If I were a real cynic and wanted to do harm to U.S.-israel relations, I would urge that the Israeli government follow the line laid down in Foreign Policy by Uri Sadot, a sometime Commentary contributor and current researcher at CFR who, at least on occasion, works with the Council’s hawkish senior fellow Elliott Abrams.
What, then, is Uri Sadot’s line? That Israel may well bomb Iran despite apparent progress in nuclear talks. In fact, Sadot concludes that it is precisely a deal between Iran and world powers that could spur Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to undertake a strike: “…if there is one likely scenario that would push Israel to act, it would be the prospect of an imminent deal with Iran that would isolate Israel while not addressing the threat it sees emanating from Tehran.”
As evidence that Israel would carry out an attack over U.S. objections, Sadot holds up the two pieces of history every advocate for a strike holds up: the Israeli attacks on Iraq’s nascent nuclear program (1981) and Syria’s covert reactor (2007). Both examples, however, fall short as effective analogies to the current Iran situation.
But the article has more than a few issues; let’s look at two others before returning to the Iraq and Syira examples.
Sadot lauds former Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin’s role in the Iraq raid, noting “the ‘Begin doctrine’ that he created — that Israel will not tolerate weapons of mass destruction in the hands of an enemy state — is alive and well today.” That doctrine has been violated at least twice: when Saddam had and used chemical weapons and, more recently, when Syria’s Bashar Assad had and used chemical weapons. Israel did not act in either case to remove these WMD threats. (In the latter instance, U.S.-led diplomatic efforts are working, at the moment, to sort things out.)
The next problem in Sadot’s piece hardly requires explanation: it plainly fails on its own merits. Consider these two, consecutive sentences about the 2007 Syria raid, apparently written without any irony:
It was only when President George W. Bush told Prime Minister Ehud Olmert that the United States had decided to take the matter to the United Nations, rather than strike itself — or agree to let Israel strike — that Jerusalem decided to act, even against an explicit American objection.
In both the Syrian and Iraqi cases, the Israeli government exhausted all other options before resorting to a military strike.
So, let me get this straight: all options were exhausted when Israel made the decision to strike now in order to head off a move to the UN by its chief and perhaps sole patron, the U.S.? Oooookay.
That tugs at the thread of exactly why the Syria example is not instructive to a possible Israeli strike on Iran: what Israel was actually pre-empting by attacking in 2007 wasn’t action at the UN, per se, but rather any action that would undermine the secrecy around Israel’s discovery of Syria’s nuclear work. The Syrians were able to deny they were doing anything fishy at the site — even though all the governments knew behind closed doors that they were — and this allowed Assad to back away from retaliating against Israel for a significant hit.
That condition of secrecy does not exist for Iran: Netanyahu’s government has been prattling on for years about attacking Iran, and the Islamic Republic’s nuclear sties are well known; if it happens, we’ll all know who did it and why.
That brings us to Iraq. The Israeli attack in 1981 did indeed achieve its immediate objectives (though Iraq maintained a WMD capability, as mentioned before, with its chemical weapons). According to one Israeli official in the early 2000s, however, Iraq was able to reconstitute its nuclear program. “There is not question whatsoever that Saddam is seeking and is working and is advancing towards the development of nuclear weapons — no question whatsoever,” said then-opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu, addressing Congress in the autumn of 2002. Netanyahu turned out to be disastrously wrong, we learned only after a U.S.-led invasion and war that cost the lives of more than 2,000 Americans.
That, in turn, leads directly to perhaps the most salient problem with Sadot’s proposition: a glaring omission in his analysis. Just as with Iraq, Netanyahu is asking America to set red lines and take military action against Iran. But surely he and other Israeli security officials will consider that, while they can hit Iran’s nuclear installations, they actually can’t do much about the most important one: the Fordo facility buried deep a mountain near the city of Qom. You see, Israel can maybe close up the entrance tunnels to the facility, but can’t do it any long-term or permanent damage. An Israeli strike on Fordo would be, pardon the phrase, a “pinprick.” It would take the U.S. to come in and do the dirty work, to finish the job, with its big, 30,000-lbs. Massive Ordinance Penetrators. (Even then, the U.S. would, according to experts, only be able to delay Iran for a few years — though twice as many as the Israelis.)
That means Israel’s only option to make a meaningful strike on Iran would be one that draws the U.S. in to get a significant delay in Iran’s nuclear program. How Sadot omits this from his analysis of Netanyahu potentially not giving a hoot about what America thinks is beyond me.
I suspect talks between Iran and the world powers must really be spooking pro-Israel hawks here and in Israel, if Sadot’s tired offering is the best go at positing a credible Israeli military threat. The dek on Sadot’s piece reads: “Think Israel wouldn’t strike Iran’s nukes in defiance of America’s wishes?” Yes, I do. They won’t.