Jun 18th 2012

Why attacking Iran is becoming more likely

by Alon Ben-Meir

A noted journalist and author, Dr. Alon Ben-Meir is professor of international relations and Middle East studies at the Center for Global Affairs at New York University. Ben-Meir holds a masters degree in philosophy and a doctorate in international relations from Oxford University. His exceptional knowledge and insight, the result of more than 20 years of direct involvement in foreign affairs, with a focus on the Middle East, has allowed Dr. Ben-Meir to offer a uniquely invaluable perspective on the nature of world terrorism, conflict resolution and international negotiations. Fluent in Arabic and Hebrew, Ben-Meir's frequent travels to the Middle East and meetings with highly placed officials and academics in many Middle Eastern countries including Egypt, Israel, Jordan, the Palestinian territories, Syria and Turkey provide him with an exceptionally nuanced level of awareness and insight into the developments surrounding breaking news. Ben-Meir often articulates

The negotiations over Iran’s nuclear program during the past few months have produced nothing more than a diplomatic dance in the face of persistent Iranian ploys for time coupled with intransigence on key issues. In failing to reach a negotiated settlement, the conflict with Tehran is inching closer toward a point of no return, where Israel might decide that the circumstances warrant a unilateral attack against Iran’s nuclear facilities. Although there are other scenarios under which Israel may decide to attack Iran, chief among them is Israel’s fear that Iran is close to reaching what Israel’s Defense Minister Ehud Barak terms, “a zone of immunity.” Under such circumstances and given more time, Iran would be in a position to store much of its previous enriched uranium, as well as its high quality centrifuges, deep inside the mountain base of Fordow, thus becoming completely immune from aerial bombardment.

This objective, which Tehran is hard at work in seeking to achieve, limits how much time Israel would have before it acts. This Israeli concerns make the continuing diplomatic efforts coupled with sanctions advocated by the Obama administration unviable options and might in fact be extremely risky to pursue. The Netanyahu government is absolutely convinced that Iran will continue to play for time as it has over the past several years, during which time Tehran has considerably advanced its nuclear program in defiance of the IAEA and in spite of severe sanctions.      

Netanyahu and his Defense Minister Barak, in particular, are not persuaded that any future talks will persuade Iran to give up its uranium enrichment program. Time has therefore become Israel’s worst enemy as Iran races to shield its main nuclear facilities to make them impregnable to air attacks. Unlike securing a “zone of immunity”, which the Israelis believe Tehran could achieve within a few months, other possible scenarios include: Iran mustering the technology to produce nuclear weapons, cyber-attacks being inadequate to slow the nuclear program, and requiring more time to work, thus denying Israel the luxury of time to assume the “wait and see” attitude.

Although a consensus exists among the Israeli defense and security establishment that an attack would at best delay Iran’s nuclear program by two to three years and might even push Iran to pursue nuclear weapons capabilities more vigorously than at the present, it is not a given that Iran would simply resume its nuclear activity following such an attack. Some Israeli officials argue that the changing regional and domestic political dynamics may force Tehran to rethink its nuclear weapons program. Moreover, as Barak speculated a couple of months ago, Iran’s potential retaliatory attacks against Israel or its allies, specifically the US, would have limited impact and the catastrophic regional repercussions many Western observers suggest would not necessarily come to pass. Although President Putin, for domestic political motivation, is eager for a foreign policy achievement and would be inclined to put more pressure on Iran, no one who understands the internal dynamics in Iran expects any breakthrough in the next meeting scheduled for June 18-19 in Moscow between the P5+I and Iran. As a result, feverish diplomatic maneuverings will follow along with a stiffening of the American and European sanctions that are in place already. Additionally, the current quiet military preparation for striking Iran by both the US and Israel may well enter a new phase of readiness, albeit with differences in timing and the decision regarding if or when to strike, which remains a contentious issue between the two allies.

