenty of pain; it could. But pain isn’t an existential threat. The USSR also caused America plenty of pain, including hundreds of thousands of soldiers killed or wounded in several conventional wars against Soviet-backed forces. Yet overall, America still flourished during that half-century of conflict.
For a tiny country like Israel, in contrast, a nuclear Iran is an existential threat. This isn’t merely because a single nuclear bomb could wipe out much of the country; it’s also because Israel is so badly outnumbered by hostile neighbors’ conventional forces. Indeed, as former Israeli ambassador Dore Gold noted last month, tape recordings seized by US forces during the Iraq War show that this was a major impetus behind Saddam Hussein’s desire for nuclear weapons: On several occasions, he told senior aides that once Israel’s putative nukes had been neutralized by the threat of mutual assured destruction, Iraq and its allies would be able to destroy the Zionist entity in a conventional war.
Why does all this matter? Because one major reason why so many Israeli ministers and defense officials oppose an Israeli attack on Iran is their hope that eventually, once it’s clear time is running out, Washington will make good on its oft-repeated pledge to keep Iran from acquiring nukes by launching military action of its own.
There’s virtually no disagreement among Israel’s leadership that if the only choices are Israeli military action or a nuclear Iran, the former is preferable. But there’s also virtually no disagreement that American military action is preferable to either. America’s vastly more powerful military can do much more damage to Iran’s nuclear facilities than Israel’s can, while its superpower status means that afterward, it is both far less likely to suffer international penalties and far more likely to be able to mobilize international pressure to keep Iran from reconstituting its nuclear program. Hence if American military action is in the cards, it makes sense for Israel to eschew military action of its own.
But if American military action isn’t going to happen, then Israel has nothing to gain, and a great deal to lose, by postponing its own strike: Iran will exploit every extra day it is given to expand its nuclear program and fortify it against attack, so the more time passes, the less damage an Israeli strike will be able to inflict – and therefore, the less it will delay Iran’s pursuit of the bomb. And since delay is pointless unless it buys enough time for some more permanent solution – whether an internal uprising that overthrows the mullahs’ regime, an Iranian overreaction that prompts an America military response, or sanctions crippling enough to actually force Iran to abandon its nuclear program (something the current sanctions, for all the pain they are causing, as yet show no sign of doing) – less delay means less chance of ultimate success.
Obviously, there could still be other valid reasons for postponing Israeli action: If, for instance, waiting until after the US elections would significantly increase either the likelihood or the magnitude of American support for Israel after the strike, the benefits might outweigh the costs. But postponing an Israeli strike in the hope that America will attack instead would be the height of irresponsibility, because the chances of that are virtually nonexistent.
In a rare moment of candor, Chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff Martin Dempsey recently acknowledged that Iran’s nuclear program worries Israel more than it does America because Israelis “are living with an existential concern that we are not living with.” That’s the crucial point Israelis must keep in mind, because that’s why American military action is ultimately unlikely.
It’s no accident that Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, the Israeli politician most knowledgeable about America, is also the strongest supporter of Israeli military action against Iran: Unlike his fellows, he realizes just how unlikely American action is. But it’s past time for the rest of Israel’s decision makers to face up to this unpleasant fact as well. If military action is needed to keep Iran from getting nukes, Israel will have to launch the strike itself.
The writer is a journalist and commentator.