The challenges and risks of an Israeli air-strike on Iran.
Frontpage Interview’s guest today is Kenneth Levin, a clinical instructor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, a Princeton-trained historian, and a commentator on Israeli politics. He is the author of The Oslo Syndrome: Delusions of a People Under Siege.
FP: Kenneth Levin, welcome to Frontpage Interview.
Iran has test-fired short-range missiles. What does this mean for Israel and for the world?
Levin: The recent missile firings, including those of the longer-range Shahab-3 and Sajjil, while provocative in their timing given the revelation a few days earlier of a secret Iranian uranium enrichment facility near Qom and given also the start of "five plus one" talks with Iran on October 1, do not in themselves add much to what has been known about Iran's missile capabilities.
At most, they reinforce the conviction of serious observers that Iran has the missile capacity to deliver a nuclear warhead in a strike against Israel or any other Middle East target. This, coupled with evidence of feverish Iranian efforts and advances in mastering the engineering of a warhead-fitted nuclear trigger and in producing sufficient enriched uranium for a bomb, suggests that there is not much time left for the world to act if it is to prevent Iran from attaining a nuclear arsenal.
FP: Where does this put Israel?
Levin: Israelis across the political spectrum regard Iran's acquisition of nuclear weapons as an unacceptable existential threat. Few in Israel believe that the mutually assured destruction that seems to have figured so largely in preventing the use of nuclear weapons during the Cold War would apply vis-à-vis Iran. First, leading figures in theocratic Iran, including so-called moderates such as former president Rafsanjani, have spoken of prevailing in a nuclear exchange with Israel, however much damage Iran and its people might suffer; and the apocalyptic theology espoused by the regime translates, apparently for many in positions of power, into a comfort with doomsday scenarios not shared by the Cold War's adversaries.
In addition, even if Iran's acquisition of nuclear weapons did not lead immediately to an attack on Israel, the damage to Israel would be profound. Many observers have written about Iranian protégé groups such as Hezbollah and Hamas, and Iran's ally Syria, all with access to Israel's borders, being emboldened to accelerate assaults on the Jewish state.
Whether or not this would materialize, Israel would be under imminent threat and this would affect people's willingness to immigrate to the country or to remain there. Also, one certain consequence would be a race by various other Middle Eastern states - Saudi Arabia and Egypt, to name but two - to acquire nuclear arms, and a multi-polar nuclear armed Middle East, rife with intense political divisions and incessant low-intensity warfare, would almost inevitably result in a nuclear disaster that would likely engulf Israel as well as some of its neighbors.
FP: So where is the international community? Who is ready to stop Iran?
Levin: It is hardly clear that major world players fully share Israel's concerns or are prepared to act to stop Iran. American-backed negotiations between European powers and Iran have gone on for years, have borne no fruit, and have not led thus far to the Europeans, or the U.S., taking much more dramatic steps against the Iranian regime. On the contrary, Western European states such as Germany have been the major source of much of the technology that has made Iran's nuclear advances possible.
What trade and other sanctions have been imposed on Iran were won with much resistance by various powers and have obviously been too weak to have stopped Iran's steady advance toward attaining nuclear arms.
FP: The Obama administration?
Levin: The Obama administration is holding to its intent to engage in direct negotiations with the Iranians, presenting this as a new tack that must be tried. But the Bush administration had, in fact, also pursued direct negotiations with the Iranian regime, including at high levels, but to no avail. Also, President Obama has indicated he will give negotiations until the end of the year before pushing for more aggressive sanctions, a time frame that hardly suggests perceiving any imminent danger in Iran's nuclear efforts.
Moreover, it is far from clear that the most draconian sanctions, those most likely to have an impact on the Iranian regime, such as an embargo against delivery to Iran of refined petroleum products - sanctions suggested mainly by voices outside the administration - could be effectively imposed. Russia and China have been resistant to serious sanctions, and both could circumvent any Western embargo, even one backed by a naval blockade. Russia, for example, could deliver refined petroleum overland to the Iranians.
Beyond its foot-dragging on even trying serious sanctions, the Obama administration has also at times signaled that it is actually resigned to a nuclear Iran, believes a nuclear-armed Iran can be contained and managed, and does not empathize with Israel's perception of existential threat.
Certainly there has been no indication from the Obama team that it feels the need to act expeditiously to stop Iran's nuclear program and that, if all else fails, it is prepared to resort to military force.
This leaves Israel essentially on its own. Israel's leaders, in previous governments as well as in the present one, have almost unanimously indicated that Israel will have to strike at Iran's nuclear installations before Iran attains a nuclear weapon. But it obviously faces many daunting challenges to doing so effectively.
FP: How daunting are those challenges?
