Scoop Election 08: edited by Gordon Campbell

The plans to bomb Iran’s nuclear facilities

April 20th, 2009

israel, iran, bomb, missile, chess; Scoop image Lyndon Hood, for map see
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During the election campaign last year, Joe Biden caused a mini-flap by suggesting that within his first six months in office, Presaident Barack Obama would be tested in an international crisis by one of America’s enemies. Increasingly though, it looks as if that crisis will be triggered by one of America’s alleged friends – Israel – in the shape of a decision to unilaterally bomb Iran.

A few weeks ago, David Samuels on Slate gave a detailed account as to why bombing Iran could be seen by Israel as being in its strategic best interests. While Iran’s growing nuclear capability would be the ostensible target of an Israeli attack, even some elements in the conservative Israeli press are not claiming that to be the real concern. It is Iranian influence in the region that has to be reduced to rubble, as much or more than its powers of military projection. Here’s Emily Landau for instance, writing in yesterday’s Jerusalem Post:

[The failure of Obama’s policy of engagement with Iran] would also leave the Middle East exposed to the major fear that states in the region harbour – not a calculated Iranian attempt to strike with nuclear weapons, but rather the enhanced and dangerous regional clout that Iran would gain by achieving nuclear status (whether assumed or proven).

The mullahs, so this brand of thinking goes, have to be taken down a peg. It is Iran’s status in the region – its influence on the government of Iraq, its support for Hezbollah, its influence in Syria, Jordan etc etc that concerns not just Israel, but the conservative Sunni regimes in Egypt and Saudi Arabia as well. Last week for instance, the al-Ahram newspaper in Cairo dutifully trotted out a conspiracy theory whereby everybody in the entire region was picking on poor old Hosni Mubarak, with Iran and its Hezbollah ally being at the top of the list.

First and foremost, an Israeli strike would kill Obama’s tentative overtures to Iran stone dead, and the resultant regional outrage would bring the US firmly back into the Israeli camp. As Samuels explains :

The success of the American-Israeli alliance demands that both parties be active partners in a complex dance that involves a lot of play-acting—America pretends to rebuke Israel, just as Israel pretends to be restrained by American intervention from bombing Damascus or seizing the banks of the Euphrates. The instability of the U.S.-Israel relationship is therefore inherent in the terms of a patron-client relationship that requires managing a careful balance of Israeli strength and Israeli weakness. An Israel that runs roughshod over its neighbors is a liability to the United States—just as an Israel that lost the capacity to project destabilizing power throughout the region would quickly become worthless as a client.

A corollary of this basic point is that the weaker and more dependent Israel becomes, the more Israeli interests and American interests are likely to diverge. Stripped of its ability to take independent military action, Israel’s value to the United States can be seen to reside in its ability to give the Golan Heights back to Syria and to carve out a Palestinian state from the remaining territories it captured in 1967—after which it would be left with only the territories of the pre-1967 state to barter for a declining store of U.S. military credits, which Washington might prefer to spend on wooing Iran….

An attack on Iran might be risky in dozens of ways, but it would certainly do wonders for restoring Israel’s capacity for game-changing military action. The idea that Iran can meaningfully retaliate against Israel through conventional means is more myth than fact. Even without using nuclear weapons, Israel has the capacity to flatten the Iranian economy by bombing a few strategic oil refineries, making a meaningful Iranian counterstroke much less likely than it first appears.

……Bombing Iran’s nuclear facilities is the surest way for Israel to restore the image of strength and unpredictability that made it valuable to the United States after 1967 while also eliminating Iran as a viable partner for America’s favor. The fact that this approach may be the international-relations equivalent of keeping your boyfriend by shooting the other cute girl he likes in the head is an indicator of the difference between high-school romance and alliances between states—and hardly an argument for why it won’t work.

So, there’s the insane logic. Samuels even manages to convince himself that from this new position of strength, Israel would then negotiate a two state solution for the Palestinians. Use the warplanes to bring Iran back down to size – and supposedly, earn a private round of applause from the Gulf States, Egypt and the Saudis for doing so, even though they would profess outrage in public – and also prise the US away from its philandering dalliance with the mullahs in Teheran. Deflating Iran would bring Hezbollah and Hamas down to size as well.

Can Obama stop himself from becoming a hostage to Benjamin Netanyahu if the new hawkish Israeli government is intent on going down this dangerous path? Not really. There will even be some among Obama’s top advisers (eg Rahm Emanuel) who would probably support an Israeli attack on Iran.

Ironically, the appointment to the Obama administration of two strong advocates of a moderate policy of engagement with Iran – namely Ray Takeyh to the office of Middle East emissary Dennis Ross, and Vali Nasr to the office of Richard Holbrooke – may succeed only in making the Israelis feel there is a need for military action sooner, rather than later (Takeyh was calling for diplomacy with Iran when I did a story for the Listener on this topic five years ago). As Samuels notes in an aside, the Russians have also been stalling on delivering a batch of surface to air defensive missiles to Iran, lest those defences should also give the Israelis a further excuse for immediate action.

