July 7, 2009
Number 07/09 #04
This Update focuses on a dramatic development in the Iranian political situation – with a major faction of Iran’s clerical elite on the weekend denouncing the disputed election result as illegitimate and essentially placing themselves in opposition to the regime.
As Michael Slackman and Nazila Fathi of the New York Times make clear, the announcement by The Association of Researchers and Teachers of Qum, is essentially in defiance of the Supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamanei, who certified the election result. The reporters quote Abbas Milani, noted Iran scholar at Stanford University, as saying this is the most important “crack” in the elite in the 30 years since the revolution. The reporters also make it clear that the decision of these important clerics will bolster the credibility of the opposition led by unsuccessful presidential candidate Mir Hussein Moussavi at a time when the government seemed to be slowly quelling the protests and unrest. For all the details on this important development, CLICK HERE. Meanwhile, Moussavi continues to call for more protests, while denouncing the crackdown on his supporters.
Also commenting on this development is thinktanker and author specialising on Iran Reuel Marc Gerecht, who calls it a “monumental blow” to Supreme Leader Khamanei. He goes over the history of the relationship between the scholars of Qum, the regime, and especially Khamanei, who has always been seen as lacking in authority as a religious leader and scholar. He says this clerical stance will also clarify the role of the Revolutionary Guards, increasingly powerful and increasingly in conflict with the clergy and their traditions, in the current unrest. For Gerecht’s important insights into the politics and history of this development in Iran, CLICK HERE. Meanwhile, the Revolutionary Guards have reportedly confirmed the speculation of outsiders that they are increasingly controlling the reaction to the protests.
Finally, on a somewhat different topic, noted American academic Peter Berkowitz reports on what Israeli strategic and military leaders are saying about Iran, the protests, and especially the nuclear program. He reports that the Israelis he talked to continue to view Iranian nuclear progress as an existential threat and are preparing, as a last resort, a military strike against nuclear installations which they believe can succeed. He reports also on their assessments about what the fallout would be for Israel and the wider world if Israel went ahead with such a strike if efforts at stopping Iran through sanctions or diplomacy were not successful, and their thoughts on effectively deterring a nuclear Iran. For a plethora of important details about Israeli strategic thinking on the Iranian nuclear conundrum, CLICK HERE. Former US Ambassador to the UN John Bolton urges Israel to consider a military strike on Iran’s nuclear installations soon, arguing nothing else will halt Iran’s nuclear progress, and it may help the domestic reformers. Foreign policy analyst Max Boot has some thoughts on Bolton’s argument.
Readers may also be interested in:
- For those who haven’t seen it, leading Israeli journalist and recent AIJAC guest Ehud Ya’ari had a piece on Iran in yesterday’s Melbourne Age. Ya’ari also had a recent wider-ranging interview with New Zealand’s Dominion Post.
- A controversial report alleging that Saudi Arabia has given tacit and secret agreement for Israel to use their airspace to launch an attack on Iranian nuclear facilities. Meanwhile, top Israeli security journalist Ron ben Yishai discusses the significance of reports that an Israeli submarine was allowed to pass through the Egyptian-controlled Suez Canal.
- Recent visitor to Australia Emanuele Ottolenghi comments on two recent articles (here and here) highlighting the way Iranian missile developments will affect Israel’s calculus about what to do about the Iranian nuclear drive.
- Canadian parliamentarian and former Justice Minister Irwin Cotler calls on Germany to do more to stop their companies supplying the Iranian regime. Some details on the extent of German technology transfers to Iran are here.
- More discussions of the US Administration’s approach to Iran from Iranian exile journalist Afshin Molavi, former Jerusalem Post editor Bret Stephens and Nader Mousavizadeh of the International Institute for Strategic Studies, who argues the wrong lesson is being drawn from Iraq. Meanwhile, Christopher Hitchens argues there is a connection between Iraq and the Iranian protest movement.
- The always perceptive David Pryce-Jones sets down his thoughts about both the mistakes of the Mullahs in Teheran and of Washington here. Plus, Jonathan Schanzer & Howard Gumnitzky argue that Teheran should stop meddling in other people’s affairs before it starts complaining about alleged meddling by foreigners inside Iran.
- Noted American academic Amitai Etzioni expresses caution regarding the reform movement in Iran based on his own contacts with them.
- A British reporter at the Iranian government “Press-TV” station has quit to protest the station’s biases.
