Will Israel strike at Iran's nuclear program?
About this blog: Concerns over Iran’s nuclear program remain despite some reassuring remarks from Meir Dagan, the outgoing head of Israel’s Mossad intelligence agency. Last week, Dagan said that Iran could not acquire a nuclear weapon before 2015 because of technical problems. To Dana Allin and Steven Simon, Iran’s progress toward nuclear capability is the latest of six crises the United States has confronted in the Middle East since World War II. In “The Sixth Crisis: Iran, Israel, America and the Rumors of War,” the authors assess the depth of the challenge and weigh the likelihood of Israeli air strikes to stop Iran’s nuclear progress. Allin is senior fellow for U.S. foreign policy at the International Institute for Strategic Studies, while Simon is an adjunct senior fellow for Middle Eastern studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. Here, Simon assesses the tension over Iran’s program.
The year 2010 has now passed without a new Middle East war being set off by Iran’s march towards a nuclear weapons capability – and Israel’s determination to stop it.
The end-of-2010 deadline was reportedly set in May 2009 by Israel’s defense minister, Ehud Barak; according to one of the Wikileaks cables, Barak told visiting U.S. congressmen that air strikes to stop Iran’s program “might still be viable” for 18 months; after that, “any military solution would result in unacceptable collateral damage.”
Of course, both Israel and the United States have been drawing lines in the sand for years, and then watching Iran cross them.
In more recent months, there has been something of a lull in expectations of immediate conflict. In the first instance, this is because Iran has encountered unexpected – and, from our perspective, welcome – difficulties in the process of spinning centrifuges to enrich uranium to make the fuel that goes into both bombs and nuclear reactors. Sabotage, technology trade sanctions, and the inherent difficulty of the whole enterprise have played a role in this.
More broadly, both the United States and Iran have an interest in playing the crisis long. For Iran, it was never a crash program but rather a steady project to master the technology that would bring Tehran the option to build a nuclear weapon if and when the regime decides to do so.
For the Obama administration, entangled already in two Middle East wars, its military over-stretched, a fiscal crisis looming and the body politic aching from the effects of a sick economy, there are good reasons to put off the choice between preventive strikes and accepting some form of Iranian nuclear capability.
Israel is the wild card. Its perception of the threat is, for understandable reasons, far more acute. To be dissuaded from taking matters into its own hands, Jerusalem has to be convinced that it can not only survive but continue to prosper even under the shadow of an Iran whose nuclear capabilities are growing.
Convincing Israelis of this depends on a strong security relationship with the United States, wrapped in a healthy political relationship. This is, of course, a two-way street. It would help a lot if Israel would get its own priorities straight – rather than expanding settlements in occupied territories, rendering peace with the Palestinians progressively less viable, and damaging U.S. credibility in the region. (The flip side is that progress on the peace process would damage Iran’s credibility and slow its strategic momentum in the region.)
It is not entirely clear what Defense Minister Barak meant when he spoke, many months ago, about “unacceptable collateral damage.” His words confirm, though, that Israel’s leaders are alert to the likely damaging consequences of military action.
There may be a temptation in some circles to believe that air strikes would be relatively painless, and accepted by Iran just as Iraq accepted an attack on its Osirak reactor in 1981.
This benign scenario cannot be disproven categorically.
More likely, however, is a spectrum of escalation, including possible new conflict in Lebanon, attacks on U.S. allies in the Persian Gulf, a spike in oil prices with deleterious effects on a fragile economy, spasms of terrorist violence, and lasting damage to hopes for Israel-Arab peace.
Most worrying would be the likelihood of Iran redoubling its nuclear efforts in far more dangerous regional circumstances.
We argue in our book that a regime of containment and deterrence, unsatisfying as it may be, is better than risking these consequences. In the meantime, another year without another war may be the best we can hope for.
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