Brookings fellow Bruce Riedel has an important piece at the National Interest magazine about the possibility of an Israeli attack on Iran. Riedel, who advised President Obama in the 2008 campaign and led the Afghanistan-Pakistan strategy review last year, evaluates the history of Israel’s regional nuclear monopoly, along with the current threats facing the U.S. and Israel. He concludes Washington “needs to send a clear red light to Israel.”
Then he emphatically says it again: “There is no option but to actively discourage an Israeli attack.”
Riedel’s piece, published last week, is a sober look at how to avoid the regional catastrophe that could be engendered by an Israeli strike on Iran — a position that falls in line with the National Interest, the Nixon Center’s flagship realist publication. The piece, however, is surprising coming from a senior fellow at Brookings’s Saban Center, which is known for hawkish (albeit liberal hawkish) positions in the Middle East. Riedel’s colleagues Michael O’Hanlon and Ken Pollack, after all, were instrumental in giving liberal interventionist cover to the neoconservative drive for war with Iraq.
After running through the history of Israel’s nuclear development and its policies of opacity and regional monopoly, Riedel, a former CIA analyst, describes the many hints that Israel has developed plans for an attack. After running through logistical problems with a strike — Iran’s distance from Israel, the challenge of crossing unfriendly airspace and the dispersal of Iranian nuclear sites, to name a few — Riedel asses potential blowback, focusing on the potential harm to the U.S.:
AN ISRAELI attack on Iran is a disaster in the making. And it will directly impact key strategic American interests. Iran will see an attack as American supported if not American orchestrated. The aircraft in any strike will be American-produced, -supplied and -funded F-15s and F-16s, and most of the ordnance will be from American stocks. Washington’s $3 billion in assistance annually makes possible the IDF’s conventional superiority in the region.
Iran will almost certainly retaliate against both U.S. and Israeli targets. […]
America’s greatest vulnerability would be in Afghanistan. Iran could easily increase its assistance to the Taliban and make the already-difficult Afghan mission much more complicated.
In addition, Riedel notes that “even a successful Israeli raid would only delay Iran’s nuclear program, not eliminate it entirely.” The delay to the program could be as little as a year, according to even Israeli analysts. The U.S. would still need to deal with the Iranian nuclear program, but in a “much more complicated diplomatic context since Tehran would be able to argue it was the victim of aggression and probably would renounce its NPT commitments.”
Riedel says that forcing Israel away from its calculus to bomb Iran is the same thing as asking them to give up their nuclear monopoly, but lays out a convincing case that this hurdle can be overcome. In a solid rejection of the neoconservative and right-wing Israeli theme that Iran is a “suicide” state, Riedel uses historical examples to demonstrate that Iran “has been careful to avoid taking actions that would lead to catastrophic consequences.”
Based on this, he proposes that Israel bring its nuclear program out of closet and that the U.S. extend its nuclear umbrella to the Jewish State. (The latter was proposed by then-Israeli PM Barak at Camp David, with Riedel in the room, but fell by the wayside when those negotiations collapsed.) Riedel also advocates bolstering Israel’s second-strike capability and giving it entrance into NATO, which he admits is a “very hard sell” given negative European views of Israel’s intransigence in the peace process.
While the focus on bolstering Israel’s nuclear capacity is sure to upset some of those in the non-proliferation camp (perhaps seen as an undue reward for Israel’s long policy of nuclear ambiguity), Riedel’s analysis of the situation clearly explains the potential “disaster” of an Israeli or American strike against Iran and offers constructive diplomatic suggestions.
Riedel’s conclusion nicely sums up his arguments and serves to remind readers just how big the potential issues are:
THE ERA of Israel’s monopoly on nuclear weapons in the Middle East is probably coming to an end. Israel will still have a larger arsenal than any of its neighbors, including Iran, for years if not decades. It will face threats of terror and conventional attack, but it already faces those. With American help it can enhance its deterrence capabilities considerably. It has no reason to lose its self-confidence. But to avoid the potential for all-out war not only between Israel and Iran but also between the United States and the Islamic Republic, Washington needs to act now. Only by enhancing Israel’s nuclear capability will America be able to strongly and credibly deter an Israeli attack on Tehran’s facilities.
The clock is ticking on the IDF’s plans. And the lives of hundreds, if not millions, are at stake.