The rational argument for an Israeli attack on Iran.

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April 9 2009 6:13 PM

Why Israel Will Bomb Iran

The rational argument for an attack.

Benjamin Netanyahu. Click image to expand.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu

The more Israeli leaders huff and puff about their determination to stop Iran's nuclear program, the more sophisticated analysts are inclined to believe that Israel is bluffing. After all, if George W. Bush refused to provide Israel with the bunker busters and refueling capacity to take out Iran's nukes in 2008, the chance that Barack Obama will give Israel the green light anytime soon seems quite remote—this being the same President Obama who greeted North Korea's recent missile launch with a speech outlining his plan to dismantle America's nuclear arsenal on the way to realizing his dream of a nuclear-free world. Israel's performance in the 2006 war in Lebanon was widely depicted as catastrophic, and with Israel's diplomatic standing hitting new lows after the stomach-turning images of destruction from Gaza, the diplomatic consequences of a successful attack on Iranian nuclear facilities might be worse than the prospect of military failure. There is also the fact that no one knows exactly where Iran's nuclear assets are.

Many perfectly reasonable people chalk up the rhetorical excesses of both parties to the hot desert sun and assume that nothing particularly awful will happen whether Iran becomes a nuclear power or not. From a U.S. point of view, at least, there is little reason to doubt the analysis that a nuclear Iran with a few dozen bombs can be contained at relatively limited cost using the same strategies that successfully constrained an aggressive Soviet Empire armed with nearly 45,000 nuclear warheads at the height of the Cold War.

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What the nuclear optimists miss is that it is not the United States that is directly threatened by the Iranian nuclear program but Israel—and the calculations that drive our Middle Eastern client state are very different from those that guide the behavior of its superpower patron.

Less sanguine types—who think that Israel isn't bluffing—generally fall into two camps: those who think that the Israelis are crazy and require the firm hand of America to restrain them and those who think that the Iranian leadership lives on a different planet  and will use nuclear weapons against Israel. Yet it is not necessary to stipulate that either party is crazy in order to see why an Israeli attack on Iran makes sense.

From the standpoint of international relations theory, the scariest thing about recent Israeli rhetoric is that an attack on Iran lines up quite well with Israel's rational interests as a superpower client.

While Israeli bluster is clearly calculated to push America to take a more aggressive stance toward Iran, that doesn't mean the Israelis won't actually attack if President Obama decides on a policy of engagement that leaves the Iranians with a viable nuclear option. In fact, the more you consider the rationality of an Israeli attack on Iran in the context of Israel's relationship with its superpower patron, the more likely an attack appears. Given Iran's recent technological triumphs, like the launch of the Omid communications satellite earlier this year and the lack of ambiguity about the aims of the Iranian nuclear program, it is hardly apocalyptic to expect an attack within the next year—assuming that the Russians continue to dither about delivering S-300 surface-to-air missiles to protect Iranian nuclear sites. A stepped-up delivery date for large numbers of S-300 missiles could lead to an earlier attack.

The fact that U.S. and Israeli interests with regard to Iran may diverge in radical ways comes as a surprise to many mainstream analysts because of the tendency among both supporters and opponents of America's "special relationship" with Israel to invoke various forms of mind-bending mumbo-jumbo—from dimwitted theories about an all-powerful Jewish conspiracy to childlike evocations of the community of democratic values that unites the two countries. While America's embrace of Israel is partially motivated both by shared values and by the lobbying power of an influential minority group, neither Israel's creaky democratic polity nor the hidden persuasive powers of AIPAC can claim much credit for the billions of dollars in American military credits that Israel enjoys—a vast corporate welfare program that benefits Pentagon defense contractors as much as it benefits Israel's military.

The key fact of the American-Israeli alliance that most commentators seem eager to elide is that Israel is America's leading ally in the Middle East because it is the most powerful country in the Middle East. Critics of the American-Israeli relationship love to conflate American support for Israel before 1967 with America's support since then by citing statistics for tens of billions of dollars in U.S. military credits and aid given to Israel "since 1948," when the Jewish State was founded. In fact, Israel's rise to becoming a regional superpower was accomplished without any significant help from United States. Israel's surreptitious program to build nuclear weapons was accomplished with the aid of the British and the French, who joined with Israel to seize the Suez Canal from Egypt's rabble-rousing President Gamal Abdel Nasser, and who were then forced to give it back by Dwight D. Eisenhower. The Israeli air force pilots who destroyed the Egyptian, Syrian, and Jordanian air forces on the ground flew French-made Mystère jets—not American-made F-4 Phantoms. The U.S. Congress did not appropriate a single penny to help Israel accommodate an overwhelming influx of Holocaust survivors and poor Jewish refugees from Yemen, Iraq, Egypt, and other Arab countries until 1973—25 years after the founding of the state.  

