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Will Israel Attack Iran?

Dr. Richard L. Benkin
13 Nov 2011

The last couple weeks have seen a great deal of speculation about Israel preparing for an attack on Iran’s nuclear installations.  This sort of speculation occurs regularly, but what makes this round of chatter different from previous ones is the involvement of European governments, especially Italy and the United Kingdom. Within the past few days, Israel’s Debka file, suggested that Germany has now sent an Air Force contingent to Sardinia in preparation for the strike.  Moreover, the rumors began surfacing shortly before the UN’s International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) issued a report confirming that Iran’s nuclear program is designed to produce weapons and not just “peaceful nuclear power,” which it consistently claims to be its only goal.  This, too, is a change.  Previously, especially under Mohamed ElBaradei, the IAEA was very timid about angering the Iranian mullahs and tended to champion their disingenuous denials.  But its changed position has removed the major public justification for inaction, even though few people with any understanding of the process accepted the mullahs’ cynical denials anyway.  Simply this will make that ruse more difficult to maintain.  How serious might things be?  Even China is now asking Tehran to lay its nuclear ambitious aside.

My own Israeli sources have explained why the Europeans might have shifted their public stance and why that is important.  According to at least three individuals, who have spoken to me on a guaranty of anonymity, experts there consider Iran’s nuclear program more of a threat to Europe than to Israel.  Over the last several years, Israel has continued to upgrade its missile shield, especially against the sort of weapons that Iran might use to carry a nuclear payload (this as opposed to the less sophisticated rockets from Gaza that have made headlines again).  These sources tell me that the shield is perhaps 90 percent or more effective and that the Jewish State has a pretty good chance of intercepting most or all of what Iran could try to deliver.  Moreover, they say, the best Iran could come up with in the near future is a dirty or low yield bomb; probably uranium-based from its Natanz facility.  (A uranium-based device would be far less potent that a plutonium-based bomb.)  None of my Israeli sources dismiss the threat.  Even if one Iranian low-yield bomb made it to, say, the center of Tel Aviv, the loss of life would be horrific (perhaps 100,000 fatalities); and they note that protecting the Israeli people is their most important and morally mandated job.  The device would cause mass casualties, likely shut down if not take out nearby Ben Gurion airport, and cause other national disruptions; but it would not be an existential knock-out to Israel.  Israel’s massive and justified response on Iran would, however, be an existential blow to the Islamic Republic.  And the Iranians know it.

While Israel has been strengthening its missile defenses, the Europeans, under Barack Obama’s direction and it own unilateral actions, have been dismantling or just not building theirs.  Several European capitals are within range of the new Iranian missiles, and the Iranians have good reason to believe that Europe would not launch the same sort of devastating counter attack (1) for fear of domestic unrest by their Muslim populations; and (2) because they would be easily constrained if any Iranian attack were attributed to “rogue” generals or “radical terrorists.”  Geography also makes Europe a more likely target.  Given Israel’s missile defense system, the Iranians would have to throw everything they have at the Jewish State, and the slightest miscalculation easily could drop a payload on Jerusalem and al Aqsa Mosque or the Palestinian Authority’s capital of Ramallah.

The European involvement in high level meetings (London) and training exercises (over Sardinia) could indicate that they finally realize what the Israelis have long known; and that their willingness to sacrifice Israel is is no different than their hopes of placating Hitler and Stalin by giving them the Czechs.  It is also possible that the activity is meant to send a message to Iran—and to those countries that heretofore have been willing to allow the Iranians nuclear weapons capability via de facto inaction:  that real and serious consequences will come sooner rather than later.  Whether the military preparations are real or hard-nosed diplomacy, the United States should be the key player in this drama because of its military capability, traditional defense of freedom, decades-long tolerance of Iranian attacks on its people and interests, and its international leadership role.  Unfortunately, that does not seem to be the case.

While there have been rumors of US involvement from sources as diverse as Iran, the Israeli right (Debkafile) and the European left (Britain’s Guardian); the recent exchange between Obama and French President Nicolas Sarkozy might indicate otherwise.  Obama's own history of inaction during Iran's "Green Revolution," and the fact that he has yet to declare his policy of "engagement" on Iran a failure also suggests otherwise.  One senior US military leader, in fact, told CNN that the administration is not even confident anymore that the Israelis would give the US advance notice of an attack on Iran.  Given the Obama administration’s continued talk of diplomacy and sanctions and its general hostility toward Israel, can we blame them?  Thus, in what could be the most important military action of the decade, the Obama administration is at best—at best—‘leading from behind’ and at worst acting as an obstacle to action, still counseling negotiation and sanctions.  At the end of the day, however Obama might be forced to place the US in the same sort of support role it took in Libya— or risk alienating the Jewish and pro-Israel vote in an election year by abandoning Israel in its time of need.


Dr. Richard L. Benkin

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