By Barry Rubin
How do you know someone has no idea what they’re talking about? Answer: They predict that Israel is about to attack Iran.
From the perspective of people in Israel who are closely following these issues, this idea is ridiculous. Understanding why this is so tells us a great deal about the situation.
First, it is too early to consider such an option in strategic terms. As long as Iran has not completed its effort to obtain nuclear weapons, the less there is to be gained by destroying uncompleted facilities or processes that are not yet at their full capacity. The earlier one attacks, the easier it is for the Iranian regime to rebuild.
Second, the whole Israeli strategy has been based on winning the maximum amount of Western support against the Iranian nuclear program. Israel worked hard to encourage the United States and the Europeans to put tough sanctions on Iran. Now we are in the sanctions’ era and these governments want to see whether the sanctions are going to have any effect.
Clearly, they are hurting the Iranian regime. People often don’t understand the purposes for imposing international sanctions. Ideally, the goal is to change the behavior of the targeted regime. But that’s not all. Sanctions are supposed to reduce the ability of an enemy regime to do what it wants to do. The fewer assets Iran has, the less it can put into military efforts.
In addition, the pressure of sanctions is to open up splits within the regime’s leadership and between the regime and the population. The people ask: Why are we suffering? Because of bad leadership and policies. Other members of the elite ask: Why are the top rulers and their policies leading us toward the regime’s downfall and the loss of our wealth and power?
This is happening to some extent in Iran today.
Moreover, sanctions are intended to isolate the regime, so that it loses allies and trading partners. This is happening to a lesser extent, because the U.S. government is in effect making a deal with Russia, China, Turkey, and Brazil to break the sanctions in exchange for giving them formal support.
Will sanctions stop Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons? Almost certainly, the answer is “no.” Yet, from Israel’s standpoint, this effort must be given every chance. Only if the Western countries are satisfied that every diplomatic and sanctions’-related effort has been fully tried—and very probably not even then!—would they support military action.
A third factor is a fundamental reality of international affairs: there is no compelling reason for Israel to act now and it has other problems to deal with. Iran’s obtaining a deliverable nuclear weapon is at least two, probably three, and perhaps four years off. Why do something now? There’s no motive to do so. The idea that something must or will be done immediately is a fiction among those who really don’t know much about the situation but perhaps have a thirst for action, a hunger for some decisive event that will easily and neatly solve the whole problem with one blow.
Leaders want to postpone tough decisions where the possibility of a catastrophic mistake as long as possible and one can hardly blame them.
Fourth, even if Israel wanted to attack now—which it doesn’t—such an action would not enjoy U.S. support and cooperation. During the current period, U.S.-Israel relations are very shaky, despite the fact that they are all right at this particular moment, though for how long is an open question. The Obama Administration tends to oppose the use of force, deplore unilateralism, dislike taking a strong lead, and seeks to distance itself from Israel more than was true for its predecessors.
If the decision of a lowly local zoning board in Jerusalem to build a few apartment buildings set off a huge storm in bilateral relations, what would an Israeli attack on Iran do?
Don’t forget, too, that U.S. troops are in both Iraq and Afghanistan, with periodic hints from the U.S. side that precipitate Israeli action could endanger them. Yet two or three years from now, those soldiers, or almost all of them, will be gone from the region. If that is going to coincide with Iran getting nuclear weapons, all the more reason to wait.
Finally, there are an increasing number of voices in the Israeli political, military, and intelligence establishment arguing that Israel should not wage a preemptive attack on Iran at all for a variety of reasons. When one adds up all these factors, it is rather clear that no such attack is imminent.