By shattering the old balance of power in the Middle East with its spectacular military victory in the Six Day War, Israel announced itself to America as the reigning military power in the region and as a profoundly destabilizing influence that needed to be contained. The parallels between Israel's rise to superpower-client status in the 1950s and 1960s and the Iranian march toward regional hegemony over the past decade are quite striking. Both Israel circa 1967 and modern-day Iran are non-Arab states that utilized innovative military tactics to panic the Arabs. Yet where Iran is a non-Arab country with a population of more than 70 million, Israel was and is a tiny non-Arab, non-Muslim country whose small population and seat-of-the-pants style of leadership made even the country's modest colonial ambitions seem like a stretch. In the absence of any fixed plan of expansion, or any long-term plan for dealing with its neighbors, Israel decided to use its excess military power and captured lands as a chit that it could exchange for resources provided from outside the region by its wealthy American patron.

Israel earned its role as an American client with a series of daring military victories won by a tiny embattled country with a shoestring budget and its back against the sea: the capture of the Suez Canal from Nasser in 1956, the audacious victory in 1967, and the development of a nuclear bomb. Yet the terms of the bargain that Israel struck would necessarily relegate such accomplishments to the history books. Israel traded its freedom to engage in high-risk, high-payoff exploits like the Suez Canal adventure or the Six Day War for the comfort of a military and diplomatic guarantee from the wealthiest and most powerful nation in the world. As a regional American client, Israel would draw on the military and diplomatic power of its distant patron in exchange for allowing America to use its control over Israel as leverage with neighboring Arab states.

With each American-brokered peace move—from Camp David to the Madrid Conference to Oslo and Annapolis—the United States has been able to hold up its leverage over Israel as both a carrot and a stick to the Arab world. Do what we want, and we will force the Israelis to behave. The client-patron relationship between the United States and Israel that allows Washington to control the politics of the Middle East is founded on two pillars: America's ability to deliver concrete accomplishments, like the return of the Sinai to Egypt and the pledge to create a Palestinian state, along with the suggestion that Washington is manfully restraining wilder, more aggressive Israeli ambitions.

The success of the American-Israeli alliance demands that both parties be active partners in a complex dance that involves a lot of play-acting—America pretends to rebuke Israel, just as Israel pretends to be restrained by American intervention from bombing Damascus or seizing the banks of the Euphrates. The instability of the U.S.-Israel relationship is therefore inherent in the terms of a patron-client relationship that requires managing a careful balance of Israeli strength and Israeli weakness. An Israel that runs roughshod over its neighbors is a liability to the United States—just as an Israel that lost the capacity to project destabilizing power throughout the region would quickly become worthless as a client.

A corollary of this basic point is that the weaker and more dependent Israel becomes, the more Israeli interests and American interests are likely to diverge. Stripped of its ability to take independent military action, Israel's value to the United States can be seen to reside in its ability to give the Golan Heights back to Syria and to carve out a Palestinian state from the remaining territories it captured in 1967—after which it would be left with only the territories of the pre-1967 state to barter for a declining store of U.S. military credits, which Washington might prefer to spend on wooing Iran.

The untenable nature of this strategic calculus gives a cold-eyed academic analyst all the explanation she needs to explain Israel's recent wars against Hezbollah and Hamas, its assassinations of Iranian nuclear scientists and engineers, and its 2007 attack on the Syrian nuclear reactor. Israel's attempts to restore its perceived capacity for game-changing independent military action are directed as much to its American patron as to its neighbors. Israel's current strategic posture was established by former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, who alternated strong, unpredictable military actions like Operation Defensive Shield and the final isolation of Yasser Arafat with invocations of the importance of peace and surprising concessions, such as the unilateral Israeli withdrawal from Gaza in 2005. Sharon also took care to balance his close relationship with President Bush with a program of diplomatic outreach to second-tier powers like Russia and India.

An attack on Iran might be risky in dozens of ways, but it would certainly do wonders for restoring Israel's capacity for game-changing  military action. The idea that Iran can meaningfully retaliate against Israel through conventional  means is more myth than fact. Even without using nuclear weapons, Israel has the capacity to flatten the Iranian economy by bombing a few strategic oil refineries, making a meaningful Iranian counterstroke much less likely than it first appears.

If the 2006 Lebanon war showed the holes in Israel's ability to fight a conventional ground war, it also showed the ability of the Israeli air force to destroy long-range missiles on the ground. Israel's response to fresh barrages of missiles from Hezbollah and Hamas while engaged in a shooting war with Iran would presumably be even less restrained than it has been in the past.

