To try to understand the message coming out of Israel right now with respect to the Iranian nuclear threat is a little bit like trying to interpret the screen of the SETI project: a lot of noise but no clear signal. While battle cries and sable-rattling has been heard from all quarters—including from Israel’s president Shimon Peres—these warning have done little to change the new reality that Israel faces in the Middle East.
ForIsrael, the publication of the IAEA report onIran’s nuclear capabilities changed everything but yet nothing. Israel’s intelligence and defense establishment were quick to point out that the country already possesses much more precise information about the Iranian threat than what was contained in the report. However, one cannot but wonder if Israel’s Iran policy has missed its moment of opportunity. The moment when Israel could stealthily fly a secret mission to knock out a nascent Iranian reactor in one blow without incurring huge costs for itself and its allies, has clearly passed. Even in the best case scenario—using conservative estimates—the risks are likely to far outweigh the temporary benefits. While Israel’s political leadership has gone relatively mum after the report, declaring that the matter is serious and therefore needs to be discussed behind closed doors, the Israeli press and pundits are now feverishly discussing the advantages and disadvantages of the various political and military strategies ahead.
In making these calculations Israel needs to know how far Iran is determined and/or willing to go in carrying out their hostility to the Jewish state. World leaders throughout history who were faced with a similar dilemma customarily chose precaution and always assumed the worst. Thus, mirror imaging has become a useful concept in International Relations, explaining that leaders in wartime often take their own worst thoughts and insecurities and apply them to the other side’s actions. While Western Europeans mostly interpreted Ronald Regan’s Cold War resurgence in the 1970’s as his own personal paranoia, due to the complexity of the US political system (that we will not go into here), American foreign policy is often simplified to the Black/White or “us” vs. “them” perspective. However, while Regan’s paranoia indeed turned out to be partly that, Israel’s situation is a bit different. Israel has first-hand experience of hostility from its neighbor states; in Israel (as one friend explained) if Ahmedi-Nejad says he wants to kill you, you’d better believe him or you may be dead before you have time to change your mind.
It is against this backdrop that it is interesting to consider what Iran will really choose to do and what Israel’s choices are given Iran’s actions. Princeton game theorist and political scientist, Bruce Bueno de Mesquita famously predicted (in a 2009 TED Talk presentation) that Iran’s leaders would make the choice to develop enough weapons-grade plutonium and expertise to build a bomb but would stop once that objective and know-how had been attained. According to the IAEA report Iran has now clearly reached that point, and it seems to me that Professor Bueno de Mesquita should be in for his own personal nail-biter, at the end of which it will be determined whether his most famous and widely publicized prediction of the three last years will hold true. I imagine that he may tell us that predictions may shift when external circumstances change and that Iran’s policies may also be determined by Israel’s actions. What then are Israel’s real choices in confronting Iran?
Out of the policy pundit chatter it seems that Israeli politicians are currently presented with three (although arguably only two are relevant) long-term policy choices. The first option, the creation of a Middle Eastern nuclear-free zone, is for all intents and purposes currently unavailable and, although peaceniks may argue for this vision, most analysts understand that such a regime could only come about after decades of trust and reciprocity or as a result of major regime change in Iran. The second alternative is to use direct force against the Iranian nuclear facilities in order to neutralize the threat and stop the Iranian WMD project in its track. The “use of force” sounds fairly simple and straight forward in reality is not one clear choice but a myriad of smaller difficult decisions that all have a million consequences and costs attached. As we know from recent history, “quick force” usually never succeeds other than in the eyes of the strategists or in glorified historic accounts. The International Relation theorist, Fred Charles Ikle, concluded that the resort to force—or even an escalation of violence—never manages to achieve its desired aims without enormous “unpredicted” costs often neglected by the war hawks. Ironically, Ikle argues, the possible gains from an escalation in violence are always overestimated while the costs are underestimated. The 2003 decision by the US administration to invade Iraq while characteristically refusing to heed those who had more “grounded” opinions seems to prove his point.
