Will Israel Attack Iran?
As we are approaching spring, it reminds us of Benjamin Netanyahu’s theatrical gesture at the United Nations General Assembly last September, while holding up a cartoon-like drawing of a bomb with a fuse as he drew the famous “red line” for Iran’s nuclear program. That red line represents this spring and is just below a presumed “final stage” to a bomb. But, let us conjure up the initial question: Is Israel really going to attack Iran? Many observers tend to give a simple answer of “NO”, saying all this is sheer fantasy, especially with the prospective structure of the new Israeli government coalition and the current developments in the Middle East. This article aims to shed light on the circumstances and perceptions, while providing an analytical assessment of this state of affairs.
Iran insists its nuclear program is peaceful and a national right, yet the fiery speeches and comments delivered by its officials proffer neither good gestures nor convincing assurances to the international community or its sympathizers.
Drills to prepare for the prospect of war have terrified not only the Israeli people, but people across the Middle East and the rest of the world as well. Surveys in Israel show that most Israelis oppose launching a unilateral attack on Iranian nuclear facilities.
Whilst Israeli and international newspapers have been recently consumed by reports claiming that Israel has decided to launch an attack on Iran, the remarks of Israeli officials have also increased speculation that Israeli action is imminent. “It’s no longer a question of if but when,” an Israeli analyst replied when asked if Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu would respond militarily if Iran crossed his “red lines” and acquired a nuclear bomb, according to CNBC news.
A senior Israeli official said: “Iran’s ability to harm Israel, in response to an attack from us, has diminished dramatically,” adding “The Iranian response will be far more minor than what could have been expected if the northern front still existed. “According to the Israeli Foreign Ministry, Assad can’t help Tehran for fear of losing power.
Experts believe that any Israeli attack would not deter Iranian nuclear program and its ambition would not be ended, but simply delayed. Israeli military and intelligence chiefs believe that a strike on Iran is a bad idea, while the Obama administration has told Israel to back off and wait for sanctions to work.
While it would be naïve to disregard the possibility that these reports and drills do indeed reflect something cooking on low heat, pure rhetoric and psychological war still remain as a possibility. According to the Washington Post; “A sort of psychological conflict has developed between Israel and Iran, a war of signals.” Tehran wants to demonstrate to Israel that a strike would be too costly and too ineffective to be worthwhile and Israel wants to demonstrate that its will – and its defenses – are unshakable, so Iran might as well just give up on the program now”.
Many have downplayed the possibility of an Israeli attack on Iran, especially in the aftermath of the recent parliamentary elections in Israel. The emergence of the leftists and moderates on the map of Israeli politics, some may argue, will eventually discourage such an approach and Israel may adhere to peaceful tactics toward Iran. “It seems that Lapid is not as committed as Bibi (Netanyahu) to prevent Iran from becoming nuclear,” Dr. Boaz Ganor, director of the Herzliya Institute for Counter-Terrorism, has argued in The Times of Israel.
Personally I believe that no Israeli coalition will go soft on Iran because it poses intolerable threats to Israel, and the latter will always regard Iran and its nuclear program as an overriding concern and a direct threat to the existence of the Israeli state. Taking action is therefore not a choice for certain factions in Israel. Throughout the past decade, decision makers in Israel have built up this consciousness in the believing and cognitive system of their citizens, and a change in the structure of their new government would do little to change this belief.
On the other hand, the efficiency and credibility of Israel’s soft power were critically damaged during the Netanyahu- Lieberman coalition. It was clearly reflected in Israel’s inability to promote and encourage the US and international powers to attack or take further steps against Iran. The recent war on the Gaza Strip, confronting international calls for restraint, international criticism of the continuing illegal settlement activities, rupturing relations with the prominent regional player Turkey, and freezing the peace process on the part of Israel, are among the reasons behind Israel’s losing its ability to convince its traditional allies and friends to commence a campaign against Iran.
