Striking Iran: The parameters of the debate

Israel's security leaders gather at the INSS to discuss the Iran question.

DEFENSE MINISTER Ehud Barak 370 (photo credit: REUTERS)
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Through the barrage of empty slogans, simplified metaphors, and ad hominem attacks, it was not eminently clear what the sides were actually arguing about in the debate regarding a potential unilateral Israeli military strike on Iran.
On Wednesday, the sides finally all gathered at the Institute for National Security Studies (INSS) annual conference in Tel Aviv for the first real, in-depth public debate on the issue.
In fact, it is hard to recall any previous critical foreign policy decision in Israel’s history where the former officials responsible held this sort of a public debate before that decision was made. Usually, we only get to hang our politicians in the town square after the fact, when, with the benefit of 20/20 hindsight, we know exactly what would have worked—or more precisely, what failed.
In this debate, however, it became clear that despite the rancorous atmosphere that accompanied previous discussions, the leading protagonists agree on most of the issues. All sides—Former Mossad chief Meir Dagan, Defense Minister Ehud Barak, former head of Military Intelligence (and now INSS director) Amos Yadlin, former national security advisor Uzi Arad, and former IDF Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Gabi Ashkenazi—agree that even if Iran’s goal is to obtain nuclear weapons capability, this may not mean actually constructing and testing a weapon in the near-term. To avoid escalating international pressure even more, Iran may decide for now to create a weapons option, where it would have all the elements needed on hand to create a weapon within a very short timeframe.
All sides also agreed that “containing” a nuclear Iran is not an option. Importantly, they also agree that if sanctions can be effective in preventing Tehran’s pursuit of weapons capability, this is far preferable to military action. In addition, everyone prefers that the US do the dirty work, leading an international coalition to strike Iran’s nuclear facilities should sanctions fail. Finally, they actually agree that if all else fails, and Iran’s regime is on the verge of possessing a weapon, a unilateral Israeli strike would be better than a nuclear Iran.
Where they adamantly disagree is on their assessments of three core questions: what is the likelihood that each of these options will succeed in halting Iran; when is the last possible moment that Israel can take effective unilateral action, and what the likely outcome is should Israel strike alone.
Those pressing for a unilateral Israeli strike soon, like Barak, believe that sanctions will not stop Iran because Iran’s leadership views the program as central to its national security. On the other side of the spectrum, Dagan sees Iran’s leadership in a tenuous position as the result of sanctions, and that as these continue to escalate, it will endanger the future stability of the regime. In Dagan’s assessment, the only way Iran will stop is if it believes that it faces an imminent prospect of a severe domestic challenge to its rule. In other words, for Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, regime security trumps national security.
Dagan’s strongest point is that under present circumstances, an Israeli attack would not prevent Iran from gaining a weapon, but instead, “would solve Iran’s domestic political problems,” and reduce the international price Iran would have to pay to build a weapon. Dagan then wisely pointed to the outbreak of the Iran-Iraq War. While post-revolutionary Iran was deeply divided about who should rule and how, as a result of the outbreak of the war, “every single Iranian lined up behind the Ayatollah Khamenei—even those who had previously totally opposed him.”
At this point, Dagan argued, the regime is hoping that Israel will attack. If true, then a credible Israeli threat might even be counter-productive.
Barak’s position also assumes that at the end of the day, the Americans will not strike Iran’s facilities (whether or not it is via a coalition of allies). Uzi Arad, on the other hand, is far more willing to trust that the American administration will fulfill its promise to stop Iran, even if that requires a military strike.
Michele Flournoy, who recently left her position as US undersecretary of defense, adamantly told the audience that such trust was justified because this administration was absolutely ready and willing to use force if need be. Israel should trust America, she said, because our interests are aligned: a nuclear Iran would have unacceptable consequences for the whole region.
Even Yadlin, who, to a certain degree concurred with Barak that Israel may well have to strike on its own, disagreed about timing. Such a strike could only be effective if followed by continued harsh international sanctions to prevent it from rebuilding. The only way that will happen, Yadlin argued, is if Israel waits for the other options to be tried and to fail.
Otherwise, an Israeli strike will be deemed illegitimate, the world will loosen its grip on Iran, and the strike will actually be counter-productive: we will face a nuclear Iran and have to incur the costs of bombing Iran.
Crucial to this debate, Barak argued that Israel’s window of opportunity is about to close, that we do not have the luxury of waiting to see if and when sanctions might work or the Americans might strike. If we wait much longer, Barak argued, we will not be able to launch an effective strike at all.
Gabi Ashkenazi’s critical contribution to the debate is his rebuttal of that assessment. Without going into specifics, but with all the credit that being a recently retired chief of staff gives him, he declared that “we still have time,” meaning that Israel’s window of opportunity was not about to close. Israel can afford to wait and see if indeed the other options will prove effective. Ashkenazi also concurred with Yadlin that an Israeli strike must happen only once it is clear that the other options have failed.
The writer is a Neubauer Research Fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies (INSS), Tel Aviv University.