Deterrence in the Israeli-Iranian Strategic Standoff
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The entire history of the Iranian nuclear technology program, including previous efforts to keep the enrichment effort secret, suggests that Tehran will almost certainly continue to pursue a nuclear weapons capability despite some reassuring factors noted in the 2007 NIE. The NIE itself acknowledges the existence of a secret program, simply by noting its apparent suspension. Iran’s continuing and declared focus on nuclear enrichment is particularly disturbing since the development of a large-scale enrichment capability is the most technologically challenging aspect of the effort to construct a nuclear weapon (despite the alternative uses of this technology for peaceful purposes). Additionally, according to a variety of public sources, the Israeli intelligence agencies believe that Iran has made greater progress in moving toward a nuclear weapons capability than is reflected in the NIE or Admiral McConnell’s recent comments. British and French leaders have been sufficiently concerned by Iranian activities to issue strong warnings about potential problems from nuclear adventurism.
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Interpretation of Ahmadinejad's rhetoric as a blueprint for policy would appear mistaken on the basis of the statements alone. Ahmadinejad also predicts that the "satanic power" of the United States will soon be eliminated along with Israel, although it is difficult to translate this statement into a coherent plan or a policy that is likely to achieve such a result. Nor is it clear that hinting at future Iranian military strikes against Israel is the best way to prepare for such a confrontation if Tehran truly views war as a realistic option. Conversely, extreme statements may be politically useful to help the Iranian President deflect attention and criticism from his bumbling and chaotic economic policies. These policies are leading to a growth in Iranian poverty despite the staggering increase in oil prices prior to the global economic crisis of 2008. Even before the collapse of oil prices in late 2008, Ahmadinejad's efforts to manage the Iranian economy like a patronage machine contributed to an annual 30 percent inflation rate and unemployment levels of at least 10 percent as well as substantial underemployment. His future popularity will be placed under a severe challenge by constraints in these patronage resources should the price of oil remain at dramatically lower levels.
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While the popular scenario of a suicidal regime in Tehran attacking Israel as soon as it is technologically able to do so is undoubtedly oversimplified, there are nevertheless other more plausible scenarios under which the Iranians might consider such an assault. The most likely of these scenarios involves a crisis between the United States and Iran. Since the US homeland is beyond the reach of current and projected Iranian strategic platforms, Tehran can only deter the United States with its missiles and aircraft by threatening allies or US forces deployed in the region. Israel would be a natural target for Iran in any scenario involving US-Iranian tensions, followed by a possible breakdown of deterrence and the onset of war. Additionally, if the Iranians believed some future US attack against them was actually an effort at regime change, they would be more likely to consider striking the Israelis with available systems. In such a scenario the Tehran leadership might view itself as having little to lose.
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The issue of Palestinian collateral damage is one of the most important political and ideological issues facing Iranian strategists, although it is seldom mentioned in discussions of Iranian strategic options. It is not possible to attack Israel with nuclear weapons without also subjecting large numbers of nearby Palestinians to radioactive fallout. The lethal range of such fallout is difficult to determine since it depends upon a variety of factors including wind direction, type of explosion (ground or air), and explosive yield. Nevertheless, high lethality rates can be expected as far away as 20 miles under normal conditions.16 Additionally, a number of Israel's one million Arab citizens and resident aliens live near Jewish population centers. There is a distinct possibility that Palestinians on the West Bank and Gaza would also be subjected to fallout. Unfortunately for the Palestinians, Iranian targeting accuracy for its long-range missiles is highly suspect. The capabilities of these systems is quite doubtful due to ongoing problems associated with Iran‚Äôs missile testing program. If Iranian missile accuracy is off even slightly, the Palestinians, Jordanians, Lebanese, or Syrians may pay a higher price for an Iranian nuclear strike than the Israelis. This problem is further compounded because, unlike Israel, none of the Arab countries has a modern civil defense system to shelter populations, and certainly no ballistic missile defense program. While it is conceivable that Iran might accept the deaths of a large number of Muslims, such a decision would not be taken lightly by Iranian leadership and is not consistent with their nonstop statements of concern for the Palestinians.