- More alleged evidence of Iranian election fraud here and here.
- A report that the US Administration wants to block additional sanctions against Iran at the upcoming G-8 Meeting.
- Journalist Michael Totten had two fascinating interviews touching on the Middle East recently, one with renowned author and strategic analyst Robert D. Kaplan and another with Jeffrey Goldberg of the Atlantic.
- An important article on the growing antisemitism in Venezuela, abetted and encouraged by the Chavez regime.
By MICHAEL SLACKMAN and NAZILA FATHI
New York Times, Published: July 4, 2009
CAIRO — An important group of religious leaders in Iran called the disputed presidential election and the new government illegitimate on Saturday, an act of defiance against the country’s supreme leader and the most public sign of a major split in the country’s clerical establishment.
A statement by the group, the Association of Researchers and Teachers of Qum, represents a significant, if so far symbolic, setback for the government and especially the authority of the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, whose word is supposed to be final. The government has tried to paint the opposition and its top presidential candidate, Mir Hussein Moussavi, as criminals and traitors, a strategy that now becomes more difficult.
“This crack in the clerical establishment, and the fact they are siding with the people and Moussavi, in my view is the most historic crack in the 30 years of the Islamic republic,” said Abbas Milani, director of the Iranian Studies Program at Stanford University. “Remember, they are going against an election verified and sanctified by Khamenei.”
The announcement came on a day when Mr. Moussavi released documents detailing a campaign of fraud by the current president’s supporters, and as a close associate of the supreme leader called Mr. Moussavi and former President Mohammad Khatami “foreign agents,” saying they should be treated as criminals.
The documents, published on Mr. Moussavi’s Web site, accused supporters of the president of printing more than 20 million extra ballots before the vote and handing out cash bonuses to voters.
Since the election, the bulk of the clerical establishment in the holy city of Qum, an important religious and political center of power, has remained largely silent, leaving many to wonder when, or if, the nation’s senior religious leaders would jump into the controversy that has posed the most significant challenge to the country’s leadership since the Islamic Revolution.
With its statement Saturday, the association of clerics came down squarely on the side of the reform movement.
The group had earlier asked for the election to be nullified because so many Iranians objected to the results, but it never directly challenged the legitimacy of the government and, by extension, the supreme leader.
The earlier statement also came before the election was certified by the country’s religious leaders, who have since said that opposition to the results must cease.
The clerics’ decision to speak up again is not itself a turning point and could fizzle under pressure from the state, which has continued to threaten its critics. Some seminaries in Qum rely on the government for funds, and Ayatollah Khamenei and the man he has declared the winner of the election, incumbent President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, have powerful backers there.
They also retain the support of the powerful security forces and the elite Revolutionary Guards. In addition, the country’s highest-ranking clerics have yet to speak out individually against the election results.
But the association’s latest statement does help Mr. Moussavi, Mr. Khatami and a former speaker of Parliament, Mehdi Karroubi, who have been the most vocal in calling the election illegitimate and who, in their attempts to force change, have been hindered by the jailing of influential backers.
“The significance is that even within the clergy, there are many who refuse to recognize the legitimacy of the election results as announced by the supreme leader,” said an Iranian political analyst who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisal.
While the government could continue vilifying the three opposition leaders, analysts say it was highly unlikely that the leadership would use the same tactic against the clerical establishment in Qum.
The backing also came at a sensitive time for Mr. Moussavi, because the accusations that he is a foreign agent ran in a newspaper, Kayhan, that has often been used to build cases against critics of the government.
The editorial was written by Hossein Shariatmadari, who was picked by the supreme leader to run the newspaper.
The clerics’ statement chastised the leadership for failing to adequately study complaints of vote rigging and lashed out at the use of force in crushing huge public protests.
It even directly criticized the Guardian Council, the powerful group of clerics charged with certifying elections.
“Is it possible to consider the results of the election as legitimate by merely the validation of the Guardian Council?” the association said.
Perhaps more threatening to the supreme leader, the committee called on other clerics to join the fight against the government’s refusal to adequately reconsider the charges of voter fraud. The committee invoked powerful imagery, comparing the 20 protesters killed during demonstrations with the martyrs who died in the early days of the revolution and the war with Iraq, asking other clerics to save what it called “the dignity that was earned with the blood of tens of thousands of martyrs.”
