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How/Should/Will… Israel Attack Iran?

۹ مهر ۱۳۸۹

■ Mohammadbagher Forough
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The long-running fiery debates surrounding Iran’s attainment of nuclear power (which is theoretically one step away from acquiring nuclear weapons) and the possibility of an American and/or Israeli attack against Iran’s nuclear facilities reached a historic turn this September, when Jeffrey Goldberg from The Atlantic wrote a controversial article (based on interviews with a host of top Israeli and American officials) which ushered the discourse on this issue to an utterly new path, the path of action. It did that in two ways: a) the self-explanatory title of the article (‘Point of No Return’) tacitly assumes that we are in fact at the point of no return, hence, the need for prompt action; and b) the question, pregnant with connotations, that pops up right after you are led to make this tacit assumption, is (and the whole article is an attempt to answer it): ‘who, if anyone, will stop Iran before it goes nuclear and how?’ This quote is, if you will, four-dimensional: 1. The who 2. The how 3. The when 4. And the if-clause. Let me address them in the reverse order. The rhetorical If-clause is just meant to show the gravity of the situation in a world where Iran goes nuclear, and is meant to alarm the reader and incite action! Goldberg, quoting Netanyahu, goes all Huntington by arguing that it would endanger not only Israel (‘s very existence) but the whole Western civilization. The when-question is already answered; the action should take place ‘before Iran goes nuclear.’ He even sets the date: ‘one day next spring’. That’s that. The how-question entails the use of Israeli (and possibly American) air force and advanced technologies such as bunker-busters, etc. We’ll get back to this. The who-question is indispensable to the article; Israel would do it anyway. But it would be really kind of the U.S. to either conduct the attack, or at least give Israel a green light to do so. A yellow light would not go unappreciated. But a red light would be out of the question. That’s the bottom line of the article.

I would like here to sidestep the implicit assumption(s) of the article and address two basic questions: the should-question and the will-question, from a purely geopolitical standpoint, setting aside all ethical and moral aspects of the issue for the purposes of this inquiry. The first and foremost question is whether Israel or the U.S. should attack Iran. My answer, from a geopolitical perspective, would be an unequivocal “No,” and that for the following reasons:

1. In line with Chomsky’s comments on the issue, I would like to argue that even if we assume, for argument’s sake, that Iran comes to acquire nuclear weapons someday, the Iranian administration would not be insane enough to launch any atomic attack against anyone in the world, knowing that they would be ‘vaporized’ (by the U.S.) the moment they kick off the most dangerous game. However, they would use their nuclear card as a bargaining chip in the international political arena. That’s unavoidable, but containable.

2. After all, no nuclear power or threat would ever outstrip (in scale and proportion) the atomic threat the Soviet Union once posed to the West and Israel, and the West managed to contain it. Why lose one’s composure over Iran?Kaplan and some other Obama officials have already argued that it would be less costly to contain Iran than to fight it.

3. The how-question is not that easy to answer; it conditions the possibilities of the should- and the will- questions. Israeli jets have to fly over either Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Turkey or Syria to reach Iran. Turkey would not allow its airspace to be used, not certainly after the recent serious diplomatic conflicts with Israel. Syria would never allow it for known historical reasons. The Iraq option would involve the U.S. as it controls the airspace there, and the Saudi option would escalate the ever tense relations between Iran and Saudis and can cause another war. The jets should refuel on the way to Iran and the way back. This means a total and direct American or Saudi involvement in the whole process, and a new chapter to the war.

4. Brzezinski, foreign policy advisor to several American presidents, has noted that an Israeli attack would inevitably drag America into the war. The public and media pressure for any administration would be too unbearable to stay calm and not get entangled. The Iranian government would automatically see Israel incapable of committing such an act without an American involvement or blessing. It will hold America accountable in its own peculiar ways.

5. America has overstretched itself militarily in two warfronts and would be absolutely disinclined to enter a new battlefield, whose complexity would pale Iraq and Afghanistan into insignificance. To join an unpredictable war or even not to do so for America in the Israeli war scenario would be a lose-lose situation.

6. The unsuccessful wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have emboldened and convinced the Iranian government, among others, that the U.S. is not invincible, and is already too strained. Europeans wouldn’t be dragged that easily to another American or Israeli war. The American public would not want another war. The U.S. economy cannot afford a new war that readily. If the U.S. got involved in a war in Iran and it turned out to be another Afghanistan or something worse and they had to leave (and there’s a good chance they would), it would be the end of the already tainted image of America as the superpower controlling the region, and would further embolden its enemies.

