After an Israeli Strike on Iran
by Daniel Pipes
Translations of this item:
[N.B.: This version differs slightly from the Washington Times text]
How will Iranians respond to an Israeli strike against their nuclear infrastructure? The answers to this prediction matters greatly, affecting not just Jerusalem's decision but also how much other states work to impede an Israeli strike.
Analysts generally offer up best-case predictions for policies of deterrence and containment (some commentators even go so far as to welcome an Iranian nuclear capability) while forecasting worst-case results from a strike. They foresee Tehran doing everything possible to retaliate, such as kidnapping, terrorism, missile attacks, naval combat, and closing the Strait of Hormuz. These predictions ignore two facts: neither of Israel's prior strikes against enemy states building nuclear weapons, Iraq in 1981 and Syria in 2007, prompted retaliation; and a review the Islamic Republic of Iran's history since 1979 points to "a more measured and less apocalyptic—if still sobering—assessment of the likely aftermath of a preventive strike."
The mullahs, in other words, face serious limits on their ability to retaliate, including military weakness and a pressing need not to make yet more external enemies. With these guidelines in place, Eisenstadt and Knights consider eight possible Iranian actions, each of which must be assessed while keeping in mind the alternative – namely, apocalyptic Islamists controlling nuclear weapons:
The authors also consider three potential side effects of an Israeli strike. Yes, Iranians might rally to their government in the immediate aftermath of a strike, but in the longer term Tehran "could be criticized for handling the nuclear dossier in a way that led to military confrontation." The so-called Arab street is perpetually predicted to rise up in response to outside military attack, but it never does; likely unrest among the Shi'a of the Persian Gulf would be counterbalanced by the many Arabs quietly cheering the Israelis. As for leaving the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty and starting an overt crash nuclear weapons program, while "a very real possibility," the more the Iranians retaliate, the harder they will find it to obtain the parts for such a program.
In all, these dangers are unpleasant but not cataclysmic, manageable not devastating. Eisenstadt and Knights expect a short phase of high-intensity Iranian response, to be followed by a "protracted low intensity conflict that could last for months or even years" – much as already exists between Iran and Israel. An Israeli preventive strike, they conclude, while a "high-risk endeavor carrying a potential for escalation in the Levant or the Gulf, … would not be the apocalyptic event some foresee."
This analysis makes a convincing case that the danger of nuclear weapons falling into Iranian hands far exceeds the danger of a military strike to prevent that from happening.
Oct. 23, 2012 update: Ehud Eilam of Israel Defense magazine considers whether Hizballah and Hamas would "join Iran in a war against Israel" and is skeptical:
Nov. 4, 2012 update: Israel's Institute for National Security Studies held a war game premised on a successful attack taking place five days from now and looking at the two days following such an attack. The results?
Oct. 1, 2013 update: Amos Yadlin and Avner Golov of Israel's Institute for National Security Studies ask "If Attacked, How Would Iran Respond?" in the current issue of Strategic Assessment. In reply, they challenge the commonly held Western view of increased sectarian conﬂict and regional war and instead conclude that Iranian retaliation will be limited in impact.
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