Undoubtedly, there is extensive cooperation between the United States and Israel regarding Iran’s nuclear program, including intelligence sharing and the coordination of cyber-attacks, all the while keeping Israel informed about the progress (or the lack thereof) in the negotiations with Iran. In recent weeks, a number of former and current American officials have visited Israel including: Michele A. Flournloy, former Undersecretary of Defense, David S. Cohen, Undersecretary for Terrorism and Financial Intelligence in the Treasury Department, and Wendy R. Sherman, Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs. These and others are trying to assure Israel that the US’ commitment to preventing Iran from acquiring nuclear weapon capabilities is solid and that the US is prepared to use military force should it become necessary.

The Obama administration insists that Iran is at least two years away from reaching the so-called “point of no return”, providing the administration with more time for diplomacy and allowing the crippling sanctions to succeed. Moreover, having just concluded the war in Iraq and with the fighting in Afghanistan still continuing, there is little appetite to start new military operations, which could ignite regional conflagration. In addition, being that this is an election year, the President does not want to risk a military operation especially when there is more time to find new alternatives. Finally, neither the US nor any of its close allies, especially Israel, faces direct, imminent or immediate danger from Iran, which US collective intelligence agencies assure is not the case at this juncture.

The Netanyahu government sees the Iranian threat from a different perspective. Israel maintains, with some justifications, that the Iranian leadership has repeatedly threatened Israel existentially and even if Iran does not use a nuclear weapon against Israel, it poses a grave regional danger far greater than the potential consequences of an Israeli attack. A nuclear Iran would increase nuclear proliferation (the Saudi government has already threatened to develop its own nuclear weapons), heighten the risk of extremist groups of obtaining nuclear materials, and embolden Iran to throw its weight around in the region, pitting the Shiite bloc against Israel. That said, former Israeli officials from the intelligence and military communities argue that Iran knows only too well that Israel maintains second strike capabilities that could cause catastrophic damage to Iran and the Iranian leadership is not so irrational as to commit suicide. Nevertheless, Netanyahu insists that Israel’s national security concerns cannot be taken lightly and however remote the Iranian threat may be, Israel cannot afford to take the risk.

The Israeli position is further strengthened by the argument that the on and off negotiations between the P5+1 and Iran and through Turkish and Brazilian mediation nearly two years ago, have produced nothing of substance. This problem was compounded by the recent presumed agreement between the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and Iran to allow inspectors to access the controversial Parchin military base, which has failed to materialize. Moreover, recent evidence revealed that a cleanup operation has taken place at the military site, which has heightened the suspicions of IAEA, the US and Israel. Finally, Iran continues to refuse unfettered IAEA access at its suspected nuclear sites, with the intent of obfuscating its true nuclear goals. Israel views this as a pattern that Tehran has been pursuing almost with impunity while defying not only the IAEA but also four UNSC resolutions demanding a complete suspension of its enrichment program.

Although for Israel time is of the essence, should Iran come close to reaching the “zone of immunity” which would make attacking Iran more likely, clear and unequivocal evidence of Israeli intelligence findings must be produced for the whole world to see before Israel contemplates such an attack. A premature Israeli attack could not only have catastrophic regional consequences but could also subject Israel to world–wide condemnation, potentially crippling sanctions, and retaliatory attacks by Iran and its surrogates.

The United States is not oblivious to Iran’s intentions or to Israel’s legitimate concerns. Regardless of the differing assessments between Israel and the US, Israel would be well advised to fully collaborate with the American administration and act in concert to avoid any miscalculations that could potentially cost Israel dearly.

