“Something like this might really happen,” warned the narrator of the 1959 comedy “The Mouse that Roared” while a nuclear explosion was displayed in the background. And then, before proceeding to the story about a remote duchy that saves itself from bankruptcy by stealing a doomsday bomb, the narrator explained: “We thought we should put you in the proper mood.”
Faced with a steadily maturing Iranian nuclear program, Israel has long been in the proper mood, but its consequent efforts to convince the world that “something like this might happen” have so far registered partial success at best.
Iran’s nuclear ambitions hark back to the pre-revolutionary era, when Washington helped the Shah to build a program for civilian nuclear energy, which he hoped would ultimately involve no fewer than 23 reactors. Obviously, under Khomeini this program immediately became obsolete, and then, when war with Iraq broke out, Iran was in no position to revive it. However, by the early 1990s the Iranian effort resumed in earnest, and in an entirely new strategic context.
With the Soviet Union dissolved and the Iran-Iraq War over, the Islamist republic found in post-communist Russia a sponsor of the sort the Shah had found in the US. Unlike other countries Teheran approached, most notably France, Russia remained unimpressed by US pressure, and proceeded with its sponsorship of the Iranian program, arguing that it was for peaceful purposes. Two decades on, the Iranian program has reached two milestones.
First, in September the reactor in Bushehr, on the Persian Gulf opposite Kuwait, started operating. And secondly, in November the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), in a long-awaited report, accused Iran of carrying out “activities relevant to the development of a nuclear device,” including computer-modelling nuclear detonations and experimenting with nuclear triggers. Just how far the mullahs are from possessing a nuclear arsenal remains a matter of debate, but estimates range from one to a few years at most.
Listening attentively to the Iranian regime’s rhetoric since 1979, Israel has come to perceive its program as the most dangerous strategic threat it faces. Then again, general agreement within Israel that Iran is an enemy and its nuclear program constitutes a major problem still leaves open the question of what to do.
In terms of the aim, the precedent of the Iraqi reactor that Israel destroyed in 1981 makes the Iranian program a legitimate target in Israeli public discourse. If anything, today’s Iran is even more lethal for Israel, as Saddam Hussein did not organise Holocaust-denial conferences and he built nothing like Hezbollah, the Shi’ite army on Israel’s northern border that is inspired, financed, trained, supplied, and micro-managed by Teheran. However, while there are few qualms in Israel concerning the legitimacy of an attack on the Iranian nuclear program, there are many dilemmas – and now also an open debate – concerning its tactical practicality, strategic wisdom, and geopolitical effects.
The tactical environment is entirely different from anything Israel ever faced.
First there is the distance. The IDF has already operated on occasion in distant theatres, once in the 1976 Entebbe Operation and then in 1985 when the Israel Air Force bombed the PLO’s headquarters in Tunis. Teheran is actually closer to Jerusalem than either of these destinations. However, Israeli action in Iran would inevitably trigger a massive response, and Iran’s military, unlike those Israel faced during previous long-range actions, is large, rich, sophisticated, and motivated. Iran is in a position, and will clearly not hesitate, to barrage Israel with thousands of missiles from Iran proper, and then be likely joined by Hezbollah from Lebanon in the north and Hamas from Gaza in the south.
Moreover, the prospective action in Iran itself cannot be compared with anything the Israeli military ever did. Iran is not only distant and well armed, but also largely mountainous, which makes ground operations far more complex and risky than they would be, for instance, in predominantly flat Iraq. And then there is the Iranian dispersement of its nuclear assets. Unlike the Iraqi program that Israel obliterated in one swift attack in 1981, the Iranian program is believed to be spread across several locations, some of them deep underground, and most of them secret.
And yet, the IDF has been developing a long-range operational capacity in recent years – purchasing appropriate aircraft for this purpose and holding elaborate manoeuvres in distant skies, in Greece, Romania and Italy. In itself, the effort to obtain long-range capabilities, though involving steep costs, generated no large debates among politicians, generals, academics, or the media. Almost all were in agreement that such action might be imposed on Israel and the Jewish state must therefore be prepared to engage in it. By contrast, there is extensive debate over the strategic advisability of an Israeli pre-emptive strike.
In the past, Israel has earned a reputation for striking preemptively when it felt cornered. That is what happened in spring 1967, after Egypt unilaterally blockaded the Tiran Straits, thus depriving Israel of its maritime access to Asia, an act of war that was accompanied by mobilisations of the Egyptian, Syrian and Jordanian ground forces, as well as the eviction of a UN peace-keeping force from Sinai. Though Israel’s enemies had not yet fired one bullet, Israel charged ahead, launching the Six Day War. The same pre-emptive mindset was at play in the bombing of the Iraqi reactor, which was eliminated before it came on line, and reportedly, in the destruction of a Syrian nuclear facility in 2008.