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Additionally, some of the leadership in Tehran could be expected to have reservations about any attack on Israel that might risk harm to Jerusalem, the third holiest city in Islam. Iranian rhetoric on restoring Jerusalem to the Palestinians is often intense and directly relates to Tehran's claims of leadership of the Muslim world. In particular, the Iranian leadership treats the Jerusalem issue as a concern that transcends Palestinian national rights and is better understood as an Islamic issue. Iran seeks Muslim sovereignty over Jerusalem and not its destruction. A belief that it is acceptable to destroy the city and kill a large number of Muslims is inconsistent with Iranian rhetoric and the teachings of Ayatollah Ruhullah Khomeini, the founder of the Islamic Republic. Khomeini expressed public anger regarding what he called the Israeli occupation of Jerusalem and supported spurious claims that Israel had attempted to destroy the al Aqsa mosque in 1969 when a fire set by a deranged person caused serious damage. In the headier days of the Iran-Iraq War various Iranian leaders claimed that the Islamic Republic would "liberate Jerusalem" after it finished with Iraq. Khomeini also established "Jerusalem Day" as a time to call for the destruction of Israel and the conquest of Jerusalem.
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Iran, despite the zealotry and bombast of its leaders, has shown a consistent ability to conduct rational, interest-based national defense and foreign policy that avoids deliberately provoking nuclear war. In 2003, for example, Tehran undertook serious efforts at rapprochement with the United States due to a fear of US attacks following Saddam's ouster in Iraq. A number of Iranian leaders have clearly demonstrated that they are content to obtain status using power politics and the mechanics of patronage and corruption rather than applying the nature of otherworldly messianic thought. Former Iranian President Hashemi Rafsanjani, a billionaire who currently heads two powerful government organizations, the Expediency Council and the Assembly of Experts, is an example of someone who has a reputation for accumulating personal wealth by devious means. Although he was a key lieutenant of Ayatollah Khomeini in the early years of the Islamic Republic, Rafsanjani, like other aging revolutionaries, is not above seeking rewards in this world.
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The United States would be viewed by most of the Muslim world and globally as complicit in any attack on Iran regardless of whether it took part in the actual planning or not. In order to effectively attack Iranian nuclear facilities, large numbers of Israeli aircraft would have to repeatedly transit the airspace of Arab nations for a period of days if not weeks. Iraq would be one of the most useful countries in providing air routes. Arab nations would publicly deny they had made their airspace available to the Israelis, but Iraq would find itself, because of geographic proximity, the least credible. According to Giora Eiland, the former head of the Israeli National Security Council, "Israel cannot carry out such a strike [against Iran] without coordination with the Americans so long as they 'are in Iraq.'" Indeed, even a casual glance at a map of the region would suggest he is correct. As the result of any attack, Iran would find its political standing strongly enhanced, and efforts to isolate Tehran diplomatically or economically would collapse.
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Some political leaders and analysts have questioned the technical capability of Israel to destroy the Iranian nuclear facilities. Experts suggest that the task is beyond current Israeli capabilities.39 Israel, they maintain, might be able to conduct a raid, but not an extended air campaign. Outgoing Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert also hinted that this might be the case. In a far-reaching interview he addressed the question of Israeli military action against Iran: “One senses a megalomania and a loss of proportion in the things said here about Iran. We are a country that has lost a sense of proportion. We are a country that has lost a sense of scale.”40 If these assessments are correct, Israel would be capable of initiating a war with Iran but would need the United States’ help in concluding it, something the United States may choose not to do. In any event, relationships between Israel and America would be severely tested by such events.
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Additionally, US-Iranian initiatives hold the potential for aiding both the Israelis and Iranians in avoiding a cataclysmic clash. American diplomatic engagement with Iran could help in reducing the influence of Tehran's hard-liners, who successfully were able to portray the Bush Administration and its allies as inherently threatening to Iran. This portrayal contrasts sharply with the Obama Administration's more benign reputation for seeking diplomatic solutions to strategic challenges. President Obama's reputation and a new administration can be useful as an additional source of diplomatic leverage. Should the United States fail in efforts at diplomatic progress with Iran, it would be in a much stronger position to seek additional UN economic sanctions against Tehran. President Obama could then easily claim that his Administration honestly sought to improve relations with Tehran but was thwarted by Iran's unreasonable behavior related to the nuclear issue. A US call for increased sanctions would then have greater credibility with the American public and the global community, even hurting the legitimacy of the Iranian regime's position with its citizens and supporters.
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Any attack on Iran would give the current Tehran government legitimacy, especially the hard-liners, as Iranian citizens closed ranks in the face of an external threat. The Iranians have long memories, and the political viability of extremist leaders could be extended for decades following such an attack. This perpetuation of extremist ideologies would be another unfortunate result of the attacks. The voices of reformist leaders such as former President Mohammad Khatami would in all likelihood be silenced. In the past Khatami has even taken on hard-liners such as Mr. Ahmadinejad. In response to Ahmadinejad’s statements related to the Holocaust, Khatami countered, “We should speak out if even a single Jew is killed. Don’t forget that one of the crimes of Hitler, Nazism, and German National Socialism was the massacre of innocent people, among them many Jews.”