Browse articles by author

More Current Affairs

Dec 14th 2019
EXTRACT: "Conspiracy theories about sinister Jewish power have a long history. The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, a Russian forgery published in 1903, popularized the notion that Jewish bankers and financiers were secretly pulling the strings to dominate the world. Henry Ford was one of the more prominent people who believed this nonsense."
Dec 13th 2019
EXTRACT: "In previous British elections, to say that trust was the main issue would have meant simply that trust is the trump card – whichever leader or party could secure most trust would win. Now, the emerging question about trust is whether it even matters anymore."
Dec 5th 2019
EXTRACT: "Europe must fend for itself for the first time since the end of World War II. Yet after so many years of strategic dependence the US, Europe is unprepared – not just materially but psychologically – for today’s harsh geopolitical realities. Nowhere is this truer than in Germany."
Nov 23rd 2019
Extdact: "The kind of gratitude expressed by Vindman and my grandfather is not something that would naturally occur to a person who can take his or her nationality for granted, or whose nationality is beyond questioning by others. Some who have never felt the sharp end of discrimination might even find it mildly offensive. Why should anyone be grateful for belonging to a particular nation? Pride, perhaps, but gratitude? In fact, patriotism based on gratitude might be the strongest form there is."
Nov 20th 2019
Extract: "Moody’s, one of the big three credit rating agencies, is not upbeat about the prospects for the world’s debt in 2020 – to put it mildly. If we were to try to capture the agency’s view of where we are heading on a palette of colours, we would be pointing at black – pitch black."
Nov 17th 2019
Extract: "Digital money is already a key battleground in finance, with technology firms, payment processing companies, and banks all vying to become the gateway into the burgeoning platform-based economy. The prizes that await the winners could be huge. In China, Alipay and WeChat Pay already control more than 90% of all mobile payments. And in the last three years, the four largest listed payment firms – Visa, Mastercard, Amex, and PayPal – have increased in value by more than the FAANGs (Facebook, Apple, Amazon, Netflix, and Google)."
Nov 14th 2019
Extract: "Trump, who understands almost nothing about governing, made a major mistake in attacking career public officials from the outset of his presidency. He underestimated – or just couldn’t fathom – the honor of people who could earn more in the private sector but believe in public service. And he made matters worse for himself as well as for the government by creating a shadow group – headed by the strangely out-of-control Rudy Giuliani, once a much-admired mayor of New York City, and now a freelance troublemaker serving as Trump’s personal attorney – to impose the president’s Ukraine policy over that of “the bureaucrats.” "
Nov 4th 2019
Extract: "Trump displays repeated and persistent behaviours consistent with narcissistic personality disorder and antisocial personality disorder. These behaviours include craving for adulation, lack of empathy, aggression and vindictiveness towards opponents, addiction to lying, and blatant disregard for rules and conventions, among others." The concern is that leaders with these two disorders may be incapable of putting the interests of the country ahead of their own personal interests. Their compulsive lying may make rational action impossible and their impulsiveness may make them incapable of the forethought and planning necessary to lead the country. They lack empathy and are often motivated by rage and revenge, and could make quick decisions that could have profoundly dangerous consequences for democracy.
Oct 31st 2019
EXTRACT: "......let’s see what happens when we have less money for all the things we want to do as a country and as individuals. Promises and predictions regarding Brexit will soon be tested against reality. When they are, I wouldn’t want to be one of Johnson’s Brexiteers."
Oct 21st 2019
EXTRACT: "Were Israel to be attacked with the same precision and sophistication as the strike on Saudi Arabia, the Middle East would be plunged into war on a scale beyond anything it has experienced so far. Sadly (but happily for Russian President Vladimir Putin), that is the reality of a world in which the US has abandoned any pretense of global leadership."
Oct 20th 2019
EXTRACT: "Europe also stands to lose from Trump’s abandonment of the Kurds. If, in the ongoing chaos, the thousands of ISIS prisoners held by the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces escape – as some already have – America’s estranged European allies will suffer. Yet Trump is unconcerned. “Well, they are going to be escaping to Europe, that’s where they want to go,” he remarked casually at a press conference. “They want to go back to their homes." "
Oct 15th 2019
EXTRACT: "Assuming the House ultimately votes to impeach Trump, the fact remains that there are far fewer votes in the Senate than will be needed to convict him and remove him from office. But the willingness of Congress – including the Senate – to continue tolerating his dangerous conduct in office, including threats to US national security, is now truly in question."
Oct 7th 2019
