Five years ago, Jeffrey Goldenberg published “The Point of No Return” in The Atlantic. In 10,000 words, he laid out the pressing rationale for an Israeli attack on Iran’s nuclear infrastructure. Like many such pieces, it prompted this author to formulate a law: “The U.S. can do it, but won’t; Israel wants to, but can’t.”
After the JCPA, we should add: “And Israel will not because it would bring the entire world down on itself, save for the Sunni powers.” So the issue is moot—until such time, perhaps, when Iran is caught cheating in a blatant way.
Even before the JCPA, Israel’s bark was worse than its bite. Perhaps, it could have done an “Osirak,” with half a dozen planes hitting a single target. But Iran is not a single-target country, as were Iraq in 1981 and Syria in 2007. To really squelch the threat, the Israeli Air Force (IAF) would have to demolish two dozens sites strung out along the entire fuel cycle from uranium conversion to enrichment, from heavy-water plutonium reactors to reprocessing, not to speak of weaponization labs. Add another dozen targets for longer-term gain. These are the research facilities strewn all over the country, particularly inside large cities, where collateral damage would be very high.
Given this target list, Israel would have to mount a very large strategic campaign. First, the IAF would have to lay low Iranian air defenses, but it has neither long-range nor stealth bombers. In the second wave, its F-15s and F-16s would have to fly at least a thousand miles each way under ideal circumstances, that is, directly and with Jordanian and Saudi connivance.
Let’s assume a package of 80 to 100 planes. They would have to be refueled twice, coming and going, but the IAF has only nine tankers (with more KC-135 in the pipeline). The Saudis might let them refuel on each leg. But now consider what it takes to demolish Natanz or Fordow. Israeli bunker busters could “do” Natanz, but not Fordow, which is protected by 200 feet of rock. Not even George W. Bush granted the Massive Ordnance Penetrator (GBU-57) to the IAF, a 14-ton monster that may not even be capable of drilling all the way down.
To make the point in all its baldness, think about recent air campaigns over Afghanistan, Iraq, Serbia, and Libya, second- or third-rate powers all. These took many weeks with up to 800 sorties per day, even for an unmatched air force like the American one, plus NATO’s. So, the IAF could at best damage the Iranian program, not destroy it.
The ramifications promise to be horrendous: Iranian-inspired missile attacks by Hamas and Hezbollah, Iranian terror against U.S. targets in the Middle East, closure of the Strait of Hormuz. Inevitably, the U.S. would be drawn in—something that would not endear Jerusalem to Washington.
Yet the attack scenario is now moot. What are the implications?
First, we observe an implicit realignment of historic proportions, with the U.S. putting its money on Iran as regional policeman at the expense of Israel and the Sunni powers.
Second, America is in withdrawal mode. Retraction is only fitfully interrupted by the half-hearted re-deployment to Iraq flanked by a listless bombing campaign against ISIS.
Third, there is the reinsertion of Russian power into the Middle East, as illustrated by base-building and the dispatch of special forces to Syria. Like nature, the international system abhors a vacuum. It is being filled by Russia and, even more so, by Iran.
The fourth change is a counter-realignment by Saudi Arabia and Israel, but it is at best implicit and at worst unstable because the two countries, driven apart by faith and interest, are not ideal bedfellows.
To sum up: The military option, whether an American or Israeli one, is now truly off the table. And Tehran knows it. With Israel on the sideline, America, Iran, and Russia are at center-stage. It will be well-nigh impossible for the U.S., even under a Republican president, to dislodge Moscow and to contain Tehran. Iran is not just a revisionist, but a revolutionary power. Such actors want not merely a larger slice for themselves, but the entire cake and the bakery, as well.
A fifth consequence relates to Israel and the Saudis, the victims of the incipient “reversal of alliances.” The Saudis will fight Iran by proxy warfare, as in Yemen. Will they build or buy a “Sunni bomb?” They don’t have the technology, nor is it foreordained that Pakistan, will sell the wherewithal to Riyadh.
Israel, however, has been implementing Plan B for years. This is its submarine-based deterrent, built around six German state-of-the-art U-boats, which will be two more than France’s SSBNs. With its 80 to 200 nuclear weapons, as the guesstimates have it, Israel will have enough to destroy Iran as a civilization—and keep enough in reserve to deter whoever else might want to wade in. So deterrence will prevail.
Will stability, as well? Nukes, as the Cold War shows, have not prevented war – only a direct clash between the superpowers. So, look forward to endless strife in the Middle East—within and between states, and with participation by revisionist Russia and revolutionary Iran.
Tehran, on a “mission from God,” so to speak, does not need nukes to expand, not with the largest population in the Middle East and an economy liberated from sanctions. The real issue, then, is not so how much to keep nukes out of Tehran’s hand, but how to establish a halfway reliable balance of power in the region. It was previously upheld by the U.S., which kept the Russians out, and by Israel chastising whatever Arab regime was angling for hegemony. Yet Israel is isolated, while the U.S. is sounding an uncertain trumpet. The ramifications are not reassuring.