The statement was posted on the association’s Web site late Saturday and carried on many other sites, including the Persian BBC, but it was impossible to reach senior clerics in the group to independently confirm its veracity.
The statement was issued after a meeting Mr. Moussavi had with the committee 10 days ago and a decision by the Guardian Council to certify the election and declare that all matters concerning the vote were closed.
But the defiance has not ended.
With heavy security on the streets, there is a forced calm. But each day, slowly, another link falls from the chain of government control. Last week, in what appeared a coordinated thrust, Mr. Moussavi, Mr. Karroubi and Mr. Khatami all called the new government illegitimate. On Saturday, Mr. Milani of Stanford said, former President Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani met with families of those who had been arrested, another sign that he was working behind the scenes to keep the issue alive.
“I don’t ever remember in the 20 years of Khamenei’s rule where he was clearly and categorically on one side and so many clergy were on the other side,” Mr. Milani said. “This might embolden other clergy to come forward.”
Many of the accusations of fraud posted on Mr. Moussavi’s Web site Saturday had been published before, but the report did give some more specific charges.
For instance, although the government had announced that two of the losing presidential contenders had received relatively few votes in their hometowns, the documents stated that some ballot boxes in those towns contained no votes for the two men.
Michael Slackman reported from Cairo, and Nazila Fathi from Toronto.
Iran’s clerics strike a monumental blow to Ali Khamenei’s position as Supreme Leader.
by Reuel Marc Gerecht
Weekly Standard, 07/06/2009 8:25:00 AM
The New York Times’s Saturday story about Qom’s Association of Religious Scholars’ call for new elections is worth further commentary. Stanford’s always-insightful Abbas Milani is probably guilty of understatement when he remarked that Qom’s declaration is “the most historic crack in the 30 years of the Islamic republic.” This is likely a monumental blow to Ali Khamenei’s position as Supreme Leader. It’s no secret that Qom, the most important center of Islamic learning in Iran, has never been friendly territory for Khamenei. Politically skilled, as a religious scholar Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini’s successor is even less accomplished than his brother-in-arms-turned-deadly-foe, Ali Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani, the revolution’s most ambidextrous political cleric. The pride of Qom’s senior clerics, who have given their lives to the serious study of Islamic law, has never stopped bristling at the religious pretensions of Khamenei, who cannot stop trying to promote himself as the most important politico-religious authority in the Shi’ite Muslim world.
Khamenei just cannot escape from the religious roots of his political office, the vilayat-e faqih. He is, to put it politely, a standing joke as a faqih, a religious scholar, in Qom, in Mashhad, where Khamenei controls Iran’s richest religious foundation and uses that money energetically to promote himself, and in Najaf, Iraq’s Shi’ite clerical headquarters where the Iranian-born and enormously influential Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani resides. One suspects that even highly accomplished legal scholars who are philosophically allied to Khamenei and his office–for example, Ayatollah Muhammad-Taqi Mesbah-Yazdi, president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s so-called spiritual advisor–have a hard time getting excited about Khamenei as the Supreme Leader. This constant clerical tension, which degrades the legitimacy of Khamenei’s right to rule among the most important constituency of the Islamic Republic, has now gone hyper because of the crisis of the June 12th presidential elections.
Although Qom has become enormously wealthy since the 1979 Islamic revolution, and its cultural and political influence extends throughout the country, the reverse is also true. The big, bustling, increasingly secularized megalopolis of Tehran, which is a quick drive north on a super highway, has spread its influence into Qom in ways nearly unthinkable under the Shah, when the physical, technical, and social divide between conservative Qom and imperial, Occident-adoring Tehran was far less permeable. Always attentive to the mood of their flock, Iran’s clerics today are plugged in by cell phone and the Internet, as well as their incomparable traditional grapevine, to what’s happening throughout the country. And more than ever before, the clerics have become urbanized. Ordinary Iranians may not know what’s going on because of the regime’s control of the media. But the clerics do.
