Over the past few weeks I’ve been asked the same questions over and over about Israel and Iran: will we do it? Will we do it alone? Will the Americans do it for us? Can we stop the Iranian nuclear project etc etc.
So I’ve decided to put them down and try answer them as best I can [the answers are taken from interviews and background briefings with top former and current security, military and diplomatic officials in Israel].
Q: What’s the best way to stop the Iranians from producing nuclear weapons?
Historically the most effective way to get the Iranian regime to do something is to threaten their regime. Khamenei decided to stop the war with Iraq only when his advisors told him that continued fighting, after 8 years, might lead to a popular revolt against his government. This is the most effective threat against the Iranian regime: if they continue with a certain course of action, they will lose the people, they will lose their power. So in a way, you threaten them with regime change, but not from the top down, from the bottom up. Severe sanctions can do this.
Q. Will an Israeli strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities necessarily lead to war?
Let’s not fool ourselves. Striking Iran’s nuclear facilities is not ‘just’ a military operation. It’s a regional war. Will Syria step in? Maybe yes, maybe no. If they do step in, it’s war, old school war. Will Hezbollah step in? Yes, almost 100 percent certainly. With Iran, it will be war. The Iranians have hundreds of long-range missiles. Hezbollah has hundreds of long-range rockets, and tens of thousands of other rockets. The Syrians have tens of thousands of rockets. They’re likely to take the opportunity to deflect attention away from their internal problems and join in a war against Israel. They have prepared for this, and their air defense systems are even more fearsome and sophisticated than the Iranians’. So whoever decides to attack Iran has to take into consideration that he will be starting a regional war; which will also include terror attacks abroad. This won’t be a war of tanks versus tanks, armored formations versus armored formations. Those days are long gone, perhaps never to return. This war will be characterized by massive, sustained, and accurate fire on Israeli civilian population centers. We saw the rehearsal for this in the Second Lebanon War in 2006. Now, Hezbollah’s rocket power has increased by degrees, and Syria’s rocket power is greater even than that, and Iran’s rocket power is greater than both Syria and Hezbollah’s – we are talking about massive attack. The Israeli people and home front are resilient, but cannot hold out for longer than 2 months, at the most. Anything that lasts longer than 2 months is going to force the IDF to take drastic action, possibly not within the boundaries of international laws of war.
Q. Can an Israeli attack successfully stop Iran’s nuclear program?
Let’s say we successfully strike some of their facilities, and we can certainly do this – we will not stop their nuclear program. This is not Osirak [Saddam's lone nuclear reactor]. We won’t wipe it out with one strike. Iran’s nuclear program rests on several pillars: first and foremost, it rests on the knowledge in the brains of its people. We can’t kill 150,000 Iranian scientists and engineers. We cannot kill the knowledge that started in August 1945 with the American bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. That was the culmination of technology that started a decade earlier, in the 1930s. The first nuclear reactor was built already at the end of the 1930s. We are not talking about very advanced technology. We’re talking about technology that Third World countries won’t have much of a problem mastering. Is Pakistan an advanced nation, for example? Nope, Islamabad is worse off than Gaza in some parts, and they’re now driving their nukes around the country in unmarked trucks so that they won’t fall into the hands of terrorists. North Korea is another example of a backwards nation with nuclear technology. Millions of North Koreans have died of starvation, that’s how developed that nation is. The leadership there decided it was strategically important to acquire a nuclear weapons capability, so they sacrificed a lot and they got there. There were about 20 nations around the world that were on the verge of nuclear weapons capability. Argentina and South Africa were two, and by the way, most European nations can get nuclear weapons very quickly should they wish to. Japan can put together nuclear bombs if it chooses to. Many nations around the world have nuclear reactors they can easily retool for weaponization. In other words, we cannot destroy Iran’s nuclear program. What we can do is target several of their industrial nuclear facilities.
Q: If we can’t destroy their nuclear program, is it at least worthwhile to try set them back a few years?
