According to Reports: Some sober analysis of an attack on Iran

By Paul Michaels

Last week’s column examined Tony Burman’s claim in the Toronto Star that an Israeli attack on Iran this year is all but certain. This week’s column looks at Israeli analyst Ronen Bergman’s Jan. 29 New York Times Magazine piece, “Will Israel Attack Iran?

At 7,600 words, Bergan’s is a major article. Yet, surprisingly for someone who concludes that he believes Israel will attack, he offers almost no compelling evidence to support this view.

Bergman acknowledges early in his piece that “Netanyahu and Barak have both repeatedly stressed that a decision [to launch a pre-emptive attack on a country that has repeatedly threatened to destroy Israel] has not been made and that a deadline for making one has not been set.”

He discusses at length the debate taking place in Israel, pitting former Mossad head Meir Dagan and former IDF chief Gabi Ashkenazi (among others who oppose a military strike) against the prime minister, defence minister and strategic affairs minister who, Bergman claims, favour such a strike as a final option.

Indeed, most of Bergman’s article is an exploration of this debate along with an account of what measures Israel has already taken. This includes, allegedly, covert Mossad operations to set back Iran’s nuclear weapons program, such as industrial and computer sabotage, and assassinations of Iranian nuclear scientists. These are in addition to overt measures, namely the advocacy of biting international economic sanctions on Tehran.

There is no sense in Ronen’s sober examination that Israel is rushing recklessly, foolhardily into a war with Iran, let alone, as Burman suggested in his Star piece, that Israel is trying to ensnare both Iran and the Obama administration in such a war in 2012.

Ronen repeatedly raises the question of whether an Israeli assault even stands a good chance of being successful, where “success” means not destroying Iran’s capacity to produce nuclear bombs but only being able to set that back by a few years.  He cites experts who claim that, given all the time Iran has had to widely disperse its assets and bury them deeply under mountains, an Israeli assault might be able to set the program back by only several months. If so, some have asked, is it worth taking the risk and starting a war with potentially devastating consequences?

Even if the best that can be achieved is a three-year delay in Iran’s program, is a pre-emptive strike worth the risk?  “[The Iranians] are holding the fissile material at sites across the country, most notably at the Fordo facility, near the holy city Qom, in a bunker that Israeli intelligence estimates is 220 feet deep, beyond the reach of even the most advanced bunker-busting bombs possessed by the United States.” If the US, with strategic bombers that Israel lacks, doesn’t possess the capabilities required to destroy such a vital target, what can Israel, which relies on the US for bunker-busting bombs, do?

Well-known analyst Barry Rubin has been looking at this debate with cool detachment. He recently wrote in the Jerusalem Post that the fact that some Israeli leaders talk openly about the possibility of attacking Iran “is the biggest proof that they aren’t about to do it.” Israel has always acted on the basis of surprise, not by declaring publicly and repeatedly its military plans.

On the other hand, several analysts have argued that only the US has the military might for the sustained bombing operations required to inflict sufficient damage to Iran’s nuclear facilities. Matthew Kroenig makes such a case in “Time To Attack Iran”, found in the January-February issue of Foreign Affairs. Yet even Kroenig acknowledges the claims of critics that success is far from assured and that since Iran might be able to reconstitute its program, the US might only be delaying “the inevitable.”

Kroenig’s bottom line, however, is that the only thing worse than a preemptive assault on Iran’s nuclear assets is living with a nuclear-armed Iran.

Paul Michaels is the Director of Research and Media Relations for the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs.

For past “According to Reports,” click here.