What Would An Attack On Iran Really Achieve?

081112-F-7823A-160Jeffrey Goldberg has a big new article in which he reports that, having “interviewed roughly 40 current and past Israeli decision makers about a military strike, as well as many American and Arab officials,” “a consensus emerged that there is a better than 50 percent chance that Israel will launch a strike by next July.”

In the article, Goldberg lists the likely consequences that would follow an Israeli strike, writing that such an attack stand[s] a good chance of changing the Middle East forever”:

sparking lethal reprisals, and even a full-blown regional war that could lead to the deaths of thousands of Israelis and Iranians, and possibly Arabs and Americans as well;

creating a crisis for Barack Obama that will dwarf Afghanistan in significance and complexity;

rupturing relations between Jerusalem and Washington, which is Israel’s only meaningful ally;

– inadvertently solidifying the somewhat tenuous rule of the mullahs in Tehran;

causing the price of oil to spike to cataclysmic highs, launching the world economy into a period of turbulence not experienced since the autumn of 2008, or possibly since the oil shock of 1973;

placing communities across the Jewish diaspora in mortal danger, by making them targets of Iranian-sponsored terror attacks, as they have been in the past, in a limited though already lethal way;

– and accelerating Israel’s conversion from a once-admired refuge for a persecuted people into a leper among nations.

All of this, Goldberg writes, “regardless of whether Israel succeeds.” So those are the downsides. (Actually, Goldberg forgot an important one: As Joint Chiefs Chairman Adm. Mike Mullen and former IAEA chief Hans Blix have both pointed out, “if Iran were not determined before to go for nuclear weapons, any attack from the outside would lead them to such a determination.”)

On the upside, Goldberg writes, “If a strike does succeed in crippling the Iranian nuclear program… Israel, in addition to possibly generating some combination of the various catastrophes outlined above, will have removed from its list of existential worries the immediate specter of nuclear-weaponized, theologically driven, eliminationist anti-Semitism.”

There’s quite a lot that’s wrong with this calculus. Numerous analysts doubt that Israel is capable of carrying out a successful strike. As Brookings’ Ken Pollack wrote in his 2004 book The Persian Puzzle, “Given the size of the various Iranian nuclear facilities, it would not be possible for Israel to destroy all of them in a single raid as it did Osiraq. Nor would it be politically, militarily, or logistically possible for Israel to sustain multiple such strikes over the many days, if not weeks, it would take for all its F-151s to accomplish the job.”

Likewise, a March 2009 study by Anthony Cordesman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies found that, while an Israeli strike was possible, “the number of aircraft required, refueling along the way and getting to the targets without being detected or intercepted would be complex and high risk and would lack any assurances that the overall mission will have a high success rate.

Almost as troubling as considering the low likelihood of success/high likelihood of disaster of such a strike, however, is the manner in which Goldberg — in what seems like an effort to justify the strategic calculation — uncritically transmits a number of questionable claims about actual Iranian intentions toward Israel. Such as:

You don’t want a messianic apocalyptic cult controlling atomic bombs,” [Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu] said. “When the wide-eyed believer gets hold of the reins of power and the weapons of mass death, then the world should start worrying, and that’s what is happening in Iran.”

As I’ve written before, the idea that Iran is “a messianic apocalyptic cult” is simply unsupported by any serious examination of Iran’s past behavior. I would hope Netanyahu is smart enough to know this, (as I know for a fact a number of close advisers are). And while I’m not at all interested in parsing the numerous offensive, threatening statements about both Israel and Jews from Iran’s leaders over the years, I don’t see how the continuing existence of a 3000 year old Iranian Jewish community demonstrates the “eliminationist anti-Semitism” of the Iranian government.

It’s quite true that a nuclear weapons-capable Iran opens up a whole complex of problems, but the likelihood of an Iranian first strike, or of their handing off weapons (to which they’ve committed a huge amount of resources and endured considerable international opprobrium to develop) to terrorist proxies, is not high among them. Iran is not irrational, nor is it suicidal. So it’s disturbing to see Netanyahu peddling this stuff, and irresponsible for Goldberg to pass it along without scrutiny.

As a side note, given what Goldberg reports Israel is willing to endure — and, more importantly, willing to cause the U.S. to endure — compared to what Israel can realistically hope to achieve with a strike on Iran, it’s worth asking who is actually the more “irrational” actor here.

To state what should be pretty obvious, the article represents a new stage in an ongoing attempt to pressure President Obama into a more belligerent posture toward Iran, with the stated reasoning (no alternative view is entertained by Goldberg) that only by threatening war can Obama convince the Iranians that he’s “serious” about stopping their nuclear program and chill the Israelis out. It’s worth pointing out, though, that this approach clearly failed during the Bush administration — belligerence only seems to have convinced the Iranians that they needed to accelerate their program.

It’s also important to understand that, if Obama does succumb to this pressure and escalates his anti-Iranian rhetoric, the very same people who are now insisting that it’s the only way to avoid war with Iran will later insist that the preservation of American credibility requires going to war with Iran.