What Happens After Israel Attacks Iran
This article is part of a Foreign Affairs package: The Iran Debate -- To Strike or Not to Strike? (lrargerich / flickr)
Since its birth in 1948, Israel has launched numerous preemptive military strikes against its foes. In 1981 and 2007, it destroyed the nuclear reactors of Iraq and Syria, operations that did not lead to war. But now, Israelis are discussing the possibility of another preemptive attack -- against Iran -- that might result in a wider conflict.
The public debate in Israel about whether Jerusalem should order a strike on Iran’s nuclear program is surprisingly frank. Politicians and policymakers often discuss the merits of an attack in public; over the past year, for example, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak have sparred regularly and openly with former Mossad director Meir Dagan, the most prominent opponent of an Israeli operation. But much of the conversation is focused on whether Israel should strike, not on what might happen if it does -- in other words, the result on the “day after.”
Indeed, the analysis in Israel about the possible effects of a bombing campaign against Iran is limited to a small, professional elite, mostly in government and behind closed doors. This intimate circle that does consider scenarios of the “day after” concentrates almost exclusively on what an Iranian response, direct or through proxies, might look like. This is not surprising, given that Israel must worry first and foremost about the immediate military implications of an Iranian counterattack. But in doing so, Israeli policymakers are ignoring several of the potential longer-term aspects of a strike: the preparedness of Israel’s home front; the contours of an Israeli exit strategy; the impact on U.S.-Israel relations; the global diplomatic fallout; the stability of world energy markets; and the outcome within Iran itself. Should Israel fail to openly debate and account for these factors in advance of an attack, it may end up with a strategic debacle, even if it achieves its narrow military goals.
Israeli officials have thought extensively about how the first moves of a military conflict between Jerusalem and Tehran might play out. Ephraim Kam, a former Israeli military intelligence officer and deputy head of Israel’s Institute for National Security Studies (INSS), reflected the general consensus in the security establishment when he wrote in the Institute’s 2010 strategic assessment that Iran may respond in two possible ways to an Israeli operation: missile strikes on Israel, either directly or through allied organizations such as Hezbollah or Hamas; or terror attacks, likely on Israeli targets abroad by Iranians or those proxy groups.
A direct Iranian response would involve a missile barrage from Iran onto Israeli territory, similar to the volley of rockets launched at Israel by Iraq during the first Gulf War. Only one Israeli citizen died then, and it seems that Israeli officials estimate that the damage of a similar Iranian strike would be greater, but still limited. This past November, Ehud Barak, referring to possible direct and proxy-based Iranian retaliation, said that “There is no scenario for 50,000 dead, or 5,000 killed -- and if everyone stays in their homes, maybe not even 500 dead.” Barak’s calm also reflects Israel’s previous experience in preempting nuclear threats. Iraq did not respond when Israel destroyed its nuclear facility in 1981, disproving the doomsday predictions made by several Israeli experts prior to the strike, and Syria remained silent when Israel bombed its nascent reactor in 2007.
Israeli policymakers also do not seem particularly concerned about the prospect of a proxy response. They recognize that Hezbollah, as it did in 2006, can target Israel with a large number of rockets. Yet in an interview with Ronen Bergman in The New York Times late last month, several Israeli experts argued that, regardless of a potential battle with Iran, the probability of an extended conflict with Hezbollah is already high. According to this logic, an attack on Iran would merely hasten the inevitable and might actually be easier to sustain before, not after, Iran acquires nuclear weapons. In addition, the new constraints now operating against Hezbollah -- the ongoing revolt in Syria chief among them -- might even limit the ability of the organization to harm Israel in a future conflict. Indeed, over the past several months, the Secretary General of Hezbollah, Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah, has emphasized the group’s independence, saying on February 7 that “the Iranian leadership will not ask Hezbollah to do anything. On [the day of an Israeli attack on Iran], we will sit, think, and decide what we will do.”
- Page 1of 3