Levin: Some have suggested that the challenges are so great that Israel is in fact bluffing. According to this view, Israel talks of having no choice but to strike in order to prod world leaders to act to stop the Iranians if for no other reason than to avoid having to deal with the consequences of an Israeli attack. I personally don't believe the Israelis are bluffing. The conviction that a nuclear-armed Iran would pose an intolerable threat is deeply felt and well-grounded, and the dominant perception is that the country indeed has no choice but to strike, whatever the risks.
FP: What are the challenges and risks?
Levin: Repeatedly noted among the challenges facing an Israeli strike are the many sites to which the Iranians have dispersed elements of their nuclear program, no doubt with much duplication of installations; the limited air power Israel can bring to bear, given its limited military resources and the distances involved, and so the limits to its potential targeting; the fact that key Iranian installations are in very hardened sites deep underground and not easy to destroy even with direct hits with heavy ordnance; the very high likelihood that the Iranians have elements of their nuclear program at sites that are unknown to the Israelis and other Western intelligence services; and the fact that Israel will have to traverse hostile terrain to reach Iran.
There have been a number of news stories that Saudi Arabia has given Israel a green light to cross its territory, stories which the Saudis have denied. Even if the reports are true, using Saudi airspace would present obvious risks, including that of the Iranians being informed of the approaching attack.
The general assumption is that Israel's preferred scenario would be to overfly Iraq. This would be the most direct route, and American cooperation could help secure the element of surprise. But the Bush Administration is reported to have refused to allow Israel the use of Iraqi airspace, and it is hard to imagine the Obama Administration being more cooperative.
To be sure, not everyone around Obama shares Zbigniew Brzezinski's view that the U.S. ought to shoot down any Israeli aircraft that try to reach Iran via Iraq. But if the prevailing view in the Administration is that the U.S. can live with a nuclear Iran, there will inevitably be very strong sentiment not only to deny assistance, even passive assistance, to an Israeli raid but to apply extremely heavy pressure to dissuade the Israelis from attacking.
An Israeli attack, whether with or without American cooperation, will almost certainly unleash Iranian reprisals both against Israel and America, with American forces in the region being particularly targeted. Of course, they are targeted by Iran now, but Iran could dramatically escalate its attacks. American calculations that perceive a nuclear Iran as manageable are likely to perceive as well no reason to take great risks of any sort to American interests for the sake of stopping the Iranian nuclear program.
Iran can be reached by the Israelis without traversing either Saudi or Iraqi airspace, but the alternatives present their own very substantial difficulties.
FP: Challenges beyond the mechanics of the raids themselves?
Levin: Iran would very likely unleash attacks against Israeli and Jewish targets around the world. It would also very likely seek to have Hezbollah, Hamas and perhaps Syria as well strike at Israel. Hezbollah and Hamas between them have rockets and missiles that can reach most of Israel, while Syria can hit any point in the country, and the civilian population and the nation's infrastructure - even without Syrian involvement - would be at risk. Israel would, of course, have prepared to aggressively defend itself, but the task of limiting losses would be challenging at best.
There would also be the difficult diplomatic fallout of an Israeli attack. Even those countries relieved by a successful attack would still condemn it. Organs of the UN would, of course, censure Israel. Perhaps they would have Richard Goldstone prepare a report concluding that Israel had committed war crimes and crimes against humanity by initiating aggression against Iran's peaceful nuclear program.
The Obama Administration could well join in the general condemnation. And - perhaps most problematic - even though a large majority of Americans sympathize with Israel, and most would support Israel's attacking Iran's nuclear program as a necessary self-defense measure, American losses to Iranian reprisal attacks in Iraq and Afghanistan, particularly if played up by the Administration and by anti-Israel voices in this country as the fault of the Israelis, might cut into the American public's backing for the Jewish state.
This could, however, evolve in a very different direction. A dramatic escalation of Iranian attacks on American forces in the region may convince the Administration that it has no choice, however reluctant, but to attack Iran in an attempt to end the onslaught. Its doing so, and placing the onus on Iran, would have wide public support and likely mitigate criticism of Israel for ostensibly initiating the chain of events.
Levin: Israel confronts the likelihood of being able to inflict at most only limited damage on Iran's nuclear program, having to do so in the face of strong opposition from its main ally, almost certainly incurring fierce military and terror reprisals, and likewise having to deal with intense negative diplomatic fallout. Yet, with all the challenges and dangers, Israel does have options for an attack on Iran's nuclear program and, given the certainty of the existential threat presented by a nuclear Iran, it will almost certainly act to set back the Iranian program whatever the risks and dangers.
Israel would obviously prefer to see determined action by the world's powers to end the Iranian threat. But if there is no progress, and the coming weeks yield no obvious resolve by the United States and its European allies to take decisive action, then Israel will likely feel compelled to act by early next year if not sooner.
FP: Kenneth Levin, thank you for joining us and offering us your wisdom. It is always a pleasure and privilege to speak with you.