Career: Senior Manager, Digital Servicing Analytics | Discover Financial Services | Riverwoods, IL, USA
To Attack or not to Attack, this is the Question
Some people are saying, “Time is running out,” when it comes to Iran. If Israel wants to launch an attack against the Iranian nuclear program, it must do so before the first Iranian bomb becomes operational. Otherwise, nuclear fallout could risk all civilians near the manufacturing site.
The possibility that we will wake up one morning to the news that such an attack has happened is indeed frightening, and hence I wish to take a moment to reflect on it. What are the possible motives behind the Iranian nuclear program? What is the state of deterrence between Iran and Israel? And what is the level of rationality of the Iranian regime?
In my view, it is far from clear what Israel can do to deter Iran from launching a nuclear attack if it were to have nuclear weapons. Effective deterrence consists of the ability of one side to absorb a nuclear attack and respond with a proportionate counter attack. While Israel has a nuclear capability, its small geographical size makes its weapons quite vulnerable to a nuclear attack. However, this disadvantage could be offset if Israel had the appropriate capabilities to respond, primarily in the form of submarines that can launch nuclear missiles. To build such a capability, Israel would need the assistance of the western world in the form of funding and technology.
An additional factor in the deterrence equilibrium is the strategic alliance with powerful and assertive governments like the US. America’s presence in the Middle-East prevents offensive military actions by various governments. Should Iran launch a nuclear attack against Israel, it would be exposed to retaliation from the US even if Israel did not survive the attack.
Of course an underlying assumption of the deterrence equilibrium is that decisions by the Iranian regime are rational. While it is hard to predict Iran’s actions, we can infer something from its history. The Iran-Iraq war is a good example of the compromises that Iran has been willing to make in order to end a war. An even better example, which sheds some light on the current Iranian regime’s logic, is the 2006 conflict between Israel and the Hezbollah. During this conflict, Israel destroyed some of Hezbollah’s most strategic assets (i.e., its long distance missiles). Although Iran continued its massive assistance to the Hezbollah during the conflict, it decided not to engage Israel directly. This pattern of behavior indicates that Iran is reluctant to escalate a conflict that could put its own territory and strategic assets at risk.
Given all this, one can ask why Iran is interested in developing its nuclear program. Is this for defensive or offensive purposes? Despite some of the extremely aggressive rhetoric Iran’s leaders use, I believe, they are not planning to use nuclear weapons against Israel. Instead, they seem to be convinced that their terror campaigns against Israel will lead them to their ultimate goal of eliminating Israel from the Middle-East.
The traumatic experience of the Iran-Iraq war, the presence of the US in Iraq, and the existence of Israeli nuclear weapons all have led them to take a defensive posture in developing their nuclear weapons program. Thus, the Iranian nuclear program, I believe, is not offensive in nature.
My conclusion is that attacking Iran’s nuclear weapons program would be a strategic mistake. Since this program is defensive rather than offensive, the benefits of such an attack to Israel would be less than avoiding such an attack.
To enhance its deterrence of a potential attack by Iran, Israel should obtain financial and technological assistance from its allies and build a submarine launched missile force. While subscribing to this deterrence equilibrium, Israel also needs to continue its effort against Iran’s active support of terror.
In order to do this, Israel also should keep the option of engaging in military conflict with Iran without escalating the conflict into a nuclear one.
The validity of my conclusion rests on some important assumptions. First, I am assuming that the knowledge of nuclear weapons or weapons themselves do not get into the hands of terrorist groups. Israel must insist that Iran and other Islamic nuclear powers are responsible for the consequences of nuclear weapons getting into terrorists’ hands and would have to react to any terrorist attack as if it were launched by Iran itself. In such a case, the deterrence equilibrium would still be valid. Second, I am assuming that the Islamic Iranian leadership is not irrational. I believe this to be the case, but if it is not at some point in the future, we are facing an entirely different scenario.