Among the plethora of arguments made against an Israeli attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities, one of the most bizarre is that the ensuing wave of international sympathy for Iran would destroy the international sanctions regime and allow Iran to race for the bomb unhindered – an argument made by both Israeli and American security experts opposed to a strike.
After all, U.S. President Barack Obama has said repeatedly that preventing a nuclear Iran is “profoundly” in America’s security interest; various other world leaders have also said a nuclear Iran threatens their own security. So why would all of them suddenly decide that a nuclear Iran no longer threatens their countries’ interests just because Israel launched an attack? And unless they changed their minds in this fashion, why would any of them suddenly stop trying to prevent Iran from going nuclear? Normal countries don’t stop pursuing their own security interests merely because they are annoyed with another country.
In fact, there’s only one conceivable reason why any country currently backing the sanctions regime should reverse its position following an Israeli strike: If it never actually cared about preventing a nuclear Iran in the first place, and backed sanctions only in an effort to prevent an Israeli attack.
It’s certainly possible that many countries fall into this category. But if so, that’s an argument in favor of an Israeli strike – because if world leaders aren’t actually committed to stopping Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons, there’s no chance the sanctions regime will be maintained long enough and strictly enough to do so.
Indeed, the opposite is the case: If the world’s only interest in sanctions is preventing Israeli military action against Iran, those sanctions are sure to be eased once Iran has entered the “zone of immunity,” meaning its nuclear facilities are sufficiently protected that Israel no longer has the ability even to significantly delay its quest for the bomb. After all, most of the countries now participating in sanctions, especially in Europe, conducted a thriving trade with Iran until recently, and reviving that trade would benefit their own faltering economies. Thus the incentive to lift the sanctions would be overwhelming once the danger of an Israeli attack had passed.
In short, if other countries don’t truly believe it’s in their own interest to keep Iran from going nuclear, the sanctions effort will soon lapse regardless of whether or not Israel attacks – meaning Israel’s best play is to attack now and achieve whatever delay it can. That, as I’ve written before, isn’t an ideal solution, but it’s better than the certainty of Iran getting the bomb: Just as Israel’s 1981 attack on Iraq’s nuclear reactor bought just enough time for Saddam Hussein to provoke international intervention by invading Kuwait, an attack on Iran now could buy time for, say, a successful Iranian revolution, or an Iranian blunder (like closing the Straits of Hormuz) that would provoke international military action.
And if other countries do believe that preventing a nuclear Iran is in their own interests, they’ll continue working toward that end regardless of whether or not Israel attacks.