According to published assessments, it shouldn’t take the Iranians longer than 2 to 3 years to rebuild their facilities. Is it worth the trouble then if it’s only going to set them back by two years? Some people think it is, and argue that we should hit the Iranians again and again until they roll over and play dead. But I don’t think Israel has quite the military and diplomatic power to do that. Others say that the strike on Saddam’s reactor was only supposed to set him back a few years, and lo and behold, he never rebuilt his nuclear option. True, but Iran is a vastly different animal than the secular Saddam.
Q: If a strike on Iran starts a regional war, how do we get out of it?
We fight. And we will most likely have to accept an internationally-imposed ceasefire, which we may not like. Another consequence of an Israeli strike and ensuing regional war is that the decade-long Egyptian-led effort to rid the Middle East of nuclear weapons [i.e. Israel's alleged nuclear arsenal] is likely to garner serious international support. Do we want to be under this kind of international pressure to part with our strategic capabilities? That could be disastrous. And if we strike Iran without American backing, they might not be so eager to help us out diplomatically on this issue.
Q: The media is reporting that almost all of Israel’s security and defense chiefs are against a unilateral Israeli strike on Iran. Is this true?
Yes, as far as I can tell, all the professional levels of the country’s security services – Military Intelligence, Shin Bet, Mossad – are against Israel striking Iran’s nuclear facilities, which, in their view, would very likely lead to a regional war. This doesn’t mean that the Iranians have won, and that there is nothing we can do. The Iranians started their nuclear program towards the end of the 1990s. We are now in 2012 and they still do not have a bomb. So who says they’ve won? They’re making progress, but they’re not there yet. It also doesn’t mean that the country’s leadership won’t embark on this challenge. As PM Netanyahu has been at pains to assert: the government decides, the professional class [i.e. the army] carries out the orders.
Q: We, as Jews, as the nation of the Jews, are worried about a second Holocaust. Can we take the risk of allowing Iran to develop a military nuclear capability?
Iran’s development of strategic weaponry is not aimed at Israel. We are not the ultimate target. They are operating under the historical memory that is drenched in the blood of the Iraq-Iran war. They lost hundreds of thousands of people in that war, hundreds of thousands. In their view, they paid an unacceptable price in that war. Is there a chance, in some extreme situation, that if the Iranians do have a nuclear bomb, that they are they likely to use it against Israel? I admit that I cannot rule that possibility out. Nobody can. Not because the regime is irrational, they are rational – look at the measured, patient and smart way they have handled this whole affair. They are rational, but extremely radical, and that means that there are likely to be scenarios that yes, they could use an atomic bomb against Israel. The logical conclusion is that the State of Israel cannot allow itself a situation wherein Iran manages to acquire a military nuclear capability, with the emphasis on military.
Q: Can we take that chance?
We have to do everything we can, together with the Americans, to stop the Iranians from getting a military nuclear capability. this seems to me to be the only way we can be sure they won’t get it. At this stage, there are enough tools that can be used against the Iranians, that can be much more effective and certainly no less effective than a military strike. My assessment is that an Israeli strike cannot achieve its aims, and if you think ahead about how to stop an Iranian military nuclear program for the long term – the tool of launching a war will not only not stop their program, it will give them the legal legitimacy to produce a bomb. The Iranians will say, “Look, we have a peaceful nuclear program which is under the surveillance of IAEA monitors. We are under the monitoring of the international community. And we were now attacked by a country which is a nuclear power. We do not want a military nuclear project. Our leader has said in the past that such a project goes against our religious principles [they might be lying here but in any case this is what they formally say to the international community, and Khomeini himself has issued a fatwa against a nuclear bomb]. We have been attacked by a nuclear nation, and we have no other choice now but to now build a military nuclear capability.”
Q: Won’t a strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities weaken the regime?