However, with the current changes in the structure of Israeli government, things are expected to change. A rapprochement with Turkey may happen soon. Negotiations with the Palestinians may be resumed soon and no wars against Gaza Strip or the West Bank seem on the horizon. Among other tools, Israel’s ability to promote its plans will increase noticeably.
I believe these are reasons enough to keep the chances of a potential Israeli attack on Iran on the table.
But, such a decision depends on a number of other factors, including the potential repercussions of the current disarray among Iran’s allies along with the general situation in the Middle East.
In his article in the Guardian on 18 August 2012, Thomas Rogan stated his belief that “Israel could attack Iran without causing a major war in the region”. While it is likely that Iran would retaliate against Israel and possibly the US in response to any attack, it is unlikely that Iran will instigate a major war. Albeit for different reasons, Iran, Israel and the US all understand that a war would not serve their interests.
An accurate prognosis of the likely future course of events must rely on analyzing the trends of decision making in Israel, as well as the surrounding circumstances and perceived repercussions.
First, Netanyahu does not believe Obama will take a military action against Iran’s nuclear program. He has been pressing the US for a long time to take action beyond sanctions and negotiations, but has failed to produce any results. Second, there is a growing Israeli realization that neither the sanctions nor the P5+1 talks (the last round of expert level talks took place in Istanbul/Turkey) will stop Iran’s nuclear program which is developing quickly and is about to reach the “red line”. Third, the whole Middle Eastern region is plunged into turbulence, and most players are too busy to get involved in any new ventures. Fourth, the state of chaos among Israel’s neighbors will bring Israeli public to understand and accept the need for higher security arrangements (including attacking enemies at times) at any cost in order to secure their state from surrounding threats. Fifth, the focus of Israeli decision makers will be on maximizing the success of the attack and minimizing any negative consequences that might follow. Sixth, neither Israel nor Iran aims at upping the ante that can reach the level of a comprehensive confrontation for several reasons. Seventh, any “direct” Iranian response in retaliation for a prospective Israeli attack would be limited to either direct missile attacks or targeting Israeli interests worldwide. In the latter case, Israel is an expert and well-known for its strong ability in preserving its global interests. With regards to the first possibility of direct missile attacks, recent success with advanced defense systems has helped increase Israeli confidence in its ability to absorb this method of retaliation.
It is well understood that in case of many Israeli citizens getting killed, a major Israeli retaliation might follow. Other options such as attacking US interests or bases in the Gulf area would drag Iran into a direct confrontation with the US. Any Iranian attempts to close or mine the straits of Hormuz could not be sustained for very long, because this would lead to a price spike in global oil markets and increased international ramifications; which might cause more trouble for Iran, not only the US, but also for other major powers in Asia and Europe. Last but not the least, any “indirect” Iranian response is limited to a number of options: 1) Hamas in Gaza: It appears recently that Hamas is distancing itself from Iran, especially in the aftermath of the Syrian revolution. 2) Hezbollah of Lebanon: It is too busy watching and assessing the developments in Syria. Hezbollah is under fire from its domestic political rivals, who will not forgive any unnecessary attack on Israel. Further, in light of the current developments, Hezbollah’s main goal is to survive according to its own theory of “the art of survival” rather than getting into a dangerous confrontation for the sake of serving political or even ethnical agendas. 3) Syria: Assad is too busy with his own domestic upheaval, and attacking Israelis is reserved as a final trump card, not as part of a proxy war.
To conclude, Israeli decision makers are confident that if things go bad, the US will not leave them at their peril. Neither the US, whose most difficult decisions are usually taken in the second presidential term, nor other international powers would leave Israel alone unaided or accept an Israeli defeat. Iranian decision makers are also aware of the fact that initiating a major war would lead to an eventual American intervention and an inevitable confrontation with the world’s biggest military might.
Also appeared in: Turkish Weekly, the Oslo Times, the Jordan Times, Today’s Zaman, EurAsia Review, Uluslararası Politika Akademisi, Russian International Affairs Council, Arab Media Network and News24