A few days ago, The Times announced that an attack could be imminent. in a story headlined “Israel stands ready to bomb Iran’s nuclear sites”. The actual story though hedged its bets, indicating that such action –which would involve transit over Iraqi air space – may still be months away. In the meantime, plenty of practice is being done by the Israelis :

Among recent preparations by the airforce was the Israeli attack of a weapons convoy in Sudan bound for militants in the Gaza Strip.

“Sudan was practice for the Israeli forces on a long-range attack,” Ronen Bergman, the author of The Secret War with Iran, said. “They wanted to see how they handled the transfer of information, hitting a moving target … In that sense it was a rehearsal.”

Israel has made public its intention to hold the largest-ever nationwide drill next month.

Colonel Hilik Sofer told Haaretz, a daily Israeli newspaper, that the drill would “train for a reality in which during war missiles can fall on any part of the country without warning … We want the citizens to understand that war can happen tomorrow morning”.

Israel will conduct an exercise with US forces to test the ability of Arrow, its US-funded missile defence system. The exercise would test whether the system could intercept missiles launched at Israel.

Can Obama restrain Israel in the coming months – assuming that he really, really wants to?


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    1. 16 Responses to “The plans to bomb Iran’s nuclear facilities”

    2. By Reuben Steff on Apr 20, 2009 | Reply

      Interesting article. However, statements and media speculation to the effect that the Israelis are on the cusp of attacking Iran have arisen periodically throughout the past 5 years.

      You were right to point out the absolute irrationality and best-case analysis in the JP the other day – it defies comprehension that a reasonably rational individual could be led to such a conclusion.

      What should give us hope that the Israelis won’t attack Irans nuclear facilities is that, in many ways, the Iranian ‘threat’ may reflect far more a political construction (to be used for political gain be elites in either state) by Israeli and the US administrations than it does any actual nuclear threat.

      Iran, after all, has not invaded a foreign country in over 200 years. It does have a theocratic leadership but the leadership has shown itself to be ultra-conservative and has made rational moves in the region in response to external constraints and opportunities.

      Moreover, the judgement of the US intelligence community is that they have placed their weaponisation plans on hold. It is one thing to have the ‘know how’ to make a nuclear weapon, and the other to actually make the decision to weaponize – especially for a state like Iran and the sure consequences that would follow it doing so (Further isolation, sanctions, potential military retaliation by a multinational-led coalition).

      As to the claim that Israel is ‘standing ready’ to bomb Iran seen in a strike in Sudan, plans for civili defence drills, such measures may be as much a means of trying to influence Iranian decision makers, as opposed to actual intentions. In trying to deter another state, or ‘compel’ it from doing something unwanted (such as weaponize nuclear materials), it is crucial that in the mind of the enemy he comes to believe that a retaliation will occur if he does the unwanted action.

      As such, Israel is using rhetoric, tests, attacks around the region (remember Syria) to project into the minds of Iranian decision makers a belief that they will be attacked. The objective reality of whether Israel will actually attack Iran to stop its nuclear program is important – but what is MORE important is instilling the belief in Iranian minds that it will. This requires developing the military capability to do so (at this stage its dubious that Israel could pull off a successful attack unilaterally) and projecting credibility that it will do so if a ‘red line’ is crossed.

      Israel’s credibility is additionally questionable – the likely regional and global implications of an attack are incalculable. We just do not know how Iran (or other actors) will react.

      Iran, although is has expanded its influence throughout the Middle East and parts of North Africa, is not as serious of a threat to Israel or the US as it is made out to be. It will become far more threatening if it is attacked and decides it must retaliate. This sad paradox will come to pass if Israel decides to attack.

    3. By Cookie on Apr 21, 2009 | Reply

      Great piece. A further question: will Key, keen to look decisive on military issues as any new leader is, take us where Obama goes?

    4. By BDB on Apr 21, 2009 | Reply

      You betcha cookie.
      Head of global bank Keys has an umbilical cord to Obombar .
      And we need to start producing that GM milk yesterday!
      More production.And much Ass

    5. By Reuben Steff on Apr 21, 2009 | Reply

      Good question BDB.

      The question New Zealand must really ask ourselves is what the ‘strategic rationale’ for us to join the US, or anyone else for that matter, in deploying troops on the far side of the world is. It’s one thing to expend military resources policing failing Pacific Island states, another to go traipsing through the back alley of the Middle East (or wherever) in the name of Democracy, freedom, etc.

      Any thoughts?

    6. By Reuben Steff on Apr 21, 2009 | Reply

      Sorry, I meant good question Cookie.

    7. By V on Apr 21, 2009 | Reply

      So why is Keys now asking for an “exit plan” from the US to justify the requested NZ military support?

      This “plan” will be again be fabricated…
      in return for your support (or at least your silence).

