Israeli Defense Minister Ehud
Barak suggested recently that Israel's moment of decision on Iran would come
not when it obtained nuclear weapons but, instead, how close Iran is to
entering what he called "a zone of immunity." Barak's concern was that beyond this threshold
it would no longer be possible to halt Iran's nuclear program.
What would comprise such a
threshold? Increasingly, this means Iran's shifting of its enrichment
activities to the underground facility in Qom as well as with the moving to Qom
of more of the uranium previously enriched in Natanz. Barak seemed to imply
that a military operation designed to abort Iran's nuclear efforts after the
facility in Qom becomes fully operational would be meaningless or irrelevant --
it will be either impossible physically or so costly as to render it
Yet the focus on these issues
illustrates the limits of public debate. Judging whether Israel can destroy Iran's
nuclear installations from the air is difficult without access to classified
information. It requires knowing, for instance, the operational capabilities of
the Israeli Air Force to fly the distance carrying the required ordnance, to ascertain
optimal (operationally and politically) flight paths that avoid a possible
activation of other countries' air-defenses, and to bomb simultaneously
multiple facilities scattered in various locations in Iran. None of the data
relevant to addressing these issues is available in the public domain.
A specific example of this problem
relates to the aforementioned concept of "a zone of immunity." Ascertaining the
real meaning of this concept requires classified intelligence regarding the
pace with which Iran is developing the facility in Qom, the rate and quantities
of enriched uranium being moved from Natanz to Qom, the physical properties of
the facility in Qom -- namely how well dug in the mountain it actually is and
what other measures Iran has taken to protect it from air bombardment. It also
requires relevant classified operational data about the capacity of the air
forces of Israel and the United States to penetrate such fortified targets.
Again, for obvious reasons, what exists in the public domain relevant to these
questions is only an approximation of real data -- not accurate enough to reach
a judgment about these critical issues.
Nevertheless, given the huge
stakes involved, such questions must be debated if the United States and Israel
are to avoid mindlessly stumbling into a costly military confrontation with
Iran or an equally risky decision by default to avoid effective measures to
arrest Iran's nuclear efforts. There are six important questions that fall
under two big topics: the implications of Iran's possible acquisition of
nuclear weapons and the ramifications of an attempt to prevent such acquisition
by launching a military strike against Iran's nuclear installations.
The fundamental question is
whether Iran's acquisition of nuclear weapons will actually amount to an
"existential threat" to Israel. This might refer to the technical-physical
capacity to destroy Israel, in much the same manner that the Soviets'
possession of 26,000 nuclear warheads at the height of the Cold War implied the
physical capacity to destroy the United States many times over. However, that
would imply that once acquired, Iran would launch such weapons in efforts to
end Israel's existence. Some suggest the actual threat is that such a
hair-trigger environment would make Israel hostage to any small change in
Iranian moods. As former Israeli Deputy Defense Minister Ephraim Sneh warned
some years ago, that could breed such extreme Israeli anxieties as to induce
its citizens to emigrate, also threatening Israel's existence.
The central question is about
deterrence. If efforts to arrest Iran's quest for nuclear weapons fails and
Iran obtains them, will it be possible to deter it from using these weapons?
Will Iran's leaders behave as rational actors so that deterrence -- which is
based on leaders' ability to process and be sensitive to potential related
costs -- could be applied effectively? Taking into account not only their
rhetoric but more importantly their past behavior, what is the evidence
suggesting that the "rational actor" assumption will not apply to Iran's
leaders, therefore raising serious questions as to whether in this case a
"deterrence fall-back" actually exists? Clearly, the policy implications of the
first two questions are considerable because if a "deterrence fall-back" does
not exist in the case of Iran, Israel will have no choice but to prevent it from
obtaining nuclear weapons at all
A second question is whether Iran's
possible acquisition of nuclear weapons will lead to a nuclear cascade. For
example, would Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt feel compelled to respond by
developing nuclear capacities of their own, thus leading to a proliferation
cascade? Having tolerated Israel's acquisition of nuclear weapons, would Egypt
and Saudi Arabia be able to ignore a similar step by another non-Arab country
in the region?
Another facet of this broader
proliferation issue is what changes in Israel's nuclear posture Iran's
acquisition of nuclear weapons would require. Would Israel continue to adhere
to its present policy of nuclear ambiguity or will it sharpen its deterrent
messages by adopting a more overt posture? And if so, would such a change
further accelerate the proliferation of nuclear weapons in the region? Thus, if
Iran's possession of nuclear weapons will lead Israel to feel that it must make
its nuclear deterrence posture more overt, will this further press Egypt and
Saudi Arabia -- and possibly Turkey -- to follow suit?
At the same time, should
Iran's acquisition of nuclear weapons lead the United States to move quickly to
prevent a proliferation cascade by offering its allies in the region a nuclear
umbrella (otherwise referred to as "extended deterrence") how would these
countries react? If Israel faces a choice between sharpening its deterrent
message or accepting a U.S. nuclear guarantee, what are the pros and cons of
the two possibilities? If Saudi Arabia and Egypt needs to choose between the
costs and risks of attempting to develop an indigenous nuclear capacity or to
accept a U.S. nuclear umbrella, is it self-evident that they would prefer the
former over the latter? And how would their decision affect Israel's choice
between accepting a U.S. nuclear guarantee and adopting a more overt nuclear
In this scenario, how would
Israel react if following Iran's acquisition of nuclear weapons other countries
in the region follow suit to acquire their own, and Iran would announce that it
is willing to implement nuclear arms control and disarmament measures as long
as such measures are applied equitably "in a regional context?" Should Israel adopt
the position that if disarmament measures could be credibly verified it would
be better to have the two countries disarm their nuclear capabilities than to
allow Iran to possess such weapons?
