In the spirit of the Three Weeks, during which we minimize our feelings of happiness, I'd like ask a few questions about the Iranian nuclear threat.
It is widely assumed in Israel that some time within the next year, and likely before the swearing-in of a new American administration (particularly if that administration is Democratic), Israel will strike Iranian nuclear facilities. Benny Morris, the one-time dean of Israel's "New Historians," began a recent piece in The New York Times: "Israel will almost surely attack Iran's nuclear sites in the next four to seven months."
Now admittedly the odds of that happening -- for better or worse -- decrease greatly if Tzippi Livni becomes prime minister of Israel and/or Senator Barack Obama president of the United States. But still one has to ask: Why is there no feeling in Israel of panic about the presumed attack, no sense that we are entering into very perilous times?
Instead the likelihood of an Israeli attack is discussed matter-of-factly, as if its success were guaranteed and any Iranian response nothing to fret about. Have we all become Zionists filled with confidence that the mighty IDF can do anything?
Professor emeritus of Islamic studies at the Hebrew University Moshe Sharon explains in a recent Jerusalem Post piece why Israel, even more than the rest of the West, cannot live with a nuclear Iran. Iran's current president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is a devout believer in the imminent appearance of the so-called Hidden Imam, who will usher in an era of Shiite world dominance. As mayor of Teheran, Ahmadinejad built a wide boulevard specifically to greet the Hidden Imam.
In Shiite thought, the Hidden Imam's appearance is preceded by cataclysmic bloodletting of which one unsavory feature is that all Jews must suffer a violent death. Given these theological trappings, the mutual assured destruction that protected the peace during the Cold War may not work with respect to Iran.
That uncertainty is something with which Israel cannot live. Former deputy Defense Minister Ephraim Sneh has already said that if Iran obtains a nuclear capacity the Zionist dream is over because anyone who can flee will do so.
THE SUCCESS OF an Israeli attack on Iran cannot be taken for granted. Even assuming that Israeli bombers successfully penetrate Iranian air defenses and hit their targets, many of which are deeply underground in highly reinforced locations, the attack would do no more than set back the Iranian nuclear program by one or two years, according to many experts.
That one or two years might be enough time for the West to impose a set of sanctions that would force Iran to seriously reconsider its nuclear ambitions. But the question remains whether the West would be any more likely to do so than it has been over the last five years of on-again off-again negotiations with Iran.
Despite the skill of the Israeli air force, Israel is not capable of executing the kind of sustained assault that the United States could if it led the attack on Iran's nuclear sites. American military analyst Ralph Peters concludes in the July 17 New York Post, "Nor is there any chance that the Israelis could handle Iran on their own . . . . [T]he Israelis lack the capacity to sustain a strategic offensive against Iran – or to deal with the inevitable mess they would leave behind in the Persian Gulf."
Peters lists all the preliminary stages the United States would follow before any direct attack on Iran's nuclear facilities: (1) Take out Iran's air defenses; (2) destroy Iran's communications grid; (3) Hit every anti-ship missile installation along the Iran's coast on the Persian Gulf and the Straits of Hormuz; (4) destroy Iran's naval capacity, including the small speedboats it would deploy in suicide missions against shipping in the Gulf; (5) Take out Iran's medium and long-range missiles; (6) Hit military command centers, particularly those of the Revolutionary Guard.
Operating from long distances, Israeli lacks the ability to sustain such a three to six week operation against Iran. An Israeli attack would be a one-time affair.
AND WHAT WOULD be the likely Iranian response. Iran has a considerable number of intermediate range missiles capable of striking the entirety of Israel. In addition, its proxy on our northern border, Hizbullah, has an estimated 40,000 missiles, over twice the number in its possession at the outset of the Second Lebanon War. And Hamas, Iran's proxy on our southern border, has been taking advantage of the current ceasefire to arm to the hilt.
Israel's international standing would already be under fire in the aftermath of an attack on Iran (no matter how happy Western leaders were with any delay in Iran's acquisition of nuclear weapons), and Iran and its well-armed proxies might see the time as an opportune one to test Israel. Hizbullah knows, as former national security advisor General Giora Eiland has written, Israel still has no answer to the type of missile barrage Hizbullah launched in the Second Lebanon War.
If Iran did unleash its proxies and employ its own missiles, Israel would suddenly find itself simultaneously fighting a war on numerous fronts – including perhaps the Syrian front. It could not afford to have the entire country paralyzed, as the North was for a month during the 2006 Second Lebanon War, and might find itself forced to bomb much more brutally and indiscriminately than it has ever permitted itself to do in the past in order to bring a quick halt to hostilities. In addition, Iran would surely unleash sleeper terrorist cells against Jewish and Israeli – and perhaps American – targets worldwide.
We must pray that both the Israeli military and political echelons have thought through and prepared for the next several steps likely to follow any attack on Iran – something that it completely failed to do during the Second Lebanon War. Unfortunately, nothing about Israel's current unstable political leadership leaves one confident of its abilities in this regard.
Nor do the doomsday scenarios end there. In his Times' piece, historian Morris noted that an ineffective Israeli attack on Iran, or the failure of the rest of the world to follow-up with a strong sanctions regime in the time bought by an Israeli attack, could lead to something far worse. Confronted with an Iran on the brink of attaining nuclear weapons, Israeli leaders would face the unenviable choice between hoping that the leaders of a nuclear Iran would prove rational or launching its own pre-emptive nuclear attack. Morris believes they would opt for the second choice. For that reason, he concludes, even the Iranians should pray that an Israeli conventional air strike is successful.
The apocalyptic visions offered by Morris can be viewed not just as an effort in prognostication but as an attempt to force the Western world, and even the Iranians themselves, to think carefully about the consequences of going to the brink.
Nevertheless, it seems clear that if nuclear weapons are deployed in the near future the proximate cause will be Iran's nuclear program. That's just one reason that Senator Obama's insistence during his visit to Israel that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict remains at the heart of Middle East tensions seems at once both so naïve and so dangerous.