As talk of an imminent Israeli attack on Iran veers from frenzy to doubt, I outline the nine most important questions (and answers) regarding this operation: Are the Iranians willing and capable of developing a nuclear weapon? What will happen if they get it? Is a military strike necessary and effective, or harmful? Who is against and who is for the strike?
1. Does Iran intend to develop a nuclear weapon?
Probably yes. Iran (unlike Israel) has signed the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) which bars all signatories from developing nuclear weapons, aside from the five permanent members of the UN Security Council. But Tehran has already violated its commitments under the NPT, and at least two countries (Iraq and North Korea) have developed or come near to developing nuclear weapons after signing the NPT. Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei has issued a religious decree, a Fatwa, ruling that possessing or using nuclear weapons is contrary to Islam. Yet this ruling does not seem to exclude the development of a nuclear breakout capability, where a country could quickly construct a nuclear warhead if it felt the need for it (e.g. Japan). Despite Iranian denials, this seems to be the main aim of their Uranium enrichment program, not to mention work they may have done on developing a nuclear warhead.
2. Can they do it?
Probably yes. Building a nuclear weapon is an immensely difficult and expensive undertaking, requiring the gradual accumulation of complex technical skills. This is part of the reason why predictions about Iran’s imminent possession of such weapons have been disproven again and again over the past two decades. Yet over that period, Iran has made progress towards that goal, albeit much more slowly than Western intelligence has estimated. If North Korea could do it, it is certainly possible for Iran, although it will have to decide at each point whether it is willing to invest the necessary resources and efforts.
3. Will they launch a nuclear attack on Israel or other countries?
Probably not. Iran has certainly threatened Israel many times, and has not disguised its objection to the country’s very existence. Many argue that a country run by fundamentalist clerics cannot be trusted to operate on a rational basis: its leadership may decide that a divine imperative to destroy Israel overrules any other consideration. But this argument is belied by the conduct of Iranian policy since the Islamic Republic was formed, almost a quarter of a century ago. After an initial period of working to spread Islamic revolution, Tehran has adopted a largely pragmatic approach to foreign relations. It has shown no sign of being willing to countenance the country’s entire annihilation, which would surely follow if they launch a nuclear attack on Israel. It is highly unlikely that Iranian clerics believe the religious duty to fight Israel trumps their duty to avoid the death of tens of millions of Muslims.
4. So is there a problem if they get a nuclear weapon?
Yes. Presumably, the main reason Iran wants to have a nuclear weapon, or nuclear breakout capacity, is to deter its enemies, mainly Israel and the United States, from attacking in retaliation for its sponsorship of terrorism and subversion outside its borders. Right now, Iran has been spared an attack due its conventional deterrence capability, mainly ballistic missiles which could be armed with chemical warheads; and its ability to initiate massive terror attacks abroad. Nuclear deterrence could expand Iran’s freedom of action. In response, neighbors (such as Saudi Arabia) could decide they must also achieve nuclear military capability, to counter-deter Iran from attacking or subverting their regimes. This could cause a nuclear arms race, and if it spreads, undermine the NPT on a global scale. While this scenario is certainly possible, it seems unlikely. So far, the nuclear capacities possessed by Israel, India, Pakistan and North Korea have not caused such a global domino effect.
5. Can anything stop them, short of a military strike?
Probably yes. As part of the pressure to curb its nuclear program, the international community has imposed severe sanctions on Iran, which have had major effects on the country. In addition, various incentives have been offered to Iran, if it drops its nuclear efforts. This can ultimately push the regime to decide that the costs of the program outweigh its potential benefits. But so far, neither carrots nor sticks have worked. Even if they do, it would be difficult (though not impossible) to verify that Iran is sticking to its commitments. It would also be impossible to make Iranian scientists and technicians unlearn the knowledge they have accumulated, allowing them to recreate the program at a later point, even if physical installations are dismantled.
6. Will a military strike stop them from getting the weapon?
No. This is precisely for the same reason that non-military means have limited efficacy: an attack can only target physical installations; it cannot erase the knowledge accumulated by Iranian experts, which is the most critical and difficult-to-achieve element of a nuclear weapons’ program (that is probably the reason these experts have been targeted for assassination in recent years). General Martin Dempsey, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, has argued that at best, an Israel strike could delay the Iranian nuclear program for a few years.
Proponents of the attack, like Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak, are not really disputing this point. Instead, they argue that the delay will buy enough time to allow the toppling of the regime. This is quite a dubious claim. There is no reason to believe the Iranian regime is closer to collapse today than it has been at any point since 1979. An attack might actually strengthen it, by causing Iranians to rally around the flag against a perceived foreign aggressor. Even the regime falls, it is unclear whether its successor would be any less interested in a program, which was initiated under the Shah, or any less dangerous than the Islamic Republic.
7. Is there a significant downside to a military strike?
Yes. The price will be paid mostly by ordinary Israelis, who could be the target of Iranian retaliation through missile attacks and Iranian-sponsored terrorism. Hundreds could die, thousands might be injured, and the country’s economy could suffer a devastating blow. If neighboring countries under Iranian influence, such as Syria and Lebanon, are drawn into this conflict, it could end up enflaming a regional escalation, with unpredictable consequences for the stability of many fragile regimes. Furthermore, an attack could cause an international backlash, undermining support for the sanctions, and strengthening the regime’s hand (and its ability to pursue the nuclear weapons program) both internally and externally.
8. So, is anybody in favor a strike?
Yes. As mentioned above, Israeli Defense Minister Barak is supporter and so is the Prime Minister, Binyamin Netanyahu. They are supported by a lot of American neo-cons, including former Republican presidential candidate, Senator John McCain, who even offered a musical tribute on the topic, riffing of the Beach Boys song ‘Barbara Ann’.
9. If the Prime Minister and Defense Minister are for the strike, can anyone stop them?
Probably yes. The Obama Administration is opposed to the strike, and as General Dempsey’s comment implies, its position is largely supported by the American defense establishment. But it has also made it pretty clear that the US will not veto a strike if Israel is determined to go ahead. The real veto point resides within the Israeli system, which has shown a remarkably high level of opposition for our normally militant and offensive-minded nation. Security and military chiefs, both past and present, are largely opposed; and so are many prominent cabinet members, President Shimon Peres, and opposition leader Shaul Mofaz (who is also former IDF Chief of Staff and Defense Minister). Public opinion is at best split on the topic, and skeptical of a solo Israeli operation. If these sentiments persist, opponents of military action might actually have the upper hand, for once.