A new memo from Steve Simon of the Council on Foreign Relations looks at the possibility of an Israeli strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities. “In assessing the likelihood of an attack,” Simon writes, “it is useful to look back on the origins of the Six Day War in 1967 and the raid on the Osirak reactor in Iraq.”
In each case, Israel attacked only after a long period of procrastination. In 1967, Washington’s hands-off posture tipped the balance in the cabinet in favor of preemption. In the case of Osirak, the Carter and Reagan administrations’ unwillingness or incapacity to intervene left Israel feeling cornered and compelled to act unilaterally. One lesson to be learned from this is that Israel is more likely to use force if it perceives Washington to be disengaged.
I’m not sure what lesson this has for Obama. No one can say that he’s been “disengaged” in the Middle East. Clearly, Obama hasn’t been “engaged” in precisely the manner that Netanyahu would probably prefer — i.e. taking a harder line on Iran while ignoring Israel’s settlement building — but he has repeatedly stressed both the U.S. commitment to Israel’s security and that he recognizes Iran’s nuclear program as a threat to that security. So I suppose the question is whether, or at what point, Netanyahu will decide to interpret Obama’s pursuit of engagement with Iran as “disengagement” from Israel.
Simon concludes that, while Israel could carry out such a strike, the margin of error for a successful strike — that is, one that destroys or at least seriously incapacitates Iran’s known nuclear facilities — is razor thin.
And then there are the consequences of such a strike. Here’s a summary:
First, regardless of perceptions of U.S. complicity in the attack, the United States would probably become embroiled militarily in any Iranian retaliation against Israel or other countries in the region. [...]
Second, an Israeli strike would cause oil prices to spike and heighten concerns that energy supplies through the Persian Gulf may become disrupted. [...]
Third, since the United States would be viewed as having assisted Israel, U.S. efforts to foster better relations with the Muslim world would almost certainly suffer. [...]
Fourth, the United States has a strong interest in domestically generated regime change in Iran. Although some argue that the popular anger aroused in Iran by a strike would be turned against a discredited clerical regime that seemed to invite foreign attack after its bloody post-election repression of nonviolent opposition, it is more likely that Iranians of all stripes would rally around the flag. [...]
Fifth, an Israeli attack might guarantee an overtly nuclear weapons capable Iran in the medium term.
Sixth, although progress toward an Israeli-Palestinian final status accord remains elusive, an Israeli strike, especially one that overflew Jordan or Saudi Arabia, would delay fruitful renewed negotiation indefinitely. [...]
Finally, the United States has an abiding interest in the safety and security of Israel. Depending on the circumstances surrounding an Israeli attack, the political-military relationship between Jerusalem and Washington could fray, which could erode unity among Democrats and embolden Republicans, thereby complicating the administration’s political situation, and weaken Israel’s deterrent. Even if an Israeli move on Iran did not dislocate the bilateral relationship, it could instead produce diplomatic rifts between the United States and its European and regional allies, reminiscent of tensions over the Iraq war.
That’s a lot of downsides. One that I have yet to see discussed, however, is the potential effect on U.S. public support for Israel of attacks by Iran on American troops in retaliation for an Israeli strike. As retired General Anthony Zinni put it back in September, “Eventually, if you follow this [a strike on Iran] all the way down, eventually I’m putting boots on the ground somewhere. And like I tell my friends, if you like Iraq and Afghanistan, you’ll love Iran.” A solid majority of Americans support the U.S. Israel relationship, but I’m not sure Netanyahu really wants to test the depth of that support once America starts taking casualties as a direct result of precipitous Israeli military action. And no one wants Israel to be put into a position where he has to do that.