Short of an Iranian-hostage-rescue-mission-type debacle in which a small Israeli tactical force crashes in the Iranian desert, or a presidential order from Obama to shoot down Israeli planes on their way to Natanz, any Israeli air raid on Iran is likely to succeed in destroying masses of delicate equipment that the Iranians have spent a decade building at enormous cost in time and treasure. It is hard to believe that Iran could quickly or easily replace what it lost. Whether it resulted in delaying Iran's march toward a nuclear bomb by two years, five years, or somewhere in between, the most important result of an Israeli bombing raid would be to puncture the myth of inevitability that has come to surround the Iranian nuclear project and that has fueled Iran's rise as a regional hegemon.

The idea of a mass public outcry against Israel in the Muslim world is probably also a fiction—given the public backing of the Gulf states and Egypt for Israel's wars against Hezbollah and Hamas. As the only army in the region able to take on Iran and its clients, Israel has effectively become the hired army of the Sunni Arab states tasked by Washington with the job of protecting America's favorite Middle Eastern tipple—oil.

The parallels between Israel's rise to superpower client status after 1967 and Iran's recent rise offer another strong reason for Israel to act—and act fast. The current bidding for Iran's favor is alarming to Israel not only because of the unfriendly proclamations of Iranian leaders but because of what an American rapprochement with Iran signals for the future of Israel's status as an American client. While America would probably benefit by playing Israel and Iran against each other for a while to extract the maximum benefit from both relationships, it is hard to see how America would manage to please both clients simultaneously and quite easy to imagine a world in which Iran—with its influence in Afghanistan and Iraq, its control over Hezbollah and Hamas, and easy access to leading members of al-Qaida—would  be the partner worth pleasing. 

Bombing Iran's nuclear facilities is the surest way for Israel to restore the image of strength and unpredictability that made it valuable to the United States after 1967 while also eliminating Iran as a viable partner for America's favor. The fact that this approach may be the international-relations equivalent of keeping your boyfriend by shooting the other cute girl he likes in the head is an indicator of the difference between high-school romance and alliances between states—and hardly an argument for why it won't work. Shorn of its nuclear program and unable to retaliate against Israel through conventional military means, Iran would be shown to be a paper tiger—to the not-so-secret delight of America's Sunni Arab allies in the Gulf. Iran's local clients like Syria and Hamas would be likely to distance themselves from an over-leveraged Persian would-be hegemon whose ruined nuclear facilities would be visible on Google Earth.

The only real downside for Israel of an attack on Iran is Washington's likely response to the anger of the Arab street and the European street, both of which are likely to express their fierce outrage against Israel and the United States. The price of an Israeli attack on Iran is therefore clear to anyone who reads Al Ahram or the Guardian: a Palestinian state. It seems fair to say that both Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak see the establishment of some kind of Palestinian state as inevitable and also as posing real security risks to Israel.

Yet, in a perverse way, the idea that the price of an attack on Iran will be the establishment of a Palestinian state makes the logic of such an attack even clearer. Israel's leaders know that the security threats inherent in giving up most of the West Bank will be greatly augmented or diminished depending on how a Palestinian state is born. A Palestinian state born as the result of Israeli weakness is a much greater danger to Israel than a state born out of  Israeli strength. Ariel Sharon was able to withdraw from Gaza because he defeated Arafat and crushed the second intifada. Desperate to rid themselves of the bad PR and the demographic threat posed by maintaining Israel's hold over the West Bank, Sharon's successors have been unable to find a victory big enough to allow them to retreat. Nor are they able to reconcile themselves to the threat posed by images of a defeated Israel being forced to withdraw from Hebron and Nablus by triumphant Palestinian militias backed by Iran.

The inevitability of a future Palestinian state is the most powerful argument for the inevitability of an Israeli attack on Iran—unless the Iranian nuclear program is stopped by other means. Taking out the Iranian nuclear program is the one obvious avenue by which Israel can turn the debilitating drip-drip-drip of territorial giveaways and  international condemnation into a convincing appearance of strength. Destroying a respectable number of Iranian centrifuges will end Iran's march to regional hegemony and eliminate Israel's chief rival for America's affections while also allowing Israel to gain the legal and demographic benefits of a Palestinian state with a minimum of long-term risk.

Israel's version of a nuclear grand bargain that brings peace to the Middle East may be messier and more violent than what the Obama administration imagines can be accomplished through sanctions, blandishments, and the invocation of Barack Obama's magic middle name. But who can really argue with the idea of trading the Iranian nuclear bomb for a Palestinian state? Saudi Arabia would be happy. Egypt would be happy. Bahrain, Kuwait, and the United Arab Emirates would be happy. Jordan would be happy. Iraq would be happy. Two-thirds of the Lebanese would be happy. The Palestinians would go about building their state, and Israel would buy itself another 40 years as the only nuclear-armed country in the Middle East. Iran would not be happy.

But who said peace won't have a price?

David Samuels is a contributing editor at Harper's and a frequent contributor to the Atlantic and The New Yorker.