Endless threats and the inclination toward a preventative strike are likely to push Israel into an arms race and a much wider and unnecessary war of attrition with Iran.
By Shemuel Meir
Donald Trump and Benjamin Netanyahu are striving together to cancel the JCPOA nuclear agreement with Iran. Even Netanyahu’s new mantra, that he only wants to “fix” the deal, is actually mean to bring about its cancelation in a slightly more roundabout way. Subjecting Iran to new conditions would lead it to abandon the deal, thereby causing its collapse.
Alongside the attempts to kill the agreement, however, an old threat has reappeared on the horizon: preventative war against Iran.
Netanyahu gave the first sign in his speech to the UN General Assembly in September, the theme of which was “Iran is developing nuclear weapons” yet again, despite the fact that IAEA and American intelligence are both reporting the exact opposite. For the first time in a global forum, Netanyahu made the type of threat we’re used to hearing for domestic consumption at Holocaust Day ceremonies or when welcoming the arrival of new naval submarines: a country that threatens our destruction puts itself in existential, or at least mortal, danger.
Politicians and analysts in Israel rushed to join the party. Intelligence Minister Israel Katz declared that Israel “will act militarily by itself” if the Trump administration is not able to stop Iran attaining nuclear capabilities. Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman spoke of the need for Israel, with its own capabilities, to prevent the “chokehold” Iran is attempting to build around Israel.
President of the new right-wing think tank “Jerusalem Institute for Strategic Studies,” Efraim Inbar, argued that there is no chance of stopping Iran’s drive toward nuclear armament and the only solution is an independent Israeli attack as soon as possible. Netanyahu’s former national security advisor, Yaakov Amidror, wrote that he believes the United States is not going to do a thing to stop Iranian nuclear proliferation and that Israel must “think of what it may be required to do by itself in the future.” In other words, a preventative war.
Talk of preventative war is coming back and it is likely to get even louder in the coming days and weeks. At its zenith in the years prior to the nuclear deal we almost constantly heard how Israel was going to act independently to destroy the Iranian nuclear threat, along the lines of Menachem Begin’s “surgical strike” doctrine, a la the 1981 attack on Iraq’s Osirak reactor.
A sober strategic analysis clearly shows that there is no comparison between the operational success of striking one target and a wave of attacks against dozens of well-protected sites thousands of kilometers away. Operation Opera against the Iraqi reactor was like an airborne commando operation against a single target.
A preventative strike would be a declaration of full-scale war with Iran. From military history we know that one side’s expectations of a short and cost-effective war aren’t always realistic and adversaries can get stuck in a drawn-out war. It is a gamble, a fact that the attacking side does its best to blur when making the decision to strike. Saddam Hussein, for example, launched a lightning strike against a “weak” Iran in 1980, was dragged into an eight-year war.
War-like declarations bear the risk of devolving into actual war even before a preventative strike ever takes place. The other side can interpret Israel’s deterrent declarations and embark on what it sees as “defensive” action, which Israel interprets as “offensive” action. For instance, firing rockets and missiles on the northern front, to which Israel can be expected to respond massively.
A military confrontation in the Syrian-Lebanese front could make things even worse and would likely to expand the front all the way into the Iranian arena. An escalation borne of miscalculation. In that context, deterrence is of limited utility. A routine of declarations of threats of preventative strikes against Iranian nuclear facilities and Iranian forces in Syria are likely to diminish the credibility of deterrent messages. A long list of red lines and a multiplicity of war-like declarations do not necessarily contribute to deterrence. When creating deterrence, more is often-times less.
The danger of entering an un-planned war is even greater. What can help on that front are political obstacles. Israel will have a hard time convincing the United States of the necessity and legitimacy of a preventative strike against Iran.
The United States is committed to preserving and strengthening the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and cannot allow itself to be a partner in an attack initiated by a country that isn’t a member of the treaty (Israel) against a country that is signed onto the treaty (Iran). Iran is saddled with the most invasive nuclear inspection regime in history, and according to IAEA and U.S. intelligence reports, is meeting its obligations under the nuclear deal, and is not developing nuclear weapons. There is no basis for the thesis according to which Iran is “violating the deal.” Iran is holding up its part of the nuclear deal and its commitment to the NPT pulls the rug out from under any attack scenario.
Then there is the legitimacy obstacle. In the arena of international relations there is an analytical distinction between a preventative strike and a pre-emptive strike. A preventative strike that is a war meant to eliminate an uncertain future threat that may or may not bring about a change in the balance of power is not legitimate. The 1956 Sinai war is viewed today as an illegitimate preventative war, which is why Israel was forced to quickly retreat. However, a pre-emptive strike to eliminate a clear and present threat is legitimate. The most obvious example is the 1967 Six-Day War.
The 2003 American invasion of Iraq was carried out under the Bush doctrine of preventative strikes to eliminate nuclear weapons that Saddam Hussein didn’t have. The devastating results of that war have been burned into the American conscious. The generals surrounding Trump are graduates of the failure in Iraq and are all-too aware of the illegitimacy of the present scenario.
Endless threats and the instinctive inclination toward a preventative strike are likely to push Israel into a much wider, unwanted, and unnecessary war with Iran. A war that will become a long war of attrition and a self-fulfilling prophecy.
An Israeli strike could lead to exactly that which it aims to prevent: an Iranian decision to abandon the nuclear deal and the NPT and head down the path of developing nuclear weapons. The American accomplishment — along with the other five powers — preventing the emergence of nuclear weapons in Iran, would evaporate instantaneously. Israel, which was one of the main beneficiaries of the nuclear deal that prevented the emergence of a new nuclear state in the Middle East, will have to face a new and more dangerous reality with the possibility of a nuclear arms race.
Shemuel Meir is a former IDF analyst and associate researcher at the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University. Today he is an independent researcher on nuclear and strategic issues and author of the “Strategic Discourse” blog, which appears in Haaretz. Read this post in Hebrew here.