Qom’s clerics know all too well how unpopular theocracy has become in the country. This popular distaste–and that isn’t too strong a word–with clerical rule amplifies many clerics’ long-standing anxiety about the philosophical rectitude of the whole enterprise that Khomeini set up. Undreamed of wealth and influence has at times quieted these anxieties, but they are always there, just below the surface. They have now exploded into open dissent that guts the religious attacks of Khamenei’s most powerful allies–the Revolutionary Guard Corps and their baton-wielding thuggish appendage, the Basij–against Mir-Hussein Mousavi, the leader of the opposition. To use an Iraqi parallel: what the clerics of Qom just did to Khamenei is similar to what Ayatollah Sistani did to the Bush administration’s original idea of caucus balloting in Iraq (if we recall, the Bush administration came up with this plan since it feared both the demands and the results of a free election). Qom has shown itself to be the worthy inheritors of the more progressive clergy of the 1905-11 Iranian revolution, when ideas about representative government began to seep into traditional clerical views about the need for independent religious scholars to supervise the ethics of government. Qom has clearly said that the June 12th elections were fraudulent and therefore null and void; most of the city’s religious scholars have now implied, more openly than ever before, that Khamenei is an illegitimate ruler, who has betrayed the faith as well as the people. This is the stuff that in-house, counter-revolutions are made of.
Now, we will get to see where the Guard Corps is. The most “Sunni” of Iran’s revolutionary organizations, many of its members dislike the clergy as an institution, seeing no need for an intermediary between them and God. However, many are undoubtedly faithful to the clerical establishment, which is now deeply divided. If Khamenei tries to crush Qom in the way that Khomeini crushed Grand Ayatollah Shariatmadari in Tabriz in 1979/80, he’ll probably push Qom into open rebellion. If he tries using the Guards Corps as a vehicle of oppression against the clerical establishment, he would surely risk his office. The unthinkable–being dethroned by the Assembly of [clerical] Experts, the institution that constitutionally has the authority to appoint and remove supreme leaders–would become immediately thinkable. Rafsanjani, who appears to have spent considerable time working on the members of the assembly, as well as on the clerical establishment in Qom, could spring a trap on Khamenei. And if Khamenei were to try to crush Qom, or to ignore and financially starve his foes there, he could run the serious risk of making Grand Ayatollah Sistani an active antagonist. Sistani is not a bold man. He survived in Najaf under Saddam because he kept his head down. He knows how nasty Khamenei can be with foes inside Iraq (he’s watched them die). But if Khamenei tries to play hardball, there is a decent chance he will push Sistani, too, into open rebellion. (Sistani’s office in Qom is massive; his office in Mashhad, Khamenei’s power-base, has reportedly been growing rapidly.) If Najaf and Qom form an axis, which no doubt has already been discussed among the representatives of senior ayatollahs, Khamenei is looking at an unwinnable situation.
In the West, what’s particularly distressing is that the Obama White House still seems to have little idea of the magnitude and nature of what is transpiring inside Iran. Tied to a fruitless policy of engagement (there’s nothing wrong with “engaging” Khamenei so long as you use force as a medium of dialogue, i.e., you do unto them as they have consistently done unto you), President Obama appears to be blind to the most amazing time in the Middle East since the Islamic revolution. The future of the region is in play. We do–even after apologizing for the 1953 coup–have a few equities involved and can helpfully “meddle.”
As Iran’s unfolding battle between the children of the revolution is likely to last awhile, President Obama will get a chance to change course. Administrations often endeavor for three years on failed foreign policies before they can admit, at least internally, that there is a severe disconnect between their objectives and reality. Ali Khamenei has demolished President Obama’s Iran policy in only five months. As a “student of history,” the president may yet grow to appreciate the favor.
Reuel Marc Gerecht, a WEEKLY STANDARD contributing editor, is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.
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Israel approaches a moment of decision on Iran’s nuclear threat.
by Peter Berkowitz
Weekly Standard, 07/13/2009, Volume 014, Issue 40
Don’t be misled by how little was said about Iran in the major speeches recently delivered by President Barack Obama at Cairo University and Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu at Bar-Ilan University. And don’t suppose, either, that the popular upheaval precipitated by Iran’s rigged presidential election, assuming it falls short of ending the mullahs’ 30-year tyranny, will fundamentally alter regional politics. The central question for Middle East politics is still what to do about Iran’s illegal pursuit of nuclear weapons.
Nor is this a regional matter only. Iran’s determination to acquire nuclear weapons, the better to spread Islamic revolution, affects the vital national security interests not only of Israel, Arab states in and beyond the Gulf, and Turkey, but also of the United States, Europe, Russia, and indeed countries around the world that depend on stability in the international political and economic order, which is to say virtually all.
In his address to the Muslim world, President Obama identified six sources of tension between the United States and Islam. Number three was “our shared interest in the rights and responsibilities of nations on nuclear weapons.” On the campaign trail and in the presidential debates, Obama unequivocally opposed Iran’s acquisition of nuclear weapons. But in Cairo in late May, on his carefully constructed global stage, Obama hedged.
