Jeffrey Goldberg, Ronen Bergman, and various other commentators believe that an Israeli strike on Iran is more likely than not this year. I agree that the odds are in favor of such a preemptive strike, and that there are compelling reasons for Israel to act before November—not only because of the progress Iran is likely to make in its nuclear program by the fall but also because of a widespread perception that President Obama will have to be more supportive of America’s closest ally in the region before the election than after it. What I don’t know—know one does—is what the impact of such strikes would be: how much would they set back the Iranian nuclear program and how would Iran respond?
Goldberg reports that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak are fairly optimistic about the damage that Israel could do to Iran’s nuclear complex and sanguine about the prospects of Iranian retaliation: “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,” Goldberg writes. Moreover, he adds: “Some Israeli security officials also believe that Iran won’t target American ships or installations in the Middle East in retaliation for a strike, as many American officials fear, because the leadership in Tehran understands that American retaliation for an Iranian attack could be so severe as to threaten the regime itself.
The New York Times reports that a Central Command war game raised greater concerns about Iranian retaliation including possibly missile strikes on U.S. facilities and warships in the Persian Gulf. Those are legitimate concerns but Iran would be making a serious miscalculation if it gave the U.S. an excuse to unleash our own, much more formidable air forces against its nuclear installations. That doesn’t mean that Iran won’t do it—its leadership has miscalculated before and will do so again—but it should caution against assuming that the U.S. will automatically become embroiled in a war with Iran after an Israeli attack. I think Iran is more likely to unleash a massive missile barrage against Israel using its Hezbollah proxies and to step up terrorist attacks on U.S. targets in the region.
Whatever the risks of Israeli action, we must never lost sight of the disastrous consequences of inaction—namely the almost certain acquisition of nuclear weapons by the world’s No. 1 state sponsor of terrorism. That is a frightening thought that should put the fallout from any military action into perspective. Ehud Barak, Israel’s most decorated living soldier and a man who knows a thing or two about warfare, says, “A war is no picnic,” but he believes the consequences of action—which are certain to be far greater for Israel than for the U.S.—will be manageable: “There will not be 100,000 dead or 10,000 dead or 1,000 dead. The state of Israel will not be destroyed.” The other possibility is that if Iran does acquire nukes, then the destruction of Israel becomes a much more imaginable possibility.