7. The largest and most consistent population in the region in terms of being favorable to the U.S. are in fact average Iranians inside and outside Iran. There are around two million Iranian-Americans in the U.S. alone. A war with Iran should address these people too. There’s an open and universal hatred towards the U.S. and a closeted hatred towards Israel in the region, especially among Arabs. You wouldn’t want to stir those baleful compound emotions. It could turn too dangerous and unstable. It has already shown itself negatively in Iraq and Afghanistan in different ways.

8. A failed attack against Iran would give the current Iranian regime the full-blown legitimacy it is losing bit by bit nowadays, especially since the last presidential election, and the post-election protests which shook the foundation of the regime to its core. In the event of a war, they would throw themselves on the scene as the only true defenders of the nation, and could mobilize all the forces willing to get on board, and crush (maybe permanently) all civil opposition inside the country, and turn it into a North Korea.

9. It is universally acknowledged that Israel can carry out the attacks technically and militarily. Its military is simply too good. BUT, could it handle the consequences of such an attack on its own? Brzezinski, among many others, thinks not, especially in a case where the US having got involved would have to withdraw. He asks ‘how long do you think Israel would be able to survive the consequences of such an action in the region on its own?’ A very legitimate question to address. He predicts five up to ten years.

10. Israel has successfully carried out such attacks in Iraq (1981) and in Syria (2007). But the problem (again the how-question) would be that Iranian nuclear plants are too dispersed around the large country and too buried and hidden, not to mention that there could be too many plants not yet known to the outside world. An attack has to simultaneously target different parts of Iran and many bunker-like structures. The outcome would be very tricky to determine. It’s not clear how even an apparently successful attack against Iran can really deter them in the short or long run. In Syria and Iraq, the nuclear plants were on the ground and concentrated on one identifiable spot, hence, susceptible to air strikes.

11. As many analysts have already pointed out, Iran can take significant retaliatory measures against Israel and Israelis, if not by direct confrontations, via its proxies, Hezbollah and Hamas. It can also intensify the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan by covertly helping American enemies (Taliban, Al Qaeda, etc.) in the region. Goldberg mentions that oil prices could reach cataclysmic highs and that the Iranian government would target Jews and the Jewish diaspora, again via its proxies, all over the world. This would make Israel, Goldberg further argues, which is now a safe haven for a persecuted people, a very unsafe and unattractive place to be.

12. Iran is a major supplier of crude oil to China (whose huge economy depends on it) and a big business partner of Russia. These two powerful countries wouldn’t be particularly happy if their interests were threatened by a war and would act covertly in any way possible to fish in troubled waters and contribute to another potential American failure, as they are doing in Afghanistan and Iraq right now.

13. Even in the case of a full-scale war involving the US (which Iran would not at first want), an Iranian defeat is not a foregone conclusion. Iran can turn the Persian Gulf into a mess, which would introduce chaos to the oil industry, enough for the oil-dependent world to panic once more. The plethora of Iranian speedboats can swarm and damage (even destroy) gigantic American warships in the region. The 2000 case of USS Cole which was seriously damaged by small boats laden with explosives in a suicide attack has proved the vulnerability of big warships. Iran has produced and bought far too many speedboats in recent years and is prepared for such a turn of events. The Iraq-Iran war (1980-1988) has proved that Iran is nowhere short of suicide attackers in the event of a war. The incident with American warships in January 2008, initiated boldly by some Iranian military speedboats, is testimony to how the Iranian regime counts on suchlike strategies.

14. etc.!

The preceding was just a partial snapshot of a situation too complex to fully cover in the scope available here. Still geopolitically speaking, I reckon open and backdoor diplomacy and international pressure, along with covert intelligence actions (e.g., the disappearance of Iranian nuclear scientists and the recent highly sophisticated virus attacking Iranian nuclear systems) could do the job in a less costly and more fathomable fashion. But let’s not forget the will-question. Will there be a military attack? There’s simply no one who can answer this question definitively. My hunch is ‘no’, in large part because of the reasons mentioned earlier. But again, that’s only a guess. Not always reason reigns in politics. There were so many such reasons against the invasion of Iraq and it did come to happen.

Tehran Review
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  1. Javad says:

    This also came true with Egypt and its military bases and airports

  2. akbar says:

    Good article indeed! To the best of my knowledge, too, the only thing which can unite the whole Islamic republic regime again, now that it has been shaken to its core by the green movement, is a foreign attack on its nuke facilities. best

  3. Ron Tedwater says:

    Great work keep it coming

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