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Published on August 16th, 2010 | by Eli Clifton


Yossi Alpher Discusses the Likelihood of an Israeli Attack on Iran’s Nuclear Program

Israeli expert on strategic affairs Yossi Alpher? offers an excellent analysis of Jeffrey Goldberg‘s Atlantic cover story. Alpher agrees that an Israeli attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities is a possibility but only if Iran, “…is crossing a “red line” and the timetable for obtaining the capacity to attack Israel with nuclear weapons has become extremely short.”  This analysis differs considerably from Goldberg’s conclusion that an Israeli strike might happen well before Iran has actually acquired a nuclear weapon or even reached “breakout” capacity.

Some relevant portions of Yossi Alphers analysis, published by Americans for Peace Now, are included below.

Q. Jeffrey Goldberg’s “Atlantic” article on the possibility of an Israeli attack on Iran’s nuclear program is causing quite a stir. What’s your take?

A. The article contains a lot of interesting perspectives and is worth a read. But I believe Goldberg inadvertently exaggerates or misunderstands a number of issues.

First, he cites the consensus assessment of the 40-some Israeli decision-makers, past and present, that he spoke with, to the effect that “there is a better than 50 percent chance that Israel will launch a strike by next July”, then adds, “They were not part of some public-relations campaign.” I beg to differ; they were. Most of these people knew exactly whom they were talking to and how influential he is in certain circles in Washington. Most of them without a doubt believe that it is possible to influence President Obama’s ultimate decision–if and when sanctions fail–as to whether the US itself should attack Iran. They understand (as Goldberg himself notes) that the US can do the job far better than Israel and that an Israeli attack not coordinated with Washington that Goldberg writes about would be disastrous for Israel’s relations with the US as well as the rest of the world.

So, some or all of Goldberg’s interviewees didn’t “lay it on thick” for him in an effort to increase the pressure on both Iran and Washington? That’s a naive supposition. After all, as Goldberg recognizes, the Israeli strategy for dealing with Iran is premised on the need to persuade the international community to deal with Iran as an international, not just Israeli, problem. Goldberg’s article is one more tool for achieving this objective.

Second, had Goldberg spoken to Iran experts and not just “decision-makers”, whether in Israel or the US, he would have heard that, overall, the Iranian leadership (and not just President Mahmoud Ahmadinezhad) for the most part is not based on “a messianic apocalyptic cult” as Netanyahu is quoted as opining and that the messianic types are not at the center of Iranian decision-making. And those Iran experts, including in IDF and Mossad intelligence, can be expected to have a say in any decision to attack Iran. It is no accident that current IDF Chief of Staff Gaby Ashkenazi is described by Goldberg as being skeptical about the wisdom of an attack.

Third, largely because of his father, PM Binyamin Netanyahu is described by Goldberg as being “different” in that (quoting Israel’s ambassador in Washington, Michael Oren), “He has a deep sense of his role in Jewish history.” Well, so had every Israeli prime minister in the country’s history. With or without his father’s influence, Netanyahu is neither more nor less committed to preventing another Holocaust than was Levi Eshkol, Golda Meir, Menachem Begin, Yitzhak Shamir or Yitzhak Rabin.

Then there is the argument, attributed by Goldberg to Ehud Barak and Ephraim Sneh, that if Israel is obliged to live under an Iranian nuclear threat, the country will suffer a huge brain drain and effectively wither away. I don’t buy it. To his credit, neither does Goldberg. Reading between the lines of his article, he didn’t hear this from most of his Israeli interlocutors. Accordingly, this certainly should not have been alluded to by Goldberg as a compelling reason to go to war.

On the other hand, what Goldberg does not talk about is that an Israeli decision to coexist with an Iranian nuclear threat would oblige Israel to raise its own nuclear profile. Could this conceivably generate a stable balance of mutually assured destruction that might be preferable to a destructive war? Goldberg doesn’t ask.

Then there is a second area of Israeli thinking about war with Iran that Goldberg has neglected. This is unfortunate, because it is important for both Israelis and Americans to punch holes in it. More than three decades after the Islamic revolution in Iran, there are some prominently placed Israelis who actually believe an attack on Iran’s nuclear infrastructure would somehow bring down the ayatollahs’ regime and restore the “good guys” to power in Tehran. This is a dangerous case of nostalgia for the periphery doctrine of Israel’s early decades, when we made common cause with Iran, Turkey and other non-Arabs or non-Muslims in the region against Arab nationalism and aggression driven by Nasserism.

Israel’s current outrage at Turkey’s regional policies is another instance of poorly controlled periphery-nostalgia. Today, Israel’s primary enemy is militant Islam as embodied in non-Arab and non-state actors in the region. The Arabs are potential allies, though due to the weakness of the Arab state system this doesn’t mean much. One way or another, there is every reason to believe that an attack on Iran would only strengthen the Iranian regime. Certainly, regime-change in Tehran should not be a factor in Israeli or American decision-making concerning an attack on Iran.

Q. Can you yourself conceive of an Israeli attack on Iran’s nuclear infrastructure?

A. Yes, but only if all the following conditions are fulfilled, some of which Goldberg seemingly ignores or underestimates:

1.         The regime in Tehran continues to call for Israel’s destruction.

2.         The Iranian nuclear program is crossing a “red line” and the timetable for obtaining the capacity to attack Israel with nuclear weapons has become extremely short.

3.         All international efforts based on diplomatic pressure and economic sanctions are understood unequivocally to have failed.

4.         All clandestine efforts to slow the Iranian program (which have apparently been very effective over the past 15 years) are understood to have failed.

5.         It is clear to Israel that neither the US nor any other international actor is prepared to deal militarily with Iran. If possible, Israel obtains at least a “yellow light” from the US.

6.         Israel has safe physical access for its aircraft via one or more of the countries separating it from Iran.

7.         An Israeli attack can set back the Iranian military nuclear program for a significant period of time.

8.         A sober cost-benefit analysis persuades Israeli planners that the benefit of significantly damaging the Iranian program outweighs the very heavy potential ancillary costs of the strike: rocket attacks on Israel from the north and south and missile attacks from Iran; regional and international outrage and isolation; an historic crisis in Israeli-American relations; dangers to Diaspora Jewish communities from terrorist attack; etc.

If indeed, all these conditions are fulfilled at some time in the future, I can imagine any Israeli leader, even one who hails from the left or center and whose father is not Ben Zion Netanyahu, concluding that the future of the Jewish people and certainly of the Jewish state rests on his/her shoulders.

But we are not there, and are not likely to be there next spring.

About the Author


Eli Clifton reports on money in politics and US foreign policy. Eli previously reported for the American Independent New Network, ThinkProgress, and Inter Press Service.

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