It will be only a matter of time until Israel strikes Iran’s nuclear power program. Most rational international leaders know there are two things you can do separately but never together. You can have a nuclear power program capable of producing weapons, and you can threaten to incinerate the Jewish state, but you can’t do both. The Israelis have a 100 percent record in that regard. Some, although not all, of the Iranian leadership elite know that, but they are not calling the shots in Tehran.
There is another truism at work here. When the Israelis go after the Iranians, the United States will get blamed in the Muslim world no matter what we do to dissuade the Israelis. No argument will convince the professional America haters, who set the narrative on the Muslim street, that we didn’t put the Israelis up to it, so why try? If it is going to happen, we should give serious consideration to helping the Israelis get it right. A massive disruption of Iran’s nuclear program will not permanently destroy Iranian nuclear ambitions, and it likely will coalesce Iranian public support around an already unpopular regime. Again, so what? The Iranians have not shown the will to unseat the regime.
The Iranians almost certainly will attack Israel with missiles or by proxies in revenge, and they likely will be up to no good regarding those of our interests they can get their hands on. The Israelis can take care of themselves; they likely will act on credible intelligence and will not allow a grave threat to their homeland to go unchallenged. Our efforts to restrain them will only work until they determine that Iran’s nuclear program presents a clear and present danger. No reasonable action the U.S. government can take will restrain them. This brings us to the question of whether our country should assist Israel when it decides to strike.
Although there would be some public tittering in the Sunni Muslim world, WikiLeaks has made public what those of us who have had dealings in the Middle East and South Asia have known for years: The Arabs see the Persians as mortal enemies. In that part of the world, Western “crusaders” are a relatively new and somewhat feckless threat at best. Shiite Iran is the real enemy to the Arabs, Sunni or Shiite. If we are going to be blamed in any event, there is a strong argument to be made that we should get blamed for something that works.
We are in the best shape we will ever be in to deal with attempted Iranian retaliation for our part in assisting an Israeli strike. Our posture to disrupt and protect against terrorist attacks at home and abroad has never been stronger, and Iran’s Hezbollah surrogate has far more to lose in Lebanon than to be gained by directly attacking the United States at this juncture.
The United States outflanks Iran in both Iraq and Afghanistan. This is both a good and a bad thing. On the minus side, the Iranians can get at U.S. targets in those countries more readily than they can elsewhere in the world or in the United States itself. The positive aspect is that our facilities and forces there are well-protected and in a combat posture. In addition, the Iranians are not popular in either country, even among much of Iraq’s Arab Shiite population. The Iranians are seen as economic imperialists and as a disruptive influence in attempts to build a stable Iraqi government. A strong Iraq is also not in Iran’s interest.
Israel probably can do much damage to Iran’s nuclear program, but a strike likely would only set it back three to five years at best unless the Israelis get considerable help. They have great human intelligence and a competent weapons program, but they cannot match us in overhead imagery, electronic surveillance and creating weapons that can penetrate underground to get at hardened facilities. In addition, the United States has a capacity to do in-flight refueling and rescue downed aircrews, both of which would be of invaluable aid in an Israeli strike.
This is not to advocate any reduction in our attempts to craft a peaceful conclusion to the growing Iranian nuclear program or a diminishing of our attempts to restrain the Israelis up to the point where they feel action is imperative. However, I am suggesting that we keep our options open in the likely event that the Israelis eventually decide the time to act has come. That day may not come soon, but it will come unless something radical happens that changes the present course in Iran.
Gary Anderson is a retired Marine Corps officer and teaches at the George Washington University Elliott School of International Affairs.