On the one hand, he maintained that it was crucial to begin talks with Iran without preconditions because of the importance of “preventing a nuclear arms race in the Middle East that could lead this region and the world down a hugely dangerous path.” He “strongly reaffirmed America’s commitment to seek a world in which no nations hold nuclear weapons.” And he expressed the hope that nations that were pursuing their “right to access to peaceful nuclear power” would not abuse it by violating their “responsibilities under the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.” On the other hand, and watering down candidate Obama’s promise to “keep the threat of military action on the table to defend our security and our ally Israel,” he opined that “no single nation should pick and choose which nations hold nuclear weapons.” And he offered no reason to believe that the United States had any levers at its disposal other than talk to influence Iran’s decision. All in all, it would have been hard to project to a rapt world greater equivocation concerning Iran’s quest for nuclear weapons if the president had deliberately concentrated his vaunted rhetorical gifts on the task.
To be sure, in his own speech in mid-June, Prime Minister Netanyahu also trod lightly on the subject of Iran. But that was because he needed to respond to Obama’s flawed Cairo statement that Israel’s legitimacy flows from the suffering of the Jewish people in the Holocaust and the president’s erroneous suggestion that the key to peace in the Middle East is Israel’s cessation of building in existing Israeli communities beyond the Green Line. Without mentioning the president or his speech, Netanyahu stressed that the Jewish people’s historic connection to the land of Israel extends back 3,500 years. And by affirming that Palestinians should have a state of their own, Netanyahu took another step on the path he himself blazed in 1998 by signing the Wye Accords and turning over Hebron to the Palestinians, a path on which he was subsequently joined by Prime Ministers Sharon and Olmert and which has led significant segments of the Israeli right away from the commitment to ruling over the West Bank forever. The settlements certainly are an issue. But from Netanyahu’s point of view–and that of a majority of Israelis–the chief obstacles to peace are Hamas’s Iran-sponsored terrorism, Palestinian Authority political dysfunction, and the refusal of Arab rulers around the region to provide the Palestinians financial support and political leadership.
Though devoting only one paragraph to it at Bar-Ilan, Netanyahu declared that “the Iranian threat still is before us in full force.” And he proclaimed that “the greatest danger to Israel, to the Middle East, and to all of humanity, is the encounter between extremist Islam and nuclear weapons.” Although he did not elaborate Israel’s plan of action, he said nothing to retreat from his well-known position that Iran must not be allowed to acquire nuclear weapons, stated that he had discussed Iran with Obama, would take it up the following week with Europeans, and had been “working tirelessly for many years to form an international front against Iran arming itself with nuclear armaments.”
Meanwhile, for many onlookers in the United States and elsewhere, the popular uprising in Iran has encouraged the hope that internal reform might dispose of the menace posed by the mullahs. Unfortunately, as much as the leader of the Iranian opposition, former Prime Minister Mir-Hussein Mousavi, may have been radicalized by Tehran’s election fraud, the people’s protests, and the government’s violent crackdown, and as much as these dramatic events may have opened up a rift not merely between the people and the regime but within the regime, Mousavi is still a child of the Islamic Revolution and a creature of the establishment and remains unlikely anytime soon to lead a revolutionary overthrow of either. Yet with thousands of centrifuges spinning away to produce highly enriched uranium, and, on an entirely separate track, its development of technology for the production of plutonium proceeding apace, Iran gets closer with every day to owning nuclear weapons.
Given the dangerousness of the neighborhood in which they live and the immediacy of the threat, it is no surprise that for Israelis Iran’s pursuit of nuclear weapons remains front and center. Ordinary citizens regard a nuclear-armed Iran as a game changer, the greatest threat they have ever faced. In previous decades, no matter how grim their circumstances, Israelis could console themselves that they had an ace in the hole. They counted on their sizable stockpile of nuclear weapons–never officially declared though never officially denied and not subject to the slightest doubt among Israelis–to create a line in the sand beyond which no enemy would dare venture. A nuclear Iran, they now reasonably fear, would nullify this enormous technological advantage and would embolden Hezbollah, Hamas, and the array of other transnational Islamist terrorist networks beginning with the Muslim Brotherhood and Islamic Jihad that proliferate in the Middle East.
