Today, The Washington Post’s David Ignatius devoted his column, see here, to growing concerns within the Obama Administration that “Israel will attack Iran militarily over the next few months.” Ignatius describes U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta as believing “there is a strong likelihood that Israel will strike Iran in April, May or June—before Iran enters what Israelis described as a ‘zone of immunity’ to commence building a nuclear bomb.” Ignatius goes on to note,
“Very soon, the Israelis fear, the Iranians will have enough enriched uranium in deep underground facilities to make a weapon—and only the U.S. could then stop them militarily. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu doesn’t want to leave the fate of Israel dependent on American action, which would be triggered by intelligence that Iran is building a bomb, which it hasn’t done yet.”
Ignatius’ column comes, of course, on the heels of the publication of Israeli journalist Ronen Bergman’s article in the current New York Times Sunday Magazine, “Will Israel Attack Iran?”, see here, in which Bergman concludes, “After speaking with many senior Israeli leaders and chiefs of the military and the intelligence, I have come to believe that Israel will indeed strike Iran in 2012.” In our own conversations, around Washington and elsewhere, we are hearing many of the same expressions of concern echoed by Ignatius—the American military, in particular, is increasingly inclined to believe that Israel will strike, perhaps even earlier than the time frame suggested by Panetta.
We will consider below various strategic and political factors affecting an Israeli decision to attack Iran. The immediate, tactical variable driving Israel’s apparent push toward war is the ongoing installation of centrifuges in the new enrichment facility at Fordo, near Qom. The Fordo facility is, according to reports, located inside a small mountain, making it very difficult to destroy from the air, at least not without using nuclear weapons. The installation and operation of centrifuges at Fordo is proceeding under International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) monitoring, but, from an Israeli perspective, that does not matter—for it is Fordo that is creating the “zone of immunity” (the phrase, it seems, was coined by Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak) over which the Israelis are so agitated.
All of the relevant unclassified assessments and, it would seem, the U.S. military believe that Israel would strike Iranian nuclear facilities primarily from the air. The operation would be at the outermost levels of Israel’s military capability. The number of Israeli strike aircraft that can operate at the necessary ranges (assuming no problems with aerial refueling) is such that Israeli forces could not strike very many targets inside Iran. For Natanz (Iran’s first and most developed enrichment site) as well as Fordo, Israeli pilots would have to hit their aim points not just with precise aim but also with precise timing, tightly sequencing their bombs so that the blasts penetrate deeply enough to damage their intended targets. To be sure, multiple sources have told us over the past several years that the Israeli air force has been practicing this sort of mission intensively. Nevertheless, with Fordo now in the picture, reports, e.g., see here, that Israel has set up a new commando unit charged with carrying out missions “deep inside enemy territory” suggest that the Israeli attack plan might include the deployment of commando forces on the ground, with the assignment to fight their way into the new facility and ensure that it was truly destroyed.
All of these considerations have made us skeptical that the Israelis would take a decision to strike Iranian nuclear targets on their own—and to do so in the face of nearly universal assessments that even a maximally successful attack would not inflict that much damage on Iran’s nuclear program. Periodically intense speculation about an Israeli military campaign against the Iranian program has seemed to us as highly useful for leveraging the United States and its international partners to impose ever tighter sanctions against the Islamic Republic, launch ever more covert operations against Iran, and so on. But actually to decide to strike, with all of the attendant and enormous risks—for Israel, for oil prices and the world economy, and for America’s position in the Middle East—has seemed to us a low-probability outcome.
We remain skeptical that the Israelis will take such a decision. No less than Jeffrey Goldberg noted, in commenting on Bergman’s article, that the same sources which persuaded Bergman that Israel will attack in 2012 had persuaded Goldberg, in 2010, that Israel would strike Iran by July 2011.
However, we must note that Israeli “spin” (if spin is all it remains) about the risk of an attack has reached levels and taken forms that we have not seen in several years. So, we thought it timely to re-evaluate the factors that might plausibly lead Prime Minister Netanyahu and other senior Israeli leaders to opt for preventive war. Beyond development of the Fordo facility, three factors strike us as especially relevant in this regard.
–The first is the prospect of President Obama’s re-election. Israelis with access to the Prime Minister’s office tell us that Netanyahu and his inner circle have long believed that Obama is politically vulnerable. From this perspective, ordering an Israeli strike before the U.S. presidential election in November could seem the “smart” play: it would be very hard for Obama to try to distance himself from the Israeli action (something that, according to Ignatius, the Obama Administration seems to believe it can do) without seriously jeopardizing his re-election; at the same time, if Obama were to win re-election, it is better, from an Israeli perspective, to have this potentially unpleasant business of an illegal war against Iran out of the way before he is sworn in for a second term. (Recall that, the last time that the Israeli military invaded Gaza, it did so at the end of 2008 and the beginning of 2009, to ensure that the campaign would be over before Obama was first sworn in.)
–The second factor is Israeli perceptions of the strategic fallout from the Arab spring. Mubarak’s fall, especially, has spooked Israeli political and military leaders. One might think that, at such a time of tumultuous change and uncertainty in the region, Israel would be best served by hunkering down and staying out of (more) trouble (than it is already in). But, based on a lot of experience dealing with Israeli national security professionals while we served in the U.S. government, we can envision a scenario in which Israeli decision-makers persuade themselves that this is precisely the time to re-establish the credibility of what Israeli elites like to call their “deterrent edge”—a misuse of the term deterrence, for it really refers to Israel’s ability to use force first, whenever, wherever, and for whatever purpose it wants.
—Third, with the withdrawal of American military personnel and assets from Iraq, Iraq is left with, effectively, no air defense capability—which means that Israeli planes would have a more-or-less clean shot into Iran through Iraqi airspace.
We are going to watch this one very, very closely.
–Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett