Will Israel Bomb Iran?
A close reading of Jeffrey Goldberg's Atlantic article.
So the prospect of an Iranian bomb is very worrisome by any measure and an "existential issue" to Israelis, for whom "Never Again" is not merely a slogan and who therefore must take seriously Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's virulently anti-Semitic statements (which, as Goldberg notes, have been fully endorsed by Iran's leading mullahs).
The real questions, then, are: What can be done, and what should be done, to keep an Iranian bomb from materializing?
As for what can be done, several Israeli officials told Goldberg that—while the task would be difficult and would require some (secret) green-lighting from the Saudis and perhaps other Arab leaders (if just to obtain permission to fly over their territory on the way to the targets)—they could mount an effective attack, not against the entire Iranian nuclear complex but against vital sections of it.
Though he doesn't say so, the Israeli air force has spent much of the last decade equipping many of their U.S.-supplied F-15 and F-16 strike aircraft with external fuel tanks, which would give them the range to reach Iran and perhaps return without refueling.
Still, some Israeli officials tell Goldberg they'd prefer, for political and military reasons, that the United States launch the attack for them. Some U.S. officials fear that Israel might commence an attack with an eye toward drawing them into assisting (on the premise that the assault is too far gone to stop, so we might as well make sure it succeeds). Some Israelis also want President Barack Obama to take a harder line and state firmly that he will attack Iran if it continues on its path to nuclear weapons. Their argument is that Israel might back off from unilateral threats if the U.S. commitment were believable—and that Iran might back off its nuclear program, too. The flipside, however, is that if the firm pledge doesn't faze the Iranians, it practically locks Obama into following through.
This leads to the matter of what should be done, a very different question—and some Israeli (as well as most U.S.) officials think an airstrike would be at least premature and probably a big mistake. Certainly, at least for the moment, it's not the only option.
First, the most pessimistic intelligence projections, including those cited by Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, figure the Iranians could have a nuclear bomb sometime between one and three years from now. This is nothing that has to be dealt with right away. (It's also an estimate that has been cited in years past, with no vindication.)
Second, there are signs that the U.N. sanctions against Iran—and, even more, the still stiffer sanctions imposed by the Obama administration and the European Union—are having some effect. Precisely what effect, and how this might impede or foment internal opposition to the nuclear program, is not yet clear. But Suzanne Maloney, a specialist on the Iranian economy at the Brookings Institution, notes that the sanctions are exacerbating a "huge schism" between the mullahs and Iran's more traditional conservatives—though she, too, sees this as a "long-term" development, with uncertain impact in the short term, which is where the nuclear dilemmas arise.
The Iranian leadership, perhaps in response to growing pressures, did recently call for a return to the bargaining table on the question of letting a foreign government enrich its uranium and send it back in a form that cannot be used to build bombs. So far, anyway, this "concession" has involved only a regurgitation of the deal that they had worked out in June with Turkey and Brazil—which amounts to no real concession at all. Still, as the sanctions take their toll, especially on such matters as capital investment, oil refinement, and routine financial transactions, maybe the offers will get more serious.
Finally, there is much more that the Israelis could do to ease the crisis on this issue (assuming they want to, which isn't clear). As Steve Clemons of the New America Foundation pointed out in a blog post about Goldberg's article, they could embark on a round of real diplomacy with the Palestinians.
The point here is not that making nice in Gaza and the West Bank will compel the Iranians to stop spinning centrifuges or Muslim militants in various countries to lay down their arms. (Certainly Clemons, a realist, has no such illusions.) But if Israel made a genuine effort at starting peace talks and freezing settlements, it might help "de-couple" the issue of Iran from the issue of the Palestinians (which Iran and its proxies have always tried to link, an effort that Israel's settlement policies have abetted).
Fred Kaplan is Slate's "War Stories" columnist and author of the book, The Insurgents: David Petraeus and the Plot to Change the American Way of War. He can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter.
Photograph of airplanes by Tony R. Tolley/U.S. Air Force via Getty Images.