Conversations over the last few weeks with more than a dozen members of Israel’s larger national security community–right and left, scholars and military men and women, some coming out of the army and others the air force, some with decades of experience in military intelligence and others in clandestine operations, some former Knesset members and others former, current, and soon-to-be advisers to prime ministers–suggest it is fair to conclude that the professionals agree with the public that Iran’s acquisition of nuclear weapons is a game changer. Among them, there is a consensus that Israel has the technological capacity to undertake a military strike that would inflict heavy damage on Iran’s nuclear program. Such a strike, they also believe, would involve unprecedented challenges and risks, including the likelihood of a significant military response by Iran and its allies. Accordingly, an urgent internal debate is well underway in Israel concerning the circumstances in which the country should strike, alternative options, and, in the event that Iran does acquire nuclear weapons, the structure of an effective containment regime.
Israel being Israel, for every three experts you talk to on any particular issue you will hear at least four aggressively argued opinions. Nevertheless, a fairly consistent picture emerges, if not of a single proper Iran policy, then of the constellation of factors that Israel must consider in forming one.
Most countries are reluctant to discuss the details of their offensive capabilities because they don’t want to provide useful information to their enemies. Israel is no different. Nonetheless, the experts with whom I spoke were willing to discuss in broad outline Israel’s capacity to destroy or substantially degrade Iran’s nuclear facilities. All would be delighted to see engagement, diplomacy, or sanctions succeed. All emphasized that a military strike must be the last resort, chosen only after every other option has been fully exploited. All believe that a green light from the United States, or at least a yellow light, would be indispensable. And they seem convinced that Israel has good intelligence about vital Iranian targets and could, if necessary, with a combination of aircraft and ballistic missiles, bring enough firepower to bear to set the Iranian program back far enough to justify the substantial risks.
Certainly this is the view, in broad outline, of Isaac Ben-Israel, and he should know. After graduating from high school in 1967, he joined the Israeli Air Force and served for more than 35 years. Now a Tel Aviv University professor teaching strategic studies and the history and philosophy of science, Ben-Israel helped plan the attack in 1981 on Iraq’s Osirak nuclear reactor, rose to the rank of major general, holding positions as head of the operations research branch of the air force and as head of research and development in the Israel Defense Forces and the ministry of defense, and served in the Knesset as a member of the centrist Kadima party. He continues to advise defense industries in Israel and abroad about technological and strategic issues.
Ben-Israel went so far as to characterize as “very reasonable” Center for Strategic and International Studies scholars Abdullah Toukan and Anthony H. Cordesman’s “Study on a Possible Israeli Strike on Iran’s Nuclear Development Facilities” published in March. Relying on open source intelligence, Toukan and Cordesman analyze in formidable technical detail Iranian nuclear targets, Israeli mission capabilities, Iranian defenses, Israeli defenses, and the military and political consequences of an Israeli attack. They conclude that an Israeli strike force would involve about 80 F-15s and F-16s (almost a fifth of their fighter aircraft); all 9 Israeli aerial tankers to refuel the fighters on their way to and from Iran; a likely flight route north over the Mediterranean, then east along the Syria-Turkey border, crossing briefly over Iraq, before heading into Iran. The strike would probably concentrate on three “critical nodes in Iran’s nuclear infrastructure”: the Natanz uranium enrichment facility, the Esfahan nuclear research center and uranium conversion facility, and the Arak heavy water plant and future plutonium production reactors. The authors stress that the mission would be complex, high-risk, and without solid assurance of success.
Another possibility is that Israel could attack Natanz, Esfahan, and Arak with approximately 50 Jericho III land-based long range ballistic missiles. This option has received relatively little attention even though, as Toukan and Cordesman point out, it may be “much more feasible than using combat aircraft” and certainly poses less risk to Israeli pilots and hardware. Still another possibility for attacking Iranian nuclear targets, though not discussed by Toukan and Cordesman, is some combination of combat aircraft and Jericho III missiles.
Even on the heroic assumption that the attack went exactly as planned, Israelis evaded Iranian air defenses and kept their losses to a minimum, and Iran’s nuclear program was set back substantially, Israel would face considerable costs, both military and political.
The military costs might be serious but would be manageable, Israeli experts believe. They envisage six possible responses to an Israeli attack.
