Back

Good Arguments All, But Not Good Enough

By Evelyn Gordon
JINSA Visiting Fellow

The media chatter that erupted in October about the possibility of Israel attacking Iran’s nuclear facilities sparked an immediate reaction: Both in Israel and abroad, opponents argued against such a strike, warning of various dire consequences.


By Evelyn Gordon
JINSA Visiting Fellow

The media chatter that erupted in October about the possibility of Israel attacking Iran’s nuclear facilities sparked an immediate reaction: Both in Israel and abroad, opponents argued against such a strike, warning of various dire consequences.

Certainly, Israel would prefer not to attack Iran: It would rather see Tehran’s nuclear program halted by crippling sanctions, regime change or covert action, and if all these fail, it would prefer military action by an American-led coalition. Nevertheless, if Israel concluded that all other efforts had failed, and that international military action wasn’t in the cards, none of the arguments opponents have raised against an Israeli strike are likely to deter it.

The first argument is that a strike would be pointless, because it would only delay Iran’s nuclear program by “one or two years at most,” as Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said. But while it’s true that military action would only buy time, buying time for more permanent change to occur is far from pointless when the alternative is the certainty of a nuclear Iran, which Israel considers an existential threat.

The paradigm, from Israel’s perspective, is its 1981 attack on Iraq’s nuclear reactor. That, too, failed to halt Saddam Hussein’s drive toward nukes; he quickly began rebuilding his nuclear program. But it bought just enough time for Saddam to make one fatal error: his 1990 invasion of Kuwait, which resulted in an international coalition invading Iraq and imposing a strict inspection regime that uncovered and dismantled the reconstituted program.

In Iran’s case, buying time offers even better prospects, because the combination of the Arab Spring and the 2009 uprising by Iran’s own Green Movement makes regime change seem far more feasible than it did in Saddam’s Iraq. Alternatively, Iran might overreact to a strike – say, by blockading oil shipments from the Gulf – in a way that necessitates international military action, or a new constellation of world leaders might impose stronger sanctions, or some completely unforeseen development, like Saddam’s invasion of Kuwait, might radically alter the situation.

There’s obviously no guarantee that any of this would happen. But buying time at least keeps open the chance of eventually halting Iran’s nuclear program. Doing nothing offers no chance at all.

Another argument is that an attack would provoke harsh Iranian retaliation against Israel. That’s not a certainty; neither Iraq nor Syria retaliated when Israel bombed their nuclear facilities. But assuming retaliation would follow, the fact remains that having had to fight for survival ever since their country was founded, Israelis are willing to endure some pain if they consider the cause worthwhile.

The Second Lebanon War of 2006, for instance, shuttered northern Israel for a month. Yet through most of that period, polls showed strong support for the war among the bombarded northerners; they were willing to sit in shelters for the sake of defeating a dangerous enemy, Hezbollah. Only after realizing that the government’s misconceived war plan would leave Hezbollah largely intact did Israelis turn against the war.

Most Israelis do consider a nuclear Iran an existential threat, and would thus be prepared to tolerate some pain to prevent it. As former Mossad chief Danny Yatom succinctly put it last month, whatever price Iran exacts, “this is still not as bad as the threat of an Iranian nuclear bomb.”

A third argument is that given Washington’s vehement opposition, military action would undermine Israel’s relationship with its chief ally, and this would endanger Israel more than a nuclear Iran would. But despite the closeness of the alliance, Israel has never allowed America to veto moves it deems essential to its security, and there’s no reason to believe it would start now.

Moreover, there’s no reason to believe that independent Israeli action would undermine the alliance, any more than it has in the past. For instance, Israel bombed the Iraqi reactor despite Ronald Reagan’s opposition, and it continued Operation Defensive Shield (its 2002 counterterror offensive in the West Bank) despite George W. Bush’s public demand that it withdraw its forces immediately. Sometimes, temporary chills ensued: Reagan, for instance, backed a UN Security Council condemnation of the Iraqi raid and suspended delivery of F-16 fighters to Israel.

But the ruptures were never permanent, because the American-Israeli alliance has always rested primarily not on the warmth of a particular President, but on the American public’s support for Israel. And precisely because most Americans would never allow another country to veto military action vital to America’s security, they have always understood Israel’s refusal to grant such a veto to anyone, even its best friend.

A final argument is that Israel shouldn’t undertake military actions that its own top defense professionals are known to oppose. This argument would be decisive had these officials claimed Israel lacked the requisite military capabilities, but they haven’t. Rather, they argue that the costs of a strike would outweigh the benefits, largely for the reasons cited above.

But such cost-benefit decisions are properly the province of the elected government, not the defense establishment – not only because that’s how democracies work, but also because military officials have no special advantage over politicians in weighing the various pros and cons. Nothing demonstrates this better than the strike on Iraq’s nuclear reactor, which was opposed by numerous senior Israeli defense officials, including the heads of the Mossad, Military Intelligence and the Atomic Energy Commission, as well as two of the government’s leading defense experts: Deputy Prime Minister Yigael Yadin, a former Israel Defense Forces chief of staff, and Ezer Weizman, a former air force chief of staff (who resigned as defense minister before the final decision was made, but opposed it until then).

Ultimately, however, the politicians proved wiser: The bombing was a success, buying just enough time for Iraq’s nuclear program to later be permanently dismantled.

Israelis still hope Iran’s drive for nuclear weapons can be halted without military action. But if the government eventually concludes that the only alternatives are military action or a nuclear Iran, the arguments listed above are unlikely to deter it.