Now, however, the setting is entirely different, both because of Iran’s sway, and because of the precariousness of this moment in Middle Eastern history. The fact that almost all the region’s governments are up to their necks coping with assorted aspects of the 12 month-old upheaval throughout the Arab world will not necessarily help any Israeli initiative. While chances are that most governments will offer an attacked Iran no support beyond the verbal, it is also not improbable that some of them will be tempted to join an attack on Israel as a distraction from domestic troubles. This is particularly possible with the Assad regime should it survive, and it can happen with its successors just as well.
For years now, the debate in Israel generated by this clash between old precedents and new risks was conducted not quietly, but whisperingly, within a very narrow circle of a few dozen senior ministers, generals and spies.
Now the debate was broken wide open, after Israel’s most influential journalist, Nahum Barnea of the mass circulation Yediot Aharonot, called in a front page article for a public debate. Though he did not take sides in the debate, he wrote that at stake is an arguable regional conflagration and maybe even the destruction of the Jewish state, and it is therefore necessary that a prospective attack be preceded by an open and public debate.
Barnea’s call was preceded by an improbable voice, the newly retired head of the Mossad spy agency Meir Dagan. A former IDF general who fought with distinction in several wars, Dagan’s eight-year term at the helm of Israel’s equivalent of the CIA is seen universally as a success in which he restored the organisation’s confidence, daring, and ingenuity after a series of bungled operations under his predecessors. Still, Dagan believes that open and massive action against Iran would be suicidal. His critics say his conduct since retiring is irresponsible and driven by personal differences with Prime Minister Netanyahu and Defence Minister Ehud Barak.
Meanwhile, media reports indicate that last decade there was a consensus among the three leaders of the intelligence community, namely, in addition to Dagan, the heads of Military Intelligence and the Shin Bet security service, Israel’s equivalent of ASIO or the FBI. All were warning that the risk of Israeli pre-emptive action was simply too great and were reportedly joined by then-IDF chief of staff Lt.-Gen. Gabi Ashkenazi. Since then all four have ended their terms in office and been replaced.
Now the journalistic brouhaha that followed Barnea’s call has been highlighted by reports that the new intelligence threesome, Yoram Cohen of the Shin Bet, Tamir Pardo of the Mossad, and Maj.-Gen. Aviv Kochavi of Military Intelligence, have inherited their predecessors’ reservations concerning a preemptive strike. New Chief of Staff Lt.-Gen. Benny Gantz’s view is less clear, but he too seems far from trigger happy when it comes to Iran.
The ones who have reportedly been most seriously considering a strike are Netanyahu and Barak. According to the reports, they are being opposed within the inner cabinet by Strategic Affairs Minister Moshe Ya’alon himself a former chief of general staff; by Minister for Intelligence Affairs Dan Meridor; Minister of the Interior Eli Yishai of the ultra-Orthodox Shas party; and Minister Without Portfolio Benny Begin – son of the late Menachem Begin who ordered the bombing of the Iraqi reactor three decades ago.
For now, at least, these Cabinet sceptics outweigh Netanyahu and Barak, whose measure of militancy on Iran is also not fully established. And in the absence so far of a large-scale military attack, action vis-à-vis Iran is focusing on the two alternatives to war: sabotage and diplomacy.
Over the years there have been repeated reports of mysterious mishaps in the Iranian program’s execution, ranging from disappearances of relevant scientists to collapses of computer systems. Last July, nuclear scientist Darioush Rezaeinejad was mowed down by gunmen in Teheran, the fourth reported killing of an Iranian nuclear scientist in the last five years. In November an explosion at a missile base outside Teheran killed 17 people including Brig.-Gen. Hassan Muqadem, who reportedly headed a top-secret program that developed long-range missile heads.
Iran itself released contradicting responses to the explosion, at times accusing Israel and at others insisting the explosion was an accident. Some European and American media reported that Mossad agents were likely behind the explosion.
For its part, Israel’s official line remains that Iran’s nuclear program poses a threat to the entire civilised world, and should be treated as such rather than as a threat aimed exclusively at Israel. It follows, that if the international system intensifies sanctions, and if those are joined by more countries, then Israel will not act unilaterally. Israel has in this regard staunch support from Washington, Paris, London, and Berlin. Russia and China, however, are showing no signs of reconsidering their opposition to sanctions, the former due to its own role in Iran’s nuclear program, and the latter due to its dependence on Iranian oil.
That was the context in which President Shimon Peres said in media interviews following the release of the IAEA report that Israel “will look at what the world does” because it does not want to work alone. “We are part of the civilised world,” he said, “and we expect leaders who make promises to deliver on them.”