EXTRACT: "The problem didn't start with the election of Donald Trump. Nor did it begin with the Democrats launching an impeachment inquiry against Trump. This is a developing crisis that has been growing like a cancer within our polity for at least the past 25 years. Its main symptoms are a lack of civility in our political discourse, a "take no prisoners" mindset, and a denial of the very legitimacy of "the other side." Trump didn't create this crisis; he was the result of it.   When Newt Gingrich took the helm of Congress in 1995, unlike previous Republican leaders, he embarked on a campaign not only to obstruct the efforts of then President Clinton, but to destroy him. Congress launched a series of investigations accusing Clinton of everything from corruption to obstruction of justice – with hints of even more nefarious plots to assassinate those who might pose a problem to his presidency.  "
Oct 4th 2019
EXTRACT: "As the story spreads, it grows darker. Meanwhile, Trump is trying to learn the identity of the whistleblower (who is protected by law), which could expose that person to great danger. And he is accusing some people – including Adam Schiff, the chair of the House Intelligence Committee – of treason. My sense is that Trump fears the tough, focused Schiff. Trump has ominously noted that traitors used to be shot or hanged. And he hasn’t helped himself with members of either party by declaring, in one of his hundreds of febrile tweets, that forcing him from office could lead to a “civil war.” Trump has taken the United States somewhere it’s never been before. His presidency may not survive it."
Sep 24th 2019
EXTRACT: "But regardless of whether the Ukraine scandal remains front-page news, it will haunt the US intelligence community, which has been Trump’s bête noire since the day he took office. Trump has relentlessly attacked US intelligence agencies, cozied up to Russian President Vladimir Putin, and divulged secrets to foreign officials, potentially burning high-value sources. This behavior had already raised serious concerns about whether Trump can be trusted to receive sensitive intelligence at all. Now, intelligence leaders must ask themselves how far they are willing to go in toeing the White House line."
Sep 21st 2019
EXTRACT: "As Lobaczewski pointed out, pathological leaders tend to attract other people with psychological disorders. At the same time, empathetic and fair-minded people gradually fall away. They are either ostracised or step aside voluntarily, appalled by the growing pathology around them.......As a result, over time pathocracies become more entrenched and extreme. You can see this process in the Nazi takeover of the German government in the 1930s, when Germany moved from democracy to pathocracy in less than two years.......In the US, there has clearly been a movement towards pathocracy under Trump. As Lobaczewski’s theory predicts, the old guard of more moderate White House officials – the “adults in the room” – has fallen away. The president is now surrounded by individuals who share his authoritarian tendencies and lack of empathy and morality. Fortunately, to some extent, the democratic institutions of the US have managed to provide some push back."
Sep 16th 2019
EXTRACT: "If the Supreme Court does agree with the Divisional Court that the question is political rather than legal, it will take the UK constitution into quite peculiar territory. Prime ministers will be the new kings and queens. They will be free to suspend parliament at will, and for as long as they wish, without any judicial interference. Parliament will meet not out of constitutional necessity but in the service of the government’s interests – namely, to pass its legislation and to maintain appearances, rather than to hold it to account."
Sep 12th 2019
Extract: "The Republican Party has lashed its fate to an increasingly unhinged leader. Though three other presidential hopefuls for 2020 now stand in Trump’s way, none can defeat him. But they can damage his reelection effort, which is why the Republican Party has been scrapping some primaries and caucuses. How well Trump does in November next year may well depend on how his fragile ego withstands the coming months."
Sep 2nd 2019
EXTRACTS: "Most people think of revolutions as sudden earthquakes or volcanic eruptions that come without warning and sweep away an entire political system. But historians, political scientists, and even the odd politician know that the reality is very different: revolutions happen when systems hollow themselves out, or simply rot from within. Revolutionaries can then brush aside established norms of behavior, or even of truth, as trivialities that should not impede the popular will............ Only time will tell whether we are currently witnessing the hollowing out of British democracy. But Prime Minister Boris Johnson may well have crossed some invisible Rubicon by.......... Whatever happens now, British parliamentary democracy may never be the same again. It will certainly never again be the model that so many people around the world once admired."
Aug 29th 2019
EXTRACT: "Events such as prorogations and dissolutions happen when countries face difficult times. Therefore, because of the disastrous effects of Brexit: sterling in freefall; a recession looming on the horizon and Britain’s international standing at its lowest ebb since Suez, it is no surprise that the country is in this position now. The worrying thing is that using the monarchical power of prorogation does not solve problems – it has a history of turning them into frightening and often violent crises. There is a worrying relationship between the use of such powers and a complete breakdown in government."