Evelyn Gordon, JINSA Visiting Fellow, is a journalist and commentator writing in The Jerusalem Post and Commentary. For more information on the JINSA Visiting Fellows program, click here.

Publications

Snapback Is the Way Forward Against Iran’s Nuclear Violations
Published on June 3, 2024
ICC Prosecutor Requests Arrest Warrants for Israeli Leaders
Published on May 21, 2024
Israel Strikes Back; U.S. Must Show ‘No Daylight’
Published on April 19, 2024
Iran’s Failed Kill Shot Leaves it Vulnerable
Published on April 18, 2024
Any ‘Win’ Against Iran is Premature Without Shutting Down its Capabilities
Published on April 17, 2024
Unprecedented Iranian Regime Attack Against Israel
Published on April 14, 2024
Syria Strike Sends Clear Message to Iran
Published on April 4, 2024
The Biden Administration Has an Opportunity to Rein In Iran
Published on March 27, 2024
Egypt Must Do More to Aid Gazans
Published on March 19, 2024
Don’t Fall for Iran’s Empty Nuclear Gesture
Published on February 27, 2024
Iran Accelerates into the Nuclear Gray Zone
Published on January 10, 2024
Iran on Nuclear Precipice as Oversight Dwindles
Published on December 7, 2023
Deterrence Through Strength
Published on November 2, 2023
A Joint American-Israeli Redline on Iran’s Nuclear Program
Published on September 14, 2023
To Counter Iran at Sea, US Must Sell Partners on Doing More
Published on July 12, 2023
Israel’s Multifront Escalation
Published on May 12, 2023
Without Alexandroupolis, Transatlantic Security Is Dead in the Water
Published on August 29, 2022
The Nuclear Deal That Biden Should Be Worrying About
Published on July 20, 2022
Why Biden Should Exit the Iran Talks
Published on March 19, 2022
No more extending the clock on the Iran nuclear deal
Published on February 22, 2022
U.S. Needs to Deliver on Its Promise to Fund Israel’s Iron Dome
Published on February 17, 2022
Could Saudi Arabia Help Save Biden’s Flailing Presidency?
Published on February 8, 2022
Why Has Biden Stopped Pushing for Arab-Israeli Peace?
Published on January 19, 2022
Iran Negotiations Need Clear End Date for Any Agreement
Published on December 1, 2021
Israel’s Success Must Not Obscure Increase in Hamas Capabilities
Published on November 23, 2021
America should re-envision the Eastern Med as a multi-theater power-projection platform
Published on November 20, 2021
Don’t Believe Iran’s Claims of Another Nuclear Milestone
Published on November 1, 2021
After Afghanistan: Israel Will Bear a Greater Burden for Upholding Stability
Published on August 28, 2021
Is Iran Bluffing About Its Enriched Uranium Stockpile?
Published on July 28, 2021
The Iran Deal May Still Be Dead
Published on June 28, 2021
Learn From Gaza, Prepare For Hezbollah
Published on May 24, 2021
The US Must Not Rejoin the Iran Nuclear Deal
Published on March 21, 2021
Biden and Congress Must Act Against Calls To Condition Aid To Israel
Published on March 3, 2021
The Case for a Strategic Pivot to Greece and Cyprus
Published on November 19, 2020
Turkey and Russia’s Endgame in Libya—And Why America Should Not Stand Still
Published on October 30, 2020
Selling F-35 Jets to Qatar Poses a Direct Threat to Israel
Published on October 17, 2020
The Road to a War Within NATO
Published on September 19, 2020
Israel’s War of Attrition is Potently Relevant Today
Published on August 11, 2020
Don’t Let Turks & Russians Carve up Libya
Published on July 28, 2020
Washington Needs to Act Fast on Libya, Before It’s Too Late
Published on June 15, 2020
Bringing the Yemen Conflict to an End
Published on May 1, 2020
The Case For a Political Warfare Campaign Against Iran
Published on March 1, 2020
The Right Strategy For Iran Isn’t Regime Change. It’s Regime Collapse.
Published on January 8, 2020
President Trump Should Worry About Iran’s Military
Published on January 3, 2020
New Signs Iran is Creeping Closer to Making a Nuclear Bomb
Published on November 12, 2019
Consequences of the US Withdrawal from Syria
Published on October 26, 2019
Contesting Iran’s Gray Zone Strategy
Published on October 18, 2019
How Iran’s Nuclear Breakout Easily Could Become a ‘Sneakout’
Published on September 12, 2019
Iran’s Nuclear Clock is Ticking Once Again. Here’s How to Stop It
Published on July 11, 2019
US Should Sanction Hezbollah-Controlled Govt. to Counter Attack Tunnels in Lebanon
Published on March 21, 2019
US Must Begin Bolstering Regional Allies to Mitigate Fallout from Syria Withdrawal
Published on December 21, 2018
Syria’s S-300 Gift From Russia
Published on November 21, 2018
Iran’s Close Encounters With the U.S. Navy in the Persian Gulf
Published on September 21, 2016
Iran Needs to Take America Seriously Again
Published on July 14, 2016
Time to Seize the High Ground on Nuclear Weapons
Published on June 7, 2016
The Overlooked Iranian Missile Threat
Published on February 21, 2016
U.S. Must Mandate Zero Oil Exports for Iran
Published on July 25, 2013
Spring Trap
Published on March 31, 2011