The Consequences of An Israeli Attack on Iran

There were two interesting pieces today about what might happen following an Israeli attack on Iran’s nuclear program — such as it is. On one hand, there is this New York Times piece about a U.S. military war game which suggests:

A classified war simulation held this month to assess the repercussions of an Israeli attack on Iran forecasts that the strike would lead to a wider regional war, which could draw in the United States and leave hundreds of Americans dead, according to American officials.

The article is actually a little fuzzy on how this would occur. The best we get about the assumed dynamics is:

The two-week war game, called Internal Look, played out a narrative in which the United States found it was pulled into the conflict after Iranian missiles struck a Navy warship in the Persian Gulf, killing about 200 Americans, according to officials with knowledge of the exercise. The United States then retaliated by carrying out its own strikes on Iranian nuclear facilities.

Okay, well, maybe. But I am not sure how that develops into a more sustained conflict. The NYT piece adds:

Many experts have predicted that Iran would try to carefully manage the escalation after an Israeli first strike in order to avoid giving the United States a rationale for attacking with its far superior forces. Thus, it might use proxies to set off car bombs in world capitals or funnel high explosives to insurgents in Afghanistan to attack American and NATO troops.

Indeed, this strikes me as more likely sustained outcome. Even if we assume the Iranian would lash out at U.S. military assets, that would likely provoke immediate tit-for-tit responses rather than, I think, an all-out war. I don’t want to minimize this sort of outcome. But we’re not talking about an unmanageable situation either.

The bigger issue, as I say, is the possibility of a sustained campaign by Iranian proxies. Indeed, this seems to be animating Israeli thinking. Jeffrey Goldberg reports:

One conclusion key [Israeli] officials have reached is that a strike on six or eight Iranian facilities will not lead, as is generally assumed, to all-out war. This argument holds that the Iranians might choose to cover up an attack, in the manner of the Syrian government when its nuclear facility was destroyed by the Israeli air force in 2007. An Israeli strike wouldn’t focus on densely populated cities, so the Iranian government might be able to control, to some degree, the flow of information about it.

Some Israeli officials believe that Iran’s leaders might choose to play down the insult of a raid and launch a handful of rockets at Tel Aviv as an angry gesture, rather than declare all-out war. I’m not endorsing this view, but I was struck by its optimism.

I am struck by how sanguine some Israeli leaders are about rocket attacks on Tel Aviv.

Again from the NYT piece:

“A war is no picnic,” Defense Minister Ehud Barak told Israel Radio in November. But if Israel feels itself forced into action, the retaliation would be bearable, he said. “There will not be 100,000 dead or 10,000 dead or 1,000 dead. The state of Israel will not be destroyed.”

You can see how this logic pushes to a strike. If the Israelis see an Iranian nuclear program as an existential threat, and see the likely Iranian retaliation as “bearable,” well, then the logic would see to be to strike.  Except… And here is from Goldberg again:

Finally, and even more disquieting, was the contention I heard repeatedly that an Israeli strike in the next six months – – conducted before Iran can further harden its nuclear sites, or make them redundant — will set back the ayatollahs’ atomic ambitions at least five years. American military planners tend to think that Israel could do only a year or two worth of damage.

See, this is where the Israelis lose me in terms of logic. Let’s grant the five year window. I don’t have enough information to make a judgment one way or another on that, but given that I am not sure they are within five years of a workable device even absent a strike, I am certainly willing to consider the possibility that a strike would push a viable Iranian nuclear weapon out to 2017 or beyond.

But then what? You have a nuclear Iran regardless. The threat is still existential. They will certainly harden their facilities further. They will almost certainly redouble their efforts at acquiring nukes. Even if all goes well — as well as can be hoped — is this worth it for five years? Why? What is assumed to happen in the intervening period?

From Goldberg:

A widely held assumption about a pre-emptive strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities is that it would spur Iranian citizens — many of whom appear to despise their rulers — to rally around the regime. But Netanyahu, I’m told, believes a successful raid could unclothe the emperor, emboldening Iran’s citizens to overthrow the regime (as they tried to do, unsuccessfully, in 2009).

Oof. That is pure wishcasting. And the example Goldberg cites as motivating this belief is that the 1976 Israeli raid on Entebbe that “bolstered the opposition’s spirits and proved to them that Amin was vulnerable. Amin’s government would fall some two and half years later.”

Except that, you know, Amin wasn’t removed by some people power revolution, but rather because he provoked a conflict with Tanzania which invaded and remove Amin from power. And anyway, it strikes me that something like Entebbe, an audacious commando operation right in the heart of Uganda, might provide more of a demonstration effect of regime weakness than airstrikes, which often strike observers as vaguely cowardly.

The whole analysis rests on these assumptions:

  1. If the Iranian programs is far advanced.
  2. And if striking it can push it back five years.
  3. And if all Iran does in retaliation is pin-pricks through proxies.
  4. And if the result is a dramatic weakening of the Iranian regime that leads to its collapse, well then you have a strong case for a strike.

The problem is that is ANY of those ifs is wrong, you’ve made a bad decision. Assumption 4 is almost certainly wrong. I am skeptical of number 2 as well. I’ve noted in the past that we don’t even have good information about number 1. The only one of those assumptions I’d be willing to gamble on personally is that Iran’s direct violent response would be relatively muted.

The Israeli calculus looks a lot like the American decision for war in 2003. Lots of similarly shaky assumptions.

But what is most interesting to me is the contradictions. The Iranian regime is fanatical and genocidal, and yet it will respond to an attack through limited means. The Iranian regime is unpopular at home, but we can’t wait to allow those dynamics to run their course. Iran is committed to the rapid pursuit of nuclear weapons, but their response to a strike will be sufficiently desultory as to buy several years of time. There is a narrow window of opportunity such that in six months Iran’s program won’t be vulnerable, but it take them five years to reconstitute it. I’m not sure all of those can be simultaneously true.

What is my recommendation instead? Continue with the sanction. Play for time and work to encourage dissent inside Iran, dissent that might increase following a strike, but equally plausibly might not. Make explicit extended deterrence commitment to Israel.


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