Likelihood grows for Israeli strike on Iran

By Dale R. Herspring

There is one potential international crisis that frightens leaders in both political parties, perhaps Democrats a bit than Republicans. It is an Israeli attack on Iran, especially if it were to come prior to the election or even during one of the upcoming conventions.

There is little doubt, based on what is going in Israel — both in terms of rhetoric and practical steps — that Israel is beginning to take the possibility of a war more seriously than was the case several weeks ago.

On Aug. 12, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu reportedly told his government, “All threats directed at the Israeli home front are dwarfed by another threat, different in its magnitude and substance — and I have repeated and shall repeat — Iran must not be allowed to obtain nuclear weapons.” After Netanyahu spoke, his government leaked U.S. intelligence describing Iranian efforts to develop an atomic bomb. Citing an unidentified Israeli official, one of Israel’s newspapers said an American National Intelligence Estimate (NIE), included a “last-minute update” arguing that Iran had made far more progress toward the development of a nuclear warhead than U.N. inspectors had noted. 

Interestingly, the Obama government has said nothing about this purported intelligence leak.  If the report on the NIE is accurate, it carries considerable weight inside the U.S. government. I have worked on NIEs in my State Department career. In most cases, they represent the joint conclusion of U.S. intelligence agencies.

One way to determine whether a state is bluffing in such an instance is to see if its actions back up its rhetoric.  On Aug. 12, the Israeli military began testing its internal communications system. In addition, Israeli officials confirmed that Israel’s top-tier missile defense system has been upgraded.

On Aug. 15, Israel’s civil defense minister, who is about to become ambassador to China, said in an interview that a war with Iran would probably turn into a month-long conflict on various fronts with missile strikes on Israeli cities and some 500 dead. As the official, Matan Vilnai, put it, “There is no room for hysteria., Israel’s home front is prepared as never before.” He continued, “There might be fewer dead, or more, perhaps… but this is the scenario for which we are preparing, in accordance with the best expert advice.” He went so far as to suggest that such missile strikes were inevitable. “Just as the citizens of Japan have to understand they are likely to be hit by an earthquake, Israelis must realize that anyone who lives here has to be prepared for missiles striking the home front.”

There have been suggestions that the Israeli populace is less than supportive of a war against Iran. While the polls differ, most suggest that there is increasing acceptance of the inevitability Vilnai spoke of.

Meanwhile, U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta has said nothing about the NIE. He did, however, say that Washington does not believe Iran has made the final decision to develop a nuclear weapon. He then intimated that there is still time for a diplomatic solution to halt Iran’s efforts to develop nuclear weapons.

I have no doubt that Israel intends eventually to take out the Iranian missiles.  However, Israel knows the chances of a positive outcome go up proportionately if the United States is involved. After all, the United States has the really big “bunker buster” bombs that would burrow deep and be more likely to destroy Iran’s underground facilities. Israel regards President Barack Obama as its biggest obstacle.  They see him as a politician who uses strong words but never backs them up. Maybe they will force him to act.

This is what scares Democrats and, to a lesser degree, Repub-licans. If Israel attacks Iran — even on its own — Tehran would respond and we would be drawn into the war. Given the regional chaos, there is no way to determine how big such a war might become. 

As a now retired Russian general told me, “No war has ever gone as the generals planned it…. War is not as simple as some think; just ask Hitler’s generals.”

Democrats fear that being drawn into a conflict in the Persian Gulf would undercut Obama’s re-election chances; hence the effort to keep the Israelis in line. Imagine what would happen if the Israelis were to launch an attack during the Republican or Democratic conventions. The United States would immediately become involved in a war. It would force Obama’s hand just when the spotlight is on the election.

Dale R. Herspring, a University Distinguished Professor and a member of the Council on Foreign Relations, is a retired U.S. diplomat and Navy captain.

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