New arguments by analysts close to Israeli thinking
in favor of U.S. strikes against Iran cite evidence of Iranian military weakness
in relation to the U.S. and Israel and even raise doubts that Iran is rushing
to obtain such weapons at all.
The new arguments contradict Israel's official argument that it faces an "existential
threat" from an Islamic extremist Iranian regime determined to get nuclear
weapons. They suggest that Israel, which already has as many as 200 nuclear
weapons, views Iran from the position of the dominant power in the region rather
than as the weaker state in the relationship.
The existence of a sharp imbalance of power in favor of Israel and the United
States is the main premise of a recent
analysis by Patrick Clawson and Michael Eisenstadt of the Washington Institute
for Near East Policy (WINEP) suggesting that a U.S. attack on Iranian nuclear
facilities is feasible. Chuck Freilich, a senior fellow at Harvard University's
Belfer Center on Science and International Affairs, has also urged war against
Iran on such a power imbalance.
All three have close ties to the Israeli government. WINEP has long promoted
policies favored by Israel, and its founding director, Martin Indyk, was previously
research director of the leading pro-Israel lobby, the American Israel Public
Affairs Committee (AIPAC). Freilich is a former Israeli deputy national security
These analysts, all of whom are pushing for a U.S., rather than an Israeli
attack, argue that Iran's power to retaliate for a U.S. attack on its nuclear
facilities is quite limited. Equally significant, they also emphasize that
Iran is a rational actor that would have to count the high costs of retaliation.
That conclusion stands in sharp contrast to the official Israeli line that
Iran cannot be deterred because of its allegedly apocalyptic Islamic viewpoint
on war with Israel.
Clawson summed up the argument for a U.S. attack from Iranian weakness in
with Ha'aretz. "My assessment," he said, "is that
contrary to the impression that has been formed, Iran's options for responding
are limited and weak."
Freilich made a similar point in an article
in the Jerusalem Post last week. "Instead of unwarranted, self-deterring
risk aversion," he wrote, "let us not forget who wields the incalculably
greater 'stick': Iran certainly will not."
A paper by Clawson and Eisenstadt published by WINEP earlier this month not
only acknowledges but bases its argument for aggressive war on the fact that
Israel holds a decisive edge over Iran militarily. "A nuclear-armed Iran
could dangerously alter the strategic balance in the region," write the
WINEP authors, "handcuffing Israel's room to maneuver on the Palestinian
and Lebanese fronts
The WINEP co-authors thus highlight the degree to which Israel now has virtually
complete freedom to use military force in the region as long as it does not
attack Iran directly. Israel's bombing and ground campaign against Hezbollah
in Lebanon in 2006 and its destruction of an unidentified target in Syria
an ally of Iran last September, evidently to make the point that Israeli
warplanes could also hit targets in Iran, demonstrate how Israel has been able
to use air power at will without fear of an Iranian military response.
Israel has been accustomed to such an extreme disparity in military power
for decades. Ray Close, who was CIA station chief in Saudi Arabia at the time,
recalls that after the Yom Kippur war of 1973, the Israeli air force frequently
made very low-level runs over Saudi airbases in northern Saudi Arabia. The
Israeli warplanes would drop empty fuel tanks on the runways near Saudi fighter
plains to remind the Saudis that they could have been just as easily dropping
500-pound bombs on the Saudi planes, according to Close.
Clawson and Eisenstadt conclude that a military strike against Iran by the
United States could be successful, but they acknowledge that such a strike
"might cause Iran's leadership to conclude that the country needed nuclear
weapons to deter and defend against the United States."
The authors contradict the official Israeli position that Iran is hell-bent
on acquiring a nuclear weapon, observing that the Iranian nuclear program has
not actually been pursued with the urgency that has been publicly attributed
to it by Israel and the United States. They write that Iran "has been
engaged in less of a nuclear race than a nuclear saunter."
Contrary to the explicit anti-Israel objective attributed to the Iranian nuclear
program by the Israeli government, moreover, they assess the motive of the
Iranians as being "the desire for prestige and influence"
aspirations that could be fulfilled without having nuclear weapons, as other
analysts have observed.
Clawson and Eisenstadt argue that Iranian threats of retaliation against a
naval blockade should not be taken at face value, because Iran has demonstrated
great caution in response to past attacks on its own population by foreign
They cite the U.S. shoot-down of an Iranian passenger airliner in 1988, when
Iran threatened retaliation but agreed to a cease-fire with then Iraqi President
Saddam Hussein out of fear of a U.S. entry into the Iran-Iraq war.
The pro-Israel analysts further minimize the threat that Hezbollah would unleash
its thousands of rockets against cities in northern Israel, which has long
been regarded by Israel as Iran's single most important deterrent to a U.S.
attack on its nuclear program. In September 2006, after the Israeli war in
Lebanon, Freilich wrote that Hezbollah's rocket arsenal had already "lost
much of its deterrent value." The Israeli population, Freilich observed,
had already borne the brunt of a Hezbollah rocket attack and had been "willing
to pay the price."
Clawson and Eisenstadt suggest that the United States could reduce the likelihood
of Hezbollah rocket attacks on Israel in retaliation for an attack on its nuclear
sites by "quietly indicating that, as in 2006, it would support a tough
Israeli response to Hezbollah rocket attacks."
Clawson even contradicted the official Israeli and U.S. line that Hezbollah
is simply a proxy of Iran, asserting in his interview with Ha'aretz
that there is "no guarantee" Hezbollah's leaders would "react
automatically" to a U.S. strike against Iran. Instead, he suggested, they
would act on their own interests "as they understand them."
Hezbollah is "very aware of Israel's strength, and of the harsh reaction
that may result if Hezbollah attacks," Clawson said.
As for the Iranian threat to attack U.S. naval targets or otherwise use its
navy to stop shipping through the Strait of Hormuz, Clawson and Eisenstadt
express confidence that "the U.S. response would almost certainly cripple
or destroy Iran's navy." They clearly imply that Iran would have to weigh
its options for such retaliation against that loss.
Their argument that Iran is too militarily weak to mount a significant retaliation
reflects expert opinion within Israel. In a paper for the Institute for National
Security Studies at Tel Aviv University last February, Ephraim Kam, widely
regarded as the leading Israeli academic specialist on Iran, wrote, "Iran's
retaliatory capability against Israel is yet limited."
In basing the case for aggressive war against Iran on the weakness of the
target state rather than the threat of its military power and aggressiveness,
the pro-Israeli analysts are following a familiar pattern in dominant power
policymaking toward war on weaker states. The main argument made by advocates
of U.S. air attacks against North Vietnam within the U.S. government in 1964
was that both North Vietnam and its ally China were too weak to credibly threaten
an aggressive military response.
(Inter Press Service)