First, Iran, lacking a capable air force, might launch Shahab-3 long range ballistic missiles at Israeli cities and probably at Dimona, Israel’s nuclear facility in the Negev. Israeli experts are confident that their Arrow anti-ballistic missile defense system, which has performed superbly in tests, would destroy most incoming Iranian missiles. Those that got through would have no more explosive power than Iraq’s 1991 Scud missiles, which killed only one Israeli and did little damage to infrastructure. Missiles tipped with biological or chemical weapons are a different story and would provoke a massive and remorseless Israeli response.
At the same time, it is by no means certain that Iran would launch a retaliatory missile strike. Some Israeli experts believe that Israel’s capacity to attack decisively nonnuclear Iranian targets, including the power grid and oil refineries, might deter Iran.
Second, Iran might order Hezbollah into action. Since the 2006 Lebanon war, in which Israel killed one third of Hezbollah’s fighters, that group has rearmed and upgraded. It has enlarged its arsenal of rockets and missiles from about 12,000 at the outset of hostilities in July 2006 (4,000 of which Hezbollah fired at Israel that summer) to roughly 40,000. In sufficient quantities, these can cause suffering in Israel. But in determining whether to attack, Hezbollah might take into account that Israel learned lessons from 2006 and that, in anticipation of another round of fighting, it has prepared to deliver a knockout blow.
Third, Iran might demand that Syria attack Israel. But given that Syria’s conventional forces are no match for Israel’s and that it did not respond militarily when Israel destroyed its partly constructed nuclear facility at Deir al-Zour in 2007, there is a good chance that Syria will decline to get involved.
Fourth, Iran might order terrorist cells around the world to attack synagogues, Israeli embassies, and similar targets. This would have the disadvantage for Iran of shifting the focus of international attention from Israel’s preemptive air strike to Iran’s criminality.
Fifth, Iran might attack American targets in Iraq and foment unrest among Iraqi Shia. This too might backfire, both because it would bring America into the fight and because the community of interests between Arab Iraqi Shia and Persian Iranian Shia is limited.
Sixth, Iran might attack Persian Gulf shipping. But the fragile Iranian economy is at least as reliant as that of any Gulf country on the free flow of oil. And American firepower would end Iran’s ability to threaten shipping within days.
The political costs could prove greater for Israel. Whether an Israeli military attack failed or succeeded, and particularly if it succeeded, Iran and the forces of radical Islam around the world would vehemently argue that Israel’s unprovoked aggression provided irrefutable proof that nuclear weapons are critical for Iran and for radical Islam, if only for purely defensive purposes. Europeans, moreover, would ramp up their condemnatory rhetoric, proclaiming Israel the paramount threat to international order and demanding that Israel, which took it upon itself to disarm Iran, itself submit to international inspections of its nuclear facilities.
Toukan and Cordesman stumble in asserting that Israel would pay a heavy cost among Arab states. It’s true, as they write, that Arab states “will not condone any attack on Iran.” Indeed, the Gulf Arabs would probably condemn Israel harshly. Egypt might mobilize troops and send some into the Sinai. And all Arab states would join the rest of the world in calling for the imposition of international sanctions. But that would be for popular consumption. Israeli experts are as convinced as they are of anything that behind closed doors, Sunni Arab rulers would breathe a huge sigh of relief at the destruction of what they regard as the principal strategic threat to their security, a nuclear armed Shiite Iran seeking hegemony in the Gulf and exporting Shiite-style Islamic revolution around the world.
Still, after the costs and benefits are weighed and the enigmas and imponderables are given their due, the Israeli experts come back to where they begin: Only after every other option has been exhausted should a military strike be launched. No one else went as far as former Mossad head Efraim Halevy, who warned that an Israeli attack would “change the whole configuration of the Middle East,” producing “a chasm between Israel and the rest of the region” that would have “effects that would last 100 years.” By far the dominant view in Israel is the view espoused by John McCain: The only thing worse than the consequences of an attack on Iranian nuclear facilities would be the consequences of a nuclear Iran.
Short of a full-scale military strike, Israel also has a clandestine option involving the use of unmanned aerial vehicles, sabotage of Iranian facilities, and targeted killings. Nor would this represent a new policy. As Ben-Israel, choosing his words carefully, pointed out, Israeli national security experts have been warning that Iran was 5 years away from producing a nuclear weapon for the last 20. Why do you suppose, he asked, it has taken Iran so long? After all, he observed, 60 years ago in the middle of World War II, it took the United States only a few years to produce the first atomic bomb, and no country that has set its mind to it has taken more than 5 to 10 years. Leaving me to draw the proper inference, Ben-Israel emphasized that clandestine operations can delay but will not destroy Iran’s nuclear program. And the experts agree that time is running out: Absent dramatic action–by the United States, the international community, Israel, or some combination–Iran is on track to join the nuclear club sometime between 2011 and 2014.