    8. By travp on Apr 21, 2009 | Reply

      Just before we move on, and re Fiji though……next,next,next,next……… If truncation of comment on the basis of “I never realised you were such a snesitive bitch” is now ‘out of bounds’, I’m prepared to defer to your better judgement – even though there is some pathetic little egotist that I unfortunatelty share a Christian name with, that uses same on our “public service telecaster” in ‘the breakfast slot’, albeit along with a number of I..I….I….me……me……me’s

    9. By V on Apr 21, 2009 | Reply

      We are now on the issue of the SAS in Fiji, no sorry, NZ funding US equipment for a hot “nuclear” middle east.
      And how much more support will Keys be able to muster in open dialog on in his next generalised disscussion pre militarty review.
      How many committees and sub committees will be formed to ensure a military budget ^ 2035?.
      “Move on and don’t judge”

    10. By Adolf Fiinkensein on Apr 21, 2009 | Reply

      When will you raving idiots realise that the Prime Minister’s surname is Key? Without an S FFS.

      Bloody tossers.

    11. By V on Apr 21, 2009 | Reply

      I will immediately stop “raving” Adolf
      since my problems with linguistics is something that bothers you so.


    12. By i-live-2-ride on Apr 22, 2009 | Reply

      I don’t like the idea of a pre-emptive strike by Israel anymore than the next person, because it will open up a can of worms better left in the ground. But let’s be realistic here. If my neighbor kept spouting off to me and to everybody else, that he was going to attack and kill my family and wipe us off the face of the earth as soon as he finishes building the bomb that everyone acknowledges he’s been working on, I’m only going to wait so long.

      The first step I would take is to inform the authorities and hope they can find a peaceable solution, as Israel has done. But when the authorities say over and over that they will give my enemy another stern warning, how long would I have to wait before I realize the authorities are a toothless tiger? How long would any of you wait when your family’s lives are at risk? Because once Iran builds or acquires a nuclear bomb, sooner or later they will use it. And once they have ‘the bomb,’ the dynamics of the game changes.

      And lastly, as a Christian, it is my duty to stand by Israel when they are threatened with extinction. They are not only the apple of God’s eye – His chosen, but they are also my family according to the Bible (we were grafted into the vine with them and were adopted as sons). Moreover, even for those who are non-Christians, the God of the Bible says about Israel: “I will bless those who bless you, and curse those who curse you.”

      Putting myself in their shoes, it seems painfully obvious that the international community is content to sit back and do nothing. Just as they pussy-footed around and scolded Saddam Hussein as he broke resolution after resolution over a 13 year period of time, they will do nothing about this buckethead in Iran but scold him periodically. their lives and countries are not on the line.

      Yes, I will support with Israel – just as I would support New Zealand if Australia was making routine death threats against you as they worked to assemble the weapon to end all weapons which they claimed openly they were going to use against you.

    13. By i-live-2-ride on Apr 22, 2009 | Reply

      PS. What would any of you do if someone was repeatedly threatening to murder all of your children and the police said they will give them a stern talking to at the first sign of a murdered child? Seriously… what would you do? Wait for someone elses permission before you defended your babies? Or wait until they attacked your daughter in the middle of the night?

      I doubt any of you reading this would wait until your children were dead or bleeding and hope the authorities would do more than say oops, guess we will have to have another talk with that murderer. Because surely the international community will be afraid to do any more than scold them after the crazy man in Iran has nuclear weapons added to the delivery system they already possess.

      So if you’re not going to help nor support them, at least stay the hell out of their way and let them do whatever they have to do in order to protect their families! And don’t you judge so quickly until your family’s lives are at stake.

    14. By Reuben Steff on Apr 23, 2009 | Reply

      i-live-2-ride, you raise a good point, and I don’t think anyone would question ‘waiting until their children were dead…’ etc. But what you have to understand is the Israeli-Iran issue is more complex than what you think.

      First off, take Ahmadinejad’s quote and look at it here:

      There are various interpretations of what exactly he said. Moreover, he does not make foreign policy/have the final say, the Grand Ayatollah does. Moreover read this:

      In both the Israeli and Iranian context, it would appear that the ‘threat’ of the other is a political tool to be used in their domestic politics.

      We saw during the Cold War that ideological opposition to one another did not preclude an end to the confrontation. It’s all relates back to politics.

    15. By Reuben Steff on Apr 23, 2009 | Reply

      Moreover, there is the very real possibility that if Israel publicly announced its own nuclear weapons program and started disarming these weapons, a major impetus for the Iranian nuclear weapons program (IF it exists) would be removed.

      I don’t expect this to happen of course (Israel to renounce its program), just trying to shed a bit more light on the issue. Both sides are culpable in the situation that now exists.

    16. By edwin on Apr 27, 2009 | Reply

      the sooner Israel bombs the nuclear sites of Iran, the better it is not only for the whole of Middle East but for the world. A country bent on the destruction of Israel who’s president doesn’t hide his enmity against Israel and who espouses destruction of it, has no place in this world. I hope they bomb the presidential palace first

    17. By Nil Einne on May 2, 2009 | Reply

      Iran has never said they wanted to destroy Israel. Quite the opposite in fact.

      Also it’s highly questionable if Iran has even stated they want Israel to be violently destroyed.

      Finally as many have stated, it’s clear that if Iran is really developing a nuclear weapons programme, the primary reason they’re doing it is because of a well founded fear of attack from the US or Israel.

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