What then are the possible costs and consequences of an Israeli strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities? Most likely, explains Douglas Bloomfield in an op-ed in the Jerusalem Post, the costs would be devastating, not only to Israel and the US, but potentially also to the rest of the region and to the entire world. In all likelihood, Iran would make good on its promise to close the Straits of Hormuz, which bears more than a third of the world’s supply of oil and gas. That would put them into position to target theUS fifth fleet and hit a number of US military and commercial facilities in the Gulf. It would also threaten US efforts to stabilize bothIraqandAfghanistan.Iranwould also not hesitate to attack US-friendly Arab states, further endangering the world’s oil supply and putting financial markets in a tail-spin. In addition, the danger to Israel from a direct attack by one of Iran’s long-range Shahab missiles can not be underestimated; neither can the danger from more energized terror groups closer to home, such as the Hizbullah and Hamas.
There are also larger and more long-term questions: even if Israel would deem it absolutely necessary to use force, what exactly would they strike, and what will they do the day after? Israel is in no position to occupy a country, and it cannot rely on the US to do so. Most importantly, as Bloomfield also points out, an Israeli strike would provide proof to the Iranians that they were right and that there indeed was justification for building the bomb in the first place. At the most, according to US secretary of defense Leon Panetta, Iran’s nuclear plans would be set back by 2-3 years while solidifying their conviction that nuclear warheads are both desired and required. While we may be hopeful that Iranians will be next in rising up against their leadership, a military attack may instead serve to unify the population behind the government at a time when the Iranian opposition needs to be supported and energized.
But then again, what are the costs for the alternative? What if, as Yossi Melman wrote in Haaretz, the smoking gun is an Iranian nuclear missile? In contrast to the stability of the arms race between the US and the USSR, a nuclearized Middle East presents Israel and the rest of the world with an accutely serious threat. Tzahi Hanegbi, former head of the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, points out that the dilemma that Israel faces in this respect is real. If Iran goes nuclear, he argues, Arab states in the region have vowed not to stay behind. Thus, rather than a “nuclear free” zone in the Middle East, we may see a regional scrambling for weapons, reducing Israel’s edge against its neighbors and increasing the risk that those weapons fall into the hands of terrorists or unstable Islamic states.
These scenarios leave Israeli decision makers between a rock and a hard place and it is easy to see why there are those who argue passionately for force, overestimating the perceived benefits and underestimating the costs. Israeli s facing a similar—though arguably much more dangerous and precarious—situation to that of the US vis-à-vis Iraq in 2003. By not taking “early action” and attacking the Natanz facilities three years ago, Israel has “opted” to either begin (or provoke) a regional war with Iran or to live with a changed power-balance in the Middle East and the almost certainty of a Middle East nuclear arms race. Thus, while the IAEA report changed nothing forIsrael, it represents a momentous paradigm shift. Rather than a continued reliance on its own nuclear program as a weapon of last resort against its neighboring Middle Eastern states, Israel will have to refocus its program towards the larger goals of nuclear deterrence. Such a shift will necessitate a new diplomatic agendathat focuses on long-term trust-building, rather tha the more short-term reliance on overwhelming military force. Skills that Israeli policy makers need to perfect are those needed for political manoeuvring, bargaining and negotiation, rather than that of military brinkmanship.
The third option, the “status quo,” may sadly be the wisest and perhaps the only choice Israel has. However, while in strategic terms “status quo” means to do nothing, in nuclear terms it requires a little more, namely the active policy of nuclear deterrence. Israel has arguably enjoyed almost 30 years of military (and nuclear) superiority in the Middle East, which most likely helped in deterring conventional aggression from its neighbors. However, with the new reality emanating from Teheran, International Relations students around the world may have gotten themselves a new test-case of a regional power rivalry. If this is indeed the case, Israel’s military will need to refocus its nuclear capabilities from first-strike capability (being able to strike an opponent first) to second strike capability (being able to absorb, or deflect, a nuclear attack and still have the ability to retaliate), terms that IR students often struggle to comprehend because they seem to belong to a by-gone era of ancient Cold War politics. Unless something drastic happens, this is where Israel is likely to be heading. One may only hope that the chance of regime change in Iran is greater than both of the options presented above.
Professor Bruce Bueno de Mesquita talks about his book on the Daily Show with John Stewart in 2009: http://www.thedailyshow.com/watch/mon-september-28-2009/bruce-bueno-de-mesquita?xrs=share_copy