As diplomacy falters and the
potential for an Iranian nuclear weapon edges closer, public discourse has
increasingly focused on U.S. and Israeli options for preventing such an outcome
by other means. And of late, the option most thoroughly debated in government
and on the pages of the policy journals is an Israeli military strike on Iran's
With his recent National
and last week's accompanying talk to a small group of journalists, academics,
and think tank analysts in the journal's Nixon Center office space, Bruce
Riedel, a former CIA officer, veteran policy advisor, and current Brookings
senior fellow, not only predicted that an Israeli attack on Iran would be
calamitous but added that preventing it would require us to turn our focus from
Iran's nuclear program to Israel's.
But first things first. Should
Israel attempt to delay the Iranian program by force, he said, the result would
be particularly disastrous for the United States. Iran, at the very least,
would view an Israeli attack as being American-enabled-and perhaps explicitly
approved -- which would prompt the regime in Tehran to retaliate directly against U.S. interests in the region. The drawdown of combat forces in Iraq as well
as ongoing operations in Afghanistan would likely become significantly more
challenging as Iran maximized its considerable influence in both countries.
So, Reidel continued, how can
Washington forestall an Israeli attack? Sure, President Barack Obama could tell Prime
Minister Benjamin Netanyahu not to strike Iran, promise to withhold the "IFF"
codes identifying attacking Israeli jets as friendlies to the U.S. military
aircraft patrolling the Middle East's skies, and threaten to reduce or halt
Israel's annual military aid dollars, but these actions -- even if
successful -- could only supplement a more substantial and lasting approach.
The crux of Riedel's argument?
Convince Israel that it is safe to abandon its decades-long policy of
maintaining a monopoly on Middle Eastern nuclear weapons. This argument might
be easier for Americans to swallow, but if the goal is to dissuade the Israelis
from attacking Iran, it will be a tough sell.
Riedel reaches back to deterrence
theory by proposing that the United States offer Israel the benefits of
American nuclear umbrella. This, of course, only works if those with their
fingers on the hypothetical Iranian nuclear button are rational, and Riedel's mention
of the Netanyahu quote claiming Iran is "crazy" casts doubt on the views of the
Israeli leadership, to say the least.
Though Riedel could very well be
accurate in his analysis, in order to keep his deterrence argument intact he
needs to downplay the possibility that Iran would transfer a nuclear weapon to
a third party. So, perhaps not surprisingly, he does not offer any evidence for
why Tehran would keep it nukes to itself. On the surface, it does seem as
though a Hizbollah nuclear attack on Israel would not be in the interest of
either Hizbollah or Iran, but gut feelings and hunches are not likely to
convince the Israelis to sit back and watch while Iran goes nuclear.
The second part of
the two-fold Riedel plan would call for the United States to bolster Israel's
second strike capability. That is, once the U.S. eases the Israeli population's
fears with promises to employ the formidable American nuclear force in the
event the unthinkable occurs, an arsenal of American-supplied hardware would
ensure that a stricken Israel would still be able to retaliate with its F-15Is,
Jericho IRBMs, and increasingly sophisticated missile defense system. This
would enable permit Israel to maintain strategic dominance, even facing a
nuclear Iran. Among other items, Riedel advocates selling F-22s to Israel,
though they are probably not the most appropriate platform for Israeli defense
needs, and are perhaps further obviated by recent Israeli cabinet agreement to
allow the United States to give Israel 20 stealthy new F-35s.
Of course, one problem with
publicly boosting the Israeli deterrent -- which Riedel readily admits -- is that it
is exceedingly difficult to do without first acknowledging that Israel
possesses nuclear weapons. While Israel should, in fact, officially announce
its arsenal, there is little benefit for it in doing so, at least at the
moment. It would gain little, given that everyone knows of the Israeli nukes
anyway, and could potentially entangle them in international debates over the
NPT and a nuclear-free zone.
So, could the U.S. out them
instead? Doubtful. Washington has been extremely hesitant to adopt a tough
approach toward Israel in the past, but if an Israeli action might risk
significant consequences to U.S. personnel and strategic interests, perhaps we
will be surprised …