The nuclear deal reached with Iran on Tuesday is clouded by uncertainty about whether the Iranian regime will live up to its relatively weak commitments. One outcome is almost certain, however: Israel will launch a pre-emptive strike against Iran, hoping to weaken the regime and stop, or slow, its nuclear program.
Israel will attack–possibly by year’s end–because there is no other way to disrupt Iran’s advance to regional hegemony, which will become unstoppable once the deal’s provisions–especially the non-nuclear provisions–begin to take effect.
Despite what the Obama administration and its media supporters are saying, there is almost no doubt that the Iran deal, should it survive Congress, will enable Iran to become a nuclear power.
President Barack Obama himself admitted as much in April, when he defended the provisional deal signed in Lausanne by admitting it allowed Iran to reach “breakout” shortly after the ten-year (now eight-year) expiration date. The only question is whether Iran will move that date forward and risk the meager diplomatic consequences of breaking the deal.
There are Israeli analysts–a minority–who believe that Israel can live in the shadow of a nuclear-armed Iran, at least for a while. After all, Israel has developed a lethal “second-strike” capacity, in the form of nuclear missiles aboard Dolphin-class submarines programmed to target Iran. That leaves the Iranian regime to weigh the odds of surviving an Israeli counterattack versus the chances of causing the end of the world as they know it. From a fanatical religious perspective, it is a win-win scenario–but cooler, or less pious, heads may prevail.
The problem is that the Iran deal goes so much further than the nuclear issue alone. The Iranians shrewdly bargained for a host of late concessions: an end to the international arms embargo, the lifting of a ban on ballistic missile technology, and an accelerated schedule of sanctions relief that will pour over $100 billion into depleted Iranian coffers. The regime knew that Obama would not walk away–that he had committed his political career to a deal, and he was already dismissing all other alternatives, severely undermining his own leverage.
Israel just might find a way to live with a nuclear Iran, but it cannot live with a nuclear Iran and an array of turbo-charged Iranian proxies on its borders.
Iran has already renewed its support for Palestinian terror groups in Gaza, and the U.S. has quietly allowed Iranian-backed Hezbollah to regroup in Lebanon, even as it has been weakened by losses in the Syrian civil war. Flush with cash, armed with advanced new weapons, and perhaps equipped with nuclear contaminants, these groups will pose an ever-greater threat to Israel’s security–and soon.
That is why the alternative that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu presented to Congress–and he did present an alternative to the present deal, though Obama pretended not to notice–included three provisions: “first, stop its aggression against its neighbors in the Middle East; second, stop supporting terrorism around the world; and third, stop threatening to annihilate my country, Israel–the one and only Jewish state.” None of those referred directly to the Iranian nuclear program. Obama ignored Netanyahu’s suggestions and forged ahead.
An Israeli strike might not stop the Iranian nuclear program. But it could stall that program, and create a renewed sense of vulnerability around the regime, which was near collapse as recently as 2009. Israel could also make Iran pay a direct cost for arming Hezbollah, Hamas, and other terror groups–a cost historically borne by the civilians of southern Lebanon or Gaza. It could project a conventional deterrent that would affect Iran here and now, as opposed to a nuclear deterrent whose effect might only be felt after an atomic exchange (i.e. not at all).
For Israel, the costs of such an attack on Iran–even a successful one–could be severe. It would be condemned and isolated internationally. It might suffer thousands of rocket attacks from Lebanon and Gaza. It may lose thousands of soldiers and civilians in a ground war.
Obviously the consequences will be less damaging–or more bearable–if the pre-emptive strike is successful. The reason Israelis are willing to take the risk at all is twofold. First, they have done it before (Iraq 1981; Syria 2007). Second, the alternative–thanks to the Iran deal–looks far worse.
The Obama administration has done all it can to prevent an Israeli pre-emptive strike, from leaking Israeli attack scenarios to denying Israel air space over Iraq. As a result, the only realistic bombing plans–whether Israel targets Iran’s nuclear and political installations directly, or detonates an electromagnetic pulse (EMP) over the country–involve a Doolittle Raid-style attack from which Israel’s pilots will not expect to return, or a landing in Saudi Arabia. The latter was once a non-starter, but–ironically–Obama’s overtures to Iran have made it possible.
The Saudis are expected to respond to the Iran deal by seeking nuclear weapons of their own. But the monarchy could also strike an alliance with Israel–perhaps even a grand bargain.
The Saudis could give Israel landing rights, logistical support, and intelligence. In return, Israel could accept Saudi Arabia’s proposal for a Palestinian state roughly along the “1967 lines”–plus Saudi control of Jerusalem’s Muslim holy sites, which would cement the royal family’s legitimacy. (Ironically, Obama, by provoking war, would enable Arab-Israeli peace.)
The clock is ticking, however. Before the Iran deal, it was thought that Israel could only carry out a pre-emptive strike in the time period before Iran actually became a nuclear power. Now, the deadlines are even shorter, and more complex.
Israel would need to attack before Russian S-300 surface-to-air missiles, already sold to Iran, can be delivered and activated. It would also need to attack while Hezbollah and Hamas are still weak, war-weary and cash-strapped–i.e. before sanctions relief delivers billions to Iran’s regional war and terror efforts.
Israel must also be wary of attacking too soon. It will not attack in the next ten days, for example, because they coincide with a religious period of mourning for historic defeats. It would also make little sense for Israel to attack while Congress is debating the Iran deal.
But Israel will attack before it loses the option. It will do so because the purpose of Israeli statehood is to enable Jews to defend themselves, and not rely on the help or mercy of others.
Obama wants to build a new legacy, but Netanyahu has inherited an old legacy–one he cannot ignore.