The people of Iran are in favor of civilian nuclear capability. The economic situation in Iran is very harsh. There are many power outages in Tehran, more than people know. For Iranian people, the option of a cheap alternative energy source is a good solution. Therefore the Iranian nation finds itself in a situation in which it wants to be able to produce nuclear energy. But the people are not necessarily in favor of a military nuclear capability. An Israeli strike against Buhsher, Natanza, Arak and Isfahan will not weaken the regime, and it might more likely strengthen it.
Q: What about a nuclear arms race in the Middle East should Iran get a military nuclear capability?
Under the NPT, there are five nations in the world that are allowed to have nuclear weapons, while the rest are not allowed. Three nations are not signatories to this treaty and are thought to have nuclear weapons: India, Pakistan, and Israel. India and Pakistan are known to have nuclear weapons, and so does North Korea. I think that we are already at a stage where the existing tools cannot stop nuclear proliferation. This reality does not exist anymore. We are already well into a nuclear arms race in the Middle East. We have already seen the signs of this in Libya and Iran, we saw the effort in Syria. Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states have already made their nuclear intentions known. In my assessment, if the Iranians get a military nuclear capability they will not be the only ones in the region to have it. I have no doubt that Saudi Arabia and Egypt will work diligently to get nuclear weapons too. This is a most tricky situation. We will, essentially, be living in an extremely unstable and radical region with a growing proliferation in nuclear weapons and technology. This is a nightmare. The Israel Air Force can’t keep on bombing every single reactor that pops up all over the region. Will we do it in Egypt? What about Jordan, if they decide to build one? And what about the Turks? This is really a problem for the entire world, and America especially. Not just us. We can’t deal with this entirely on our own. We’ll need intelligence and diplomatic support, as well as regional agreements.
Q: Can we trust the Americans to deal with the Iranian problem?
The Iran problem is not just about us and them, it is a problem about who controls 65% of the world’s energy production resources. This is a much more dominant and influential factor in the calculations and public opinion of Western nations than the stated position of the government of the state of Israel. What really influences the West to act is the question of who controls the oil, the world’s economic lifeblood, and to what extent the oil-producing nations feel threatened by the Iranian challenge, and what is the extent of the impact of their pressure through political and economic measures on the US and Europe. And even though AIPAC is an impressive and strong lobby, with all due respect, the oil lobby in America is no less strong.
Q: What if Israel goes it alone? What could happen to our relationship with America?
The main problem with going it alone is that it will very likely damage our relationship with the US administration and, perhaps, the American people. Over the past several years, there has been a steady decline in the strategic value Israel holds for the American leadership. This is sad but true. President Obama has been to Cairo and Ankara, but he hasn’t been to Jerusalem. While we share the same moral and political values, Israel’s strategic value for America has been in decline since the end of the Cold War. Quite often, the Americans find themselves paying a “tax” for their staunch support for Israel. It’s not a drastic drop-off, but rather a long slide. On the other side of the coin, Israel really has no other choice apart from America. The Saudis could always go to the Chinese for support. The Egyptians could always go to the Russians for support. The Russians, Chinese and Iranians stood by Assad when nobody else would, and they won’t let him fall. Some of the other Arab states could even go to the Iranians for support. Israel has nobody else to turn to but the Americans. When our embassy guards are a hair’s breadth away from being lynched and the Egyptian generals aren’t answering the phone, only Obama can pull our asses out of the fire. If it weren’t for the Americans, we’d have been under terrible UN sanctions for years now. Our reliance on the US is our biggest asset, and our biggest liability. It makes us strong, but it also ties our hands. If we are to break free of this reliance, this alliance, and attack Iran in spite of the plea by our strong American friend not to, the consequences could be very far reaching. Without US diplomatic backing we’d be in a very difficult situation. Remember the UN has already said that Zionism is Racism. If the regimes in our region really become radical Islamist regimes, Israel will be faced with a very difficult problem indeed, and we will need strong, unequivocal American support. That is, I would say, our top strategic priority. It took Europe 100 years and two world wars to settle into peaceful democracies. We’re in for the long haul, and we don’t want to be all alone here.