For a variety of reasons–President Obama’s attempt to engage Iran may prove futile, the international community may be unable to maintain effective sanctions, the mullahs may hang on to power, an Israeli attack might fail, Israel might elect not to attack Iran–Israelis are compelled to contemplate the structure of an effective containment regime. The challenges are immense. Realists argue that containment based upon the doctrine of mutual assured destruction worked for the 40-year Cold War and will work in the Middle East. But they overlook that in the Cuban missile crisis in 1962 it almost failed.
The realists also rely on a facile analogy. The distinctive variables that Iran and the Middle East add to the mix cast grave doubts on any easy application of Cold War logic. Iran speaks explicitly about wiping out Israel; the Soviet Union never so spoke about the United States. Iran is inspired by a religious faith that celebrates martyrdom and contemplates apocalypse; the Soviet Union was driven by a secular ideology that sought satisfaction in this world. And Iran has no dialogue with Israel; the Soviet Union maintained constant communication with the United States.
These complicating factors make it all the more imperative for Israel, if it wants to construct a successful containment regime, to convey to Iran that it has a devastating second strike capability and is prepared to use it. In addition, it would be useful from the Israeli point of view if the United States were to make Iran understand that America would treat an attack on Israel as an attack on it. And it would provide greater assurance still if Russia were to deliver a similar message.
But because, as Ben-Israel observed, “a guarantee from another nation is not a reliable deterrence policy,” the critical element in a successful containment regime would be Israel’s own unambiguous and compelling promise of swift and devastating retaliation. The mullahs may reasonably think that if they detonate a bomb over Tel Aviv while possessing nuclear-tipped missiles that can reach London, the Americans might hesitate to attack Iran on Israel’s behalf. Therefore, should Iran obtain the bomb, an effective Israeli deterrent, according to Ben-Israel, would require Israel to demonstrate publicly its ability to inflict catastrophic damage on Iran and at the same time remove any doubt about Israel’s willingness, in the event of a first strike by Iran, to do so.
But deterring an attack by nuclear-tipped Iranian missiles is only the beginning of the challenges that a containment regime would face. What would be a proportional response if the Iranians or their Hezbollah fighters slipped a small boat within a mile of Haifa and detonated a small nuclear device killing 10,000 Israelis?
And how ought Israel respond to–and containment work against–the myriad other dangers spawned by a nuclear Iran? The moment that Iran announces its possession of nuclear weapons, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and perhaps Kuwait, taking to heart Iran’s declared hostility to Sunni Islam and determination to obtain hegemony in the Gulf, will go shopping for their own. Egypt and Turkey will not be far behind. As if a nuclear-armed Pakistan were not worry enough, the vulnerability of these regimes to overthrow by the forces of radical Islam heightens the possibility of the world’s most dangerous weapons falling into the hands of many of the world’s most dangerous actors.
Furthermore, once the Middle East went poly-nuclear, it would be only a matter of time until a suitcase nuclear bomb fell, leaked, or was placed into terrorists’ hands. Even before that, radical Islamists throughout the Middle East–particularly Hezbollah and Hamas–would receive a tremendous psychological boost from a nuclear Iran and be emboldened by their patron’s nuclear umbrella. A nuclear Iran would further undermine the chance for peace between Israel and the Palestinians and Israel and Syria by tempting waverers in the region, those who had begun to abandon the idea that Israel might someday disappear, to once again contemplate an Israel-free Middle East.
In sum, containment is a grim option. So is a military strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities. And relying on prayer for Mousavi and the Iranian people to overthrow the mullahs is no option at all, at least not for the state of Israel, the front line in Islamic radicalism’s war against the West. Thus, in the short time left before Israel is compelled by an Iran fast closing in on a nuclear capability to choose between two grim options, Israel’s highest priority will be to persuade an equivocating United States, a dithering Europe, and an obstructionist Russia that a nuclear Iran is not just an Israeli problem or a Middle Eastern problem but a problem for the United States and the world.
Peter Berkowitz is the Tad and Dianne Taube senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University.