When will Israel attack Iran?

Israeli F15I warplanes practice midair refueling maneuver

Israeli F15I warplanes practice midair refueling maneuver

Today I’m going to engage in the popular sport of predicting when Israel will attack Iran’s nuclear installations.

Not ‘if’ — when. It is now clear that sanctions and diplomacy as they can be implemented in the real world will not — cannot — stop Iran. The attainment of nuclear weapons is a national goal of top priority, and the regime can tolerate a great amount of unhappiness on the part of its people in order to achieve it.

Although it is not impossible that the US will do the job, our red lines are farther away than those of Israel. Administration officials have alluded to a ‘decision to build a weapon’ as a trigger for action, while Israel considers the ‘capability’ as unacceptable.

It is also an Israeli strategic principle — well borne out by history — that it cannot depend on others when national survival is at stake. It considers nuclear capability of a state like Iran a danger to its existence. So even if the US makes convincing arguments that it will take action in the future, this is not a bet that Netanyahu can afford to take.

I am not sufficiently competent or informed to say when the point will be reached at which Israel feels that it must act before the Iranian facilities are hardened enough to make an attack too difficult. And of course I don’t know when the Iranians will have the “capability” that defines Israel’s red line. But there are political issues that I can discuss.

All of Israel’s wars involve the US as a silent ally or silent not-so-much-ally. The question of “what will the US allow Israel to do?” is almost as important as “what is Israel capable of doing?” And the timing of any action with regard to the upcoming election is very relevant to US behavior.

Because the majority of Americans support Israel, the administration does not want to appear unfriendly before the election (this is one reason that it has backed off the pressure to restart negotiations with the Palestinians). This will greatly restrict its freedom to act to restrain Israel or end the conflict that develops before Israel has achieved a clear-cut victory.

This is extremely important in connection with the campaign against Hizballah that will have to accompany action against Iran. Israel can not afford a conflict that ends in another toothless UN resolution like 1701, which ‘forbade’ Hizballah from rearming, and which was ignored.

After the election, the Obama administration — which is exceptionally cool toward Israel — will either be re-elected or become a lame duck. In either case, it will no longer be restrained by electoral considerations. It will no longer be afraid to be tough on Israel.

If Romney wins the election, one hopes that his administration will be more friendly. But practically speaking, it’s doubtful that there will be a major reversal of US policy. The State Department, the CIA, the various pro-Arab lobbies — none of these will go away, or change a whole lot. In that case, I think we can look forward to a return to ‘normal’ US-Israel relations, similar to what we had in the Clinton and Bush administrations. And that would be a good thing.

I don’t want to minimize the ideological distance between a Romney, who believes in American exceptionalism, and an Obama, who is the first American president to espouse “leading from behind.”

But a new administration would want to avoid an international crisis in its first days. And Israel would want to go out of its way to establish good relations with it. So the idea that a Romney victory would be a green light for Israel to attack Iran is certainly wrong. And it is highly unlikely that a new administration would want to jump into military action itself.

Regardless of who wins, then, it is advantageous for Israel to act before the election.

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4 Responses to “When will Israel attack Iran?”

  1. Robman says:

    I would agree, with one qualification.

    Obviously, it would be undesirable for Israel and anyone who cares about Israel for Obama to be re-elected.

    One can argue that as of right now, Obama is seen by much, probably the majority, of the voting public here in the U.S. as being responsible – or at least as responsible as a U.S. president is held apart from other factors – for the current economic mess in the U.S.

    If Israel strikes before the election, and there is some sort of downturn as a result – at least a temporary spike in oil prices and a nosedive in stock markets are pretty much a given – then Obama can shift the blame to Israel. Now the focus is on Israel for an even crappier economy, rather than Obama. And this “spin” might actually help Obama get re-elected, an outcome we clearly do not want.

    Alternatively, if a strike by Israel in advance of the election is highly successful, then Obama can be virtually counted on to try to “piggyback” on this politically so as to gain advantage, trying to claim credit for backing Israel. “We were with them all along, we provided key, indispensible assistance”, blah blah blah. Even if he’d be lying through his teeth – he’s very good at that, this Obama – is Israel going to contradict him publicly? I don’t think so.

    For these reasons, I consider it plausible that Israel will move immediately after the election, so as to not allow Obama & Co. to scapegoat Israel and use them as a distraction in advance of the election, or to otherwise exploit Israel for political advantage.

    Also, we have to bear in mind that the most important driver of an Israeli decision is going to be Iran, U.S. election or no U.S. election. If Iran is getting close enough to build a bomb, and/or is improving her defenses against attack to a degree that would preclude Israeli action, then Israel will have to act, whether this decision point is reached tomorrow morning or next year.

    IF – a very big IF – “cloak and dagger” methods can put off that decision point until say, a year from now, after Romney has had a chance to settle in, then it would be best to move with the cooperation of the U.S. as a more or less genuine ally.

    Much turns on the Israeli estimation not only of Iranian progress in her program/hardening of defenses, but also on the chances of Obama being re-elected.

    If Israeli decsion makers consider it likely that Obama will be re-elected, then they have a great incentive to move before the election, so that Obama’s ability to “punish” Israel for “defying” him will be limited in the critical near term, by electoral politics, as you suggest above in your article, Vic.

    If Israeli leaders operate on the assumption that Obama will be defeated, then they might be able to afford to wait.

    Key phrase: “MIGHT be able”.

    That brings us back to Iran and the extent to which Israel can throw up roadblocks in the meantime.

    Like you, my security clearance is not high enough to know that.

  2. Vic Rosenthal says:

    Robman:

    I do not think it’s possible to predict whether a conflict would help or hurt Obama’s chances of reelection. WAY too many uncertainties.

    The trick is to get in and do the job, especially including Hizballah, without allowing anything — like an unfriendly US administration — to interfere.

    I don’t think Israel’s estimation of who will win the election is going to have much effect on what they do.

  3. Shalom Freedman says:

    The assumption here seems to be that Syria will not participate in the response to any Israeli attack. The assumption also is that this will not lead to any kind of temporary halt in the Sunni- Shiite war for control of the Middle East, some temporary unity in ‘aleihum’ on Israel.
    The assumption here seems also to be that a strike by Israel will not draw in American forces, will not lead then to a confirmation of the accusation that Israel is the cause for American soldiers fighting and dying.
    I could go on with my reservations but actually I am not very enthused or confident about anything I might say.
    It really might be necessary to attack Iran despite all the other consequences. And you might be right about the timing.
    But as you yourself say you do not have the inside information which would probably deterimine ‘if’ and ‘when’. My sense is that even those who have the Information cannot be certain of the consequence of their action. A decision is a step into the unknown.
    There is always the hidden hope, perhaps wishful thinking only that the spillover from the Syrian situation will somehow upset Iranian plans. Or that the sanctions might lead them, although this too seems unlikely, to stop their program for now.
    Frankly, behind all my hesitations is my concern with what missiles on Tel Aviv will mean for all of us. My hesitations by the way make me realize how glad I am that people with mindsets different from mine have to make these kinds of decisions and carry out these kinds of operations.

  4. Vic Rosenthal says:

    Shalom:

    I didn’t say anything about how difficult such an operation would be or what the consequences would be (although I strongly doubt that the Iranians would be stupid enough to attack American forces when they don’t have to).

    I am also not advocating that Israel do anything or not do anything. I am quite aware that when war comes my son and son-in-law will have to fight in it and that my daughter and daughter-in-law and grandchildren will be in danger. I too am glad that I am not the PM or MOD.

    I am simply discussing the political considerations that affect the timing of the action when it comes.