BY BRET STEPHENS, WSJ—
Can Israel attack Iran? If it can, will it? If it will, when? If when, how?
And what happens after that?
On Sunday with Matt Lauer, President Obama said “I don’t think that Israel has made a decision on what they need to do.” That didn’t square with the view of Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, who’s been reported as saying he expects an Israeli attack this spring. Nor does it square with public warnings from Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak that the Iranians would soon enter a “zone of immunity” from foreign military attack if nothing is done to stop them.
Yes, these war drums have been beaten before. But this time it’s different.
Diplomacy has run its course: Even U.N. diplomats now say Iran uses negotiations as a tactic to buy time. The sanctions are too late: Israel can’t afford to wait a year or two to see if Europe’s embargo on Iranian oil or the administration’s squeeze on Iran’s financial institutions will alter Tehran’s nuclear calculations.
Covert action—computer bugs, assassinations, explosions—may have slowed Iran’s progress, but plainly not by enough. And Israel can only hint so many times that it’s planning to attack before the world tires of the bluster-and-retreat routine.
Two additional points. Washington and Jerusalem are at last operating from a common timetable—Iran is within a year of getting to the point when it will be able to assemble a bomb essentially at will. And speaking of timetables, Jerusalem knows that Mr. Obama will be hard-pressed to oppose an Israeli strike—the way Dwight Eisenhower did during the Suez crisis—before election day. A re-elected President Obama is a different story.
That means that from here until November the U.S. traffic light has gone from red to yellow. And Israelis aren’t exactly famous for stopping at yellow lights.
But can they do it? There’s a mountain of nonsense exaggerating Israel’s military capabilities: Israel does not, for instance, operate giant drones capable of refueling jet fighters in midair.
At the same time, there’s an equally tall mountain of nonsense saying that Israel is powerless to do significant damage to Iran’s nuclear-weapons complex, as if the Islamic Republic were the second coming of the USSR. In fact, Iran is a Third World country that can’t even protect its own scientists in the heart of Tehran. It has a decrepit air force, antiquated air defenses, a vulnerable electrical grid, exposed nuclear sites (the uranium conversion plant at Esfahan, the heavy water facility at Arak, the reactor at Bushehr), and a vulnerable energy infrastructure on which its economy is utterly dependent. Even its deeply buried targets can be destroyed. It’s all a question of time, tonnage and precision.
The bottom line is that a strike on Iran that sets its nuclear ambitions back by several years is at the outer periphery of Israel’s military capability, but still within it.
As for how Israel would do it, the important point is that any strike that’s been as widely anticipated as this one would have to contain some significant element of surprise—a known unknown. What could that be? Here’s a hint: Gen. Hossein Salami, the deputy commander of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards, recently warned that “any place where enemy offensive operations against the Islamic Republic originate will be the target of a reciprocal attack.” Look at a map: Africa and Central Asia are wide open places.
What happens on the day after? Israelis estimate that between Hamas in Gaza, Hezbollah in Lebanon, Syria and Iran itself, there are some 200,000 missiles and rockets pointed in their direction. They could start falling before the first sortie of Israeli jets returned to base. Israel’s civil defenses have been materially improved in recent years. But the country would still have to anticipate that missile and rocket barrages would overwhelm its defenses, causing hundreds of civilian casualties. Israel would also have to be prepared to go to war in Lebanon, Gaza and even Syria if Iran calls on the aid of its allies.
Put simply, an Israeli strike on Iran would not just be a larger-scale reprise of the attacks that took out Iraq’s nuclear reactor in 1981 and Syria’s in 2007. On the contrary: If it goes well it would look somewhat like the Six Day War of 1967, and if it goes poorly like the Yom Kippur War of 1973. Nobody should think we’re talking about a cakewalk.
So: Should Israel do it? If the U.S. has no serious intention to go beyond sanctions, Israel’s only alternative to action is to accept a nuclear Iran and then stand by as the rest of its neighbors acquire nuclear weapons of their own. That scenario is the probable end of Israel.
Then again, if Israel is going to gamble so much on a strike, it should play for large stakes. The Islamic Republic means to destroy Israel. If Israel means to survive, it should commit itself similarly. Destroying Iran’s nuclear sites will be a short-lived victory if it isn’t matched to the broader goal of ending the regime.
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