Third, what about the
expectation that Iran's acquisition of nuclear weapons will embolden its allies
in the region, encouraging them to behave more aggressively and to posit more
dangerous challenges to Israel. This expectation requires thorough airing
because it is not clear what Syria, Hezbollah, and Hamas would do that they are
not doing already once Iran acquires nuclear weapons. If these parties take
more bold actions because they assume that Iran's nuclear weapons will
constrain Israel's responses to their more daring activities, the relevant
scenarios should be simulated and explored. For example, is it realistic to
expect that Iran's possession of nuclear weapons will affect the manner in
which Israel will likely react to a Hezbollah cross-border attack and its abduction
of an Israeli soldier?
As noted earlier, a second
set of issues that require exploration and debate concern the possible
implications of an attempt to abort Iran's nuclear efforts with a military
strike on its nuclear installations. The first of these concerns is the
possibility that such a strike would lead Iran's allies and other Arab states
to react strongly to the attack, possibly engulfing Israel in a regional war.
The former head of Israel's Mossad, Meir Dagan, saw this scenario as quite
likely but it is not clear on what evidence this is based. Syria is now overwhelmed
by its domestic problems, if not civil war, and Hamas is increasingly disassociating
itself from Iran's Syrian allies and is relocating its leadership in exile from
Damascus to Cairo and Doha.
In this scenario, Hezbollah
would be left alone to escalate, thus risking the likelihood that Israel would
bring against it the full wrath of its military capacity, now restored in the aftermath
of the summer 2006 debacle. Would Hezbollah risk its political survival to execute
a Tehran-inspired retaliation? Similarly, it is not clear why other Arab states
would play along with an Iran-inspired escalation and risk a confrontation with
Israel when they did not react that way to Israel's 1981 bombing of Osiraq --
Iraq's nuclear reactor -- and to Israel's destruction of Syria's nuclear
facility in 2007.
The second question associated
with a possible Israeli military strike concerns its likely effects on Iran's
domestic scene. Many observers expect such a strike to result in a "rallying
around the flag" and a closing of the ranks behind its ruling regime. Thus, a
military strike may stifle any prospects of "regime change" in Iran -- a change
that some opponents of a military strike seem to regard not only as possible given
the degree of discontent prevailing in Iran, especially among its large
minorities, but also as the only long-term way of rendering Iran's nuclear
But is it self-evident that the
Iranian public would necessarily "rally around the flag" in reaction to a military
strike against the country's nuclear facilities? Could such a reaction be
avoided by limiting the strike to facilities specifically associated with
Iran's efforts to manufacture nuclear weapons -- thus minimizing civilian
casualties -- by fully acknowledging Iran's right to a peaceful nuclear
program, and by excluding from the bombing Iran's new energy-generating civilian
nuclear power reactor in Busher?
A critical issue associated
with a military strike is whether it would be wise for Israel to attack Iran's
nuclear installations while the United States continues to oppose it arguing
that such a step should be taken only after all other measures have been
exhausted. The main question is not
whether from a technical-operational standpoint Israel can
conduct such a strike without U.S. permission given that it would require
flying through or close to an area still defined as a "U.S. Theater of Operations."
By early 2012 this issue has been somewhat reduced with the end of U.S.
military presence in Iraq. More important is whether given Iran's threat to
retaliate against an airstrike by targeting U.S. forces and assets in the
region, Israel can ignore the costs that the U.S. may incur for such a strike. Indeed,
even if Iran does not target U.S. forces in the region directly, any reaction
by Iranian forces could ignite and pull the United States into a broader
violent conflict in the Middle East. Would such unintended U.S. involvement in
another war in the region invite U.S. anger directed at Israel?
And even more broadly, given
the growing intimacy of U.S.-Israeli defense cooperation, can Israel afford to ignore
U.S. priorities and concerns? Addressing this issue on November 1, 2011 Defense
Minister Ehud Barak reportedly told the Knesset Committee on Finance that there
are times when a nation is required to defend itself even at the displeasure of
its closest allies. But would it be responsible to do so in this case? Given
that Israel will continue to face serious challenges in an ever-changing Middle
East, and will continue to require U.S. assistance at almost every level, can
Israel discount the U.S. will? Conversely, would Israel be able to diminish the
expected negative U.S. reaction to its self-interested measures by meeting U.S.
priorities in other fronts? For example, by doing its share to mend fences with
Turkey -- a member of NATO and a close and important ally of the United States?
Much of the discussion of the
prospects of Iran's acquisition of nuclear weapons, and of the efficacy of the
efforts to prevent it from doing so, continues to focus on operational
dimensions of this issue. Yet judgments regarding these dimensions cannot be
rendered in the absence of relevant classified data. Instead, the public debate
must focus on the strategic dimensions of the issue -- a realm in which
civilian strategists have much to contribute. Indeed, airing these dimensions
is an absolute imperative. Without it we are condemned to repeat the mistakes
of the past or to commit worse ones. More important, without such airing we are
doomed to step mindlessly closer and closer to a military confrontation with
Iran or, possibly just as dangerous, to accept and accommodate its nuclear
ambitions and designs.
Brig. Gen. (ret.) Shlomo
Brom is a former Head of Strategic Planning in the IDF's Planning Branch.
He is a Senior Research Associate at the Institute for National Security
Studies (INSS) in Tel Aviv; Prof. Shai
Feldman is Director of the Crown Center for Middle East Studies at
Brandeis University and a former Head of Tel Aviv University's Jaffee Center
for Strategic Studies; Amb. Shimon
Stein, a former Deputy Director General of Israel's Foreign Ministry and
a former Israeli Ambassador to Berlin is a Senior Research Fellow at INSS.
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