The hawks must be very disappointed following the Netanyahu-Obama meeting. I understand and sympathize with the desire to stop nuclear proliferation, and especially to allow nuclear weapons in the dubious hands of Iran. However, it will not do for them to blame Obama for being naïve in delaying a confrontation with Iran.
No one believes that the bombing of Iran would be simply a replay of the destruction of Iraq’s Osirak reactor in 1981. Nevertheless, I believe that success encourages undue optimism today.
Iran’s nuclear enrichment programme is widely dispersed, much of it is underground in hardened sites, and some placed near population centers. The best case scenario is that successful strikes would merely set back Iran for a few years, and if she is not currently undertaking bomb development, one can be certain that this would then determine her future course of action. Furthermore, any Israeli strike against Iran would require American cooperation in at least two respects. The United States would have to allow Israel the American provided bunker-buster bombs to penetrate to the underground installations. It would also be necessary to over-fly American occupied Iraq , and the United States is not likely to grant either the weapon use or the routing. CIA Director Leon Panetta is said to have warned the Prime Minister Netanyahu that an independent attack would lead to “big trouble.”
It is not only the United States that stands in the way of an Israeli attack on Iran but also the most pessimistic forecasts. Abdullah Toukan and Anthony Cordesman are the authors of a 114 page study on the subject and they conclude: “A military strike by Israel against Iranian nuclear facilities is possible … [but] would be complex and high-risk and would lack any assurances that the overall mission will have a high success rate.” They estimate that in a strike by 90 IAF aircraft, 20 to 25 would be downed, probably an unacceptable rate of losses for Israel. Including the Bushehr reactor in the attack would cause ecological disaster and the deaths of thousands, perhaps hundreds of thousands. Israel’s own losses would not just be in the raid, for the authors estimate that Hezbollah now has a stockpile of 40,000 rockets and in the Second Lebanon War only 4000 of their rockets were enough to paralyze life in the North of Israel. Reuven Pedatzur writing in Haaretz draws the conclusion, from the Toukan-Cordesman study, that Israel should concentrate on building and making credible its deterrence force, rather than heating up the anti-Iranian rhetoric.
While the Israeli focus may be on Teheran, the United States has more immediate considerations. First, the U.S. is already engaged in two wars and has no desire to launch another when it can hardly cope with Iraq and Afghanistan. Second, allowing Israel to do the dirty work of an attack will provide no plausible deniability for the United States and it would surely be seen as the work of an American surrogate. Third, an attack by the United States or its close ally on still another Muslim nation would totally undercut the emerging Obama policy in the Middle East, a policy which has specifically denied a war against Islam. Fourth, in the weak state of the American and world economy, the United States and other nations would be ill disposed to a disruption of oil supplies not only from Iran but possibly from much of the Middle East.
If negotiations with Iran take place the Israeli and American hawks do seem to have a fall-back position. They would prefer to go into any talks with Iran not only with the vague warnings that the President has made but with specific sanctions brandished right in the faces of the Ayatollahs. It is difficult to determine if they want to sabotage the negotiations through such action or if they honestly believe that Iran will only respect threats. One such hawkish idea is to enact legislation which would cut Iran off from badly needed supplies of refined gasoline if she rejected American demands to halt her nuclear program. President Obama has called for mutually respectful talks because he seems to know enough of Iranian-American history to understand that Iran will not respond to American threats and bullying. Too many Iranians remember that the United States and its CIA engineered the overthrow of their democratically elected government in 1954 and they also recall the American support given to the late Shah and his notorious security agency Savak. Thus, if Iran will prove willing to talk to the United States, and that is far from certain, it will not be with an American gun to its head.
At the end of the day, President Obama’s policy may not succeed with Iran. Then, the United States and Israel will once again have to evaluate the problem but they will have demonstrated, especially to Europe, that they had done all they could to resolve outstanding issues with Iran through diplomacy. They may then have more luck in gaining European support for sanctions. Let the hawks be hooded and tethered; this is the moment for owls.