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An attack on Iran?

I don't want Iran to become a nuclear power. I also don't think an air strike by Israel or the United States on its nuclear facilities would be successful. I think the consequences from the second scenario might be worse than the first, especially should it fail to achieve its goals of delaying the Iranian nuclear program.

Unfortunately, that point of view only has about one paragraph in a 9,800-word Atlantic cover article by Jeffrey Goldberg, the most influential American journalist on Israel, entitled "The Point of No Return."

The article has one main journalistic problem--it relies on often anonymous quoting by sources who have every incentive to exaggerate the problem. As Goldberg acknowledges once, officials in Israel, the United Arab Emirates or an unspecified Arab country don't want Iran to become nuclear, so it's far from clear that their comments to an American journalist read by American policymakers are exactly objective.


The UAE ambassador to the US told Goldberg on-the-record at the Aspen Ideas Festival:

“There are many countries in the region who, if they lack the assurance the U.S. is willing to confront Iran, they will start running for cover towards Iran,” he said. “Small, rich, vulnerable countries in the region do not want to be the ones who stick their finger in the big bully’s eye, if nobody’s going to come to their support.”

That these small countries will suddenly turn themselves into Iranian satellites seems unfounded. After all, did they become Israeli satellites after Israel got the bomb? Moreover, if Iran does become nuclear, it seems likely that Saudi Arabia would acquire (or more likely, buy) a nuclear capability too, and include those countries in its nuclear umbrella. For those small, rich Sunni republics to fall under the sway of a large, economically and militarily decaying Shia republic is just a bridge too far.

Goldberg acknowledges the problem here:

Several Arab leaders have suggested that America’s standing in the Middle East depends on its willingness to confront Iran. They argue self-interestedly that an aerial attack on a handful of Iranian facilities would not be as complicated or as messy as, say, invading Iraq. “This is not a discussion about the invasion of Iran,” one Arab foreign minister told me

Well, of course it's easy for that minister to say--he would not have to deal with the consequences with the attack and would only stand to gain from it should it succeed.

Anomnimity is a double-edged sword. Sources can be more candid of course, off-the-record. But they also don't have to have their names attached to quotes, meaning they don't have responsibility for their quotes.

The anonymous scare quoting to try to goad America into attacking Iran isn't limited to the Arabs:

Israelis reach the firm conclusion that Obama will not, under any circumstances, launch a strike on Iran, then the countdown will begin for a unilateral Israeli attack. “If the choice is between allowing Iran to go nuclear, or trying for ourselves what Obama won’t try, then we probably have to try,” the official told me.

And here:

The only reason Bibi [Netanyahu] would place Israel’s relationship with America in total jeopardy is if he thinks that Iran represents a threat like the Shoah,” an Israeli official who spends considerable time with the prime minister told me. “In World War II, the Jews had no power to stop Hitler from annihilating us. Six million were slaughtered. Today, 6 million Jews live in Israel, and someone is threatening them with annihilation. But now we have the power to stop them. Bibi knows that this is the choice."

Or later in the article, an anonymous Israeli military planner:

“It is very important to be able to tell the Israeli people what we have achieved,” he said. “Many Israelis think the Iranians are building Auschwitz. We have to let them know that we have destroyed Auschwitz, or we have to let them know that we tried and failed.”

Of course, Israel doesn't take chances with its security and considers itself--with some justification--as alone in the world. On the other hand, if Iran did represent such a great threat as the Shoah, would not Netanyahu have not allowed the U.S.-Israel relationship to deteriorate?

The relationship reached a nadir when the Israeli government announced the construction of new housing units in East Jerusalem as Vice President Joe Biden had just come for a visit. Netanyahu didn't apologize for the substance of the announcement, just the timing. (The announcement was within the bounds of the settlement freeze, but the U.S. had wanted a freeze to all settlements, with no exception for East Jerusalem.) The relationship is publicly warm, but given the divergent interests and approaches of the two men, it's hard to believe that that's the whole story.


In his conclusions, Goldberg is probably right that the United States won't attack Iran and the Israelis have a greater-than-fity-percent chance of doing so. But two questions remain at best unexplored, and at worst, unanswered, in his black-and-white scenario: 1) What if Iran develops a "breakout" nuclear capability like Japan, not having nuclear weapons but the components to create them within 3-6 months 2) That an attack on Iran would not succeed.

The first scenario would likely give Iran some deterrence against an attack--in other words, if you attack us, we really will go nuclear. It would also be somewhat more difficult for the international community to regard it as a problem--if there are no weapons, than what is the problem?

The second scenario could happen, according to the U.S. military. Admiral Mike Mullen said that an attack on Iran would be as destabilizing as Iran getting a nuclear weapon. Gen. Cartwright, vice-chairman of JSOC, said that military action alone was unlikely to stop Iran from being decisive in April to the Senate. Neither is quoted by Goldberg.

Israel in the past has used surprise to its strategic advantage, most famously in the Six-Day War, when the entire Israeli Air Force left the country unguarded and destroyed almost all of the Egyptian Air Force. That's just not the case with Iran. Iranian decision-makers are expecting this, and in turn have moved many of their nuclear facilities underground. Israel knows this--Defense Minister Ehud Barak told the Knesset in December 2009, that the uncovered Qom facility was “located in bunkers that cannot be destroyed through a conventional attack.”


If the policy options were great on Iran, then it wouldn't be an existential conundrum for Israel and a significant problem in U.S. foreign policy. But they aren't. Though it's hard to get quality information from a secret program in a closed country only permeated by defections and reports from international organizations that Iran itself loathes to comply with, the IAEA is the best bet. Buried in Goldberg's article is an on-the-record quote from the NSA official in charge of President Obama's counterproliferation team that makes the problem seem not so dire or immediate:

“The most essential measure of nuclear-weapons capability is how quickly they can build weapons-grade material, and from that standpoint we can measure, based on the IAEA reports, that the Iranians are not doing well,” Samore said. “The particular centrifuge machines they’re running are based on an inferior technology. They are running into some technical difficulties, partly because of the work we’ve done to deny them access to foreign components. When they make the parts themselves, they are making parts that don’t have quality control.”

Seems that this measure, has to be on balance just as effective as a conventional attack might be--without any of the costs.


  • Gerry Fightmaster 4 years ago

    Thanks Luke. You always come with good information.

  • Anonymous 4 years ago

    The war I would like to see is a war between Iran and Israel in which only Iranians and Israelis are killed or crippled. If Israel has the bomb it will probably drop a dozen bombs on Iran but that would be ok with America. To paraphrase Samuel Clemens, "...they're only Muslims."

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