Friends in Washington send me e-mails: They want to know if Israel is getting ready to bomb Iran's nuclear installations. This is the Bush Era: If you will it, no Middle East war is impossible. And in the last few weeks, there has been a gale of hints, threats, and leaks. U.S. officials, none named, told The New York Times that an Israeli military exercise last month was "a rehearsal" for striking Iran. Shaul Mofaz, the remarkably mediocre ex-military chief of staff campaigning to succeed Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, said that an Israeli attack was "unavoidable."
A notoriously unreliable reporter for the Sunday Times of London wrote that President Bush has given Israel an "amber light" -- to translate, that would be the light between green and red -- for hitting Iran. Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, warned that if Israel opened a "third front" against Iran, it would hurt the U.S. in Iraq and Afghanistan. That's a clear U.S. no -- with the implication that there's something to which "no" must be said. None of this adds up to anything solid. But speaking to Mother Jones' Laura Rozen, an ex-adviser to Dick Cheney puts the odds at "slightly above 50-50" that Israel will strike Iran before Bush leaves office. Is that insider information or wishful thinking from the war camp?
Alas, friends, neither the Israeli general staff nor the security Cabinet invite the media to their meetings. The minutes of today's meetings will be declassified in 50 years and will demonstrate how much of what's being reported now is disinformation.
But this much I know: Asking some basic questions about an Israeli attack leads to the conclusion that it is unwise. And if all those recent leaks are meant as a warning to Tehran -- stop your nuclear program, or the United States may not be able to restrain Israel -- they may do more harm than good. They reinforce the mistaken idea that an Iranian bomb is really only Israel's problem.
Here are the questions I’d suggest are essential to ask:
Can Israel destroy the Iranian nuclear program?
At first glance, the model for Israeli action is the 1981 bombing of Iraq's Osiraq reactor. But striking Iran would be far more difficult. Former Deputy Defense Minister Ephraim Sneh, a hawk on Iran, told me to "assume that with ingenuity" Israel could succeed. Sneh cites the 1976 Entebbe raid -- in which Israel flew commandos to Uganda to free passengers from a hijacked airliner -- as an example of doing what appeared impossible. Sneh was the head of the medical team on that mission. Yet he is only underlining the problem: Entebbe, like Osiraq, was a pinpoint attack and totally unexpected.
Meir Litvak, a senior fellow at Tel Aviv University's Center for Iranian Studies, lists the differences between Osiraq and the current challenge. Iran, he notes, has spread out its nuclear facilities. They are "presumably buried very deep underground," and Israel may not know where they all are. (Iran, after all, knows about Osiraq, and a tactic is only a surprise once.) Given the limited ability of the Israeli air force to strike at that distance, its planes would have to make more than one bombing run; on the return trip, they'd be expected.
The United States has much greater airpower. However, Hebrew University political scientist Yehezkel Dror, a strategic expert of the realpolitik school, wrote this week in the daily Yediot Aharonot that the "probability is very low" that either a U.S. or Israeli operation would force Iran to abandon its nuclear program. Dror sat on the Winograd Commission of Inquiry, which ripped apart the Israeli government's strategic mistakes in going to war in Lebanon two years ago. Politicians may not want to meet him on a commission investigating why an attack on Iran backfired.
What would Iran's response be?
Iran's recent missile tests were intended to show it could strike back at Israel. Photoshopping in a missile that failed to launch did not make the message more convincing.
But Iranian retaliation isn't limited to missiles launched from its own territory. Its most loyal proxy, Hezbollah, now has 40,000 Iranian-supplied missiles in Lebanon, the Israeli security Cabinet was reportedly told last week. That represents three times its stockpile before the 2006 war. "That's why Iran gave [Hezbollah] the missiles, to deter Israel," Sneh himself says.
Iran has two other allies on Israel's border. Hamas could resume rocket fire from Gaza, albeit with a range limited to southern Israel. Syria, with a much more serious missile force, might also bombard Israel, though it is more independent from Tehran. If the United States attacks, the chance is also high of Iran and its proxies, especially Hezbollah, striking Israel.
In a very cold calculation, conventional missiles striking Israeli cities could be a price worth paying to prevent a nuclear attack. But that assumes that hitting Iran is necessary to avoid nuclear attack and would succeed.
What is the cost of failure?
Destroying some Iranian facilities but not others, Litvak suggests, would only slow down Tehran's nuclear program. Even a solid military success might delay it by no more than a few years. In the meantime, the political effect would probably be to "unify the public in support of the regime." Dror lists as a "real possibility" that "Iran's determination to secretly develop nuclear weapons" would be redoubled, "with a thirst for revenge."
Can Iran be deterred from using nukes?
Hawks say it can't. If that's true, and if sanctions don't work, then the dangers of a military option still look small next to the alternatives. A standard argument of the hawks is that Iran's Islamic leaders won't respond to the logic of mutually assured destruction; they'd be willing to commit national suicide to get rid of Israel.
But there is evidence that the leaders of the Islamic Republic do, indeed, behave as Iranians with a pragmatic concern for their nation. Strategic expert Reuven Pedatzur of Tel Aviv University points out that Iran agreed to a ceasefire in the war with Iraq once Iraqi missiles began falling on Tehran. The ayatollahs were willing to sacrifice soldiers but not national survival. Litvak cites more examples: Iran has sided with Christian Armenia rather than Azerbaijan; the latter could appeal to Iran's large Azeri minority. In 1991, when Iraqi Shi'ites rebelled, Iran left them to their fate rather than risk renewed war with Saddam Hussein's regime.
Let's be clear: There are no guarantees here, either. As Israeli strategic analyst Yossi Alpher points out, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has apocalyptic expectations. He may be less afraid of nuclear confrontation. And no one knows precisely who will be in charge in Tehran five years after it gets the bomb or which faction there will control nuclear weapons.
Even without pushing a button, a nuclear Iran would be significantly more powerful in the region. It doesn't take lots of bombs to be scary. In response, Litvak argues, Saudi Arabia and Egypt will want to bolster their positions by going nuclear, and perhaps Turkey will as well. There are no assurances about who will hold power in a decade in those countries, either. From India to Egypt, there could be a swath of nuclear powers, all suspicious of the others. Today's Middle East could be remembered for its serenity and for the safety of its oil supplies.
Whose problem is this, and what should be done?
Given that scenario, a nuclear Iran isn't just Israel's problem. Constant reports on the possibility that Israel might go it alone obscure this. Stronger sanctions -- which both hawks and moderates urge -- require the widest international agreement. Let's face it, worrying about Israel does not naturally create broad international consensus.
Besides tough sanctions, Litvak says, getting Iran to give up its nuclear program would require a reasonable diplomatic offer. It would have to include economic incentives and "a guarantee that neither the Americans nor the world intends to overthrow the regime" in Tehran. He suggests, as well, "some face-saving formula recognizing the grandeur of Iran."
That is not a risk-free solution. But it's much less dangerous than attempting a military solution. But getting there requires making it through the last months of the Bush era without incident. The blather of leaks and threats is no way to accomplish that.