Noah Millman doesn’t think the danger of Iranian retaliation would dissuade Israel from attacking:
From an Israeli perspective, a strike on Iran would be a defensive act – perhaps wise, perhaps unwise, but in either case a response to an Iranian provocation, and not an act of aggression.
Needless to say, Iran would perceive it as an unprovoked and blatantly illegal act of aggression, and might well respond, as it has threatened, with rocket attacks. But Israel would not perceive these attacks as justified retaliation against its aggression – it would perceive them as further evidence of Iran’s hostility.
It shouldn’t really matter whether or not the Israeli government sees an attack on Iran as a form of “anticipatory self-defense” (or whatever euphemism for unprovoked war we’re using these days). The cost-benefit analysis should be the same: if it’s true that Israel is unprepared to cope with retaliatory strikes that would almost certainly follow an attack on Iran, and if it’s true that an Israeli strike would delay Iran’s nuclear program by a few years at most, the costs still outweigh the benefits regardless of how justified the government believes it is. Obviously, advocates of preventive war always think that they’re justified in striking at potential threats. That doesn’t immunize their states from the adverse consequences of these actions, and by all accounts the Israeli military appears to be well-aware of the adverse consequences that attacking Iran would have.
By the same token, Western public rhetoric about attacking Iran and “keeping all options on the table” might make the Iranian government think that it had nothing to lose by striking first at the states that are very publicly threatening it. That doesn’t actually make subsequent Iranian attacks defensive in nature, and it doesn’t make the risks of U.S. and Israeli retaliation any less serious. No one cares if a government believes its “preventive” war is justified unless the government eliminates the threat it is supposedly preventing. If the threat isn’t eliminated (or, in the case of Iraq, does not exist), there are still military and political costs for the government to pay.
If Noah is right that “Israelis do not, in general, think very far into the future – take care of today’s problems, and let tomorrow worry about tomorrow, is the national attitude,” that makes it even harder to believe that Israel would attack Iran in the hopes of delaying a nuclear program that might someday lead to a nuclear weapon. The case for Israeli “preventive” war against Iran is based on the assumption that Israel cannot “let tomorrow worry about tomorrow,” but that Israel must worry about tomorrow’s problems right now before it is “too late.” If Israelis don’t “think very far into the future,” wouldn’t that make the Israeli government more concerned about the prospect of Iranian retaliation in the short term?
If the U.S. joined Israel in an attack on Iran, I suspect that the reaction here at home would be colored very much by the public’s prior views about whether the U.S. ought to be involved in an Israeli-Iranian war. According to Rasmussen, 48% favor helping Israel under such circumstances, while 37% prefer the U.S. do nothing, 13% are unsure, and 2% want to help Iran. Americans in favor of U.S. support for Israel in such a war would indeed see Iranian retaliation as proof of Iranian villainy. That doesn’t make things any better for the American military and diplomatic personnel that will be targeted in the event of a war with Iran. I would like to think that the adverse consequences for U.S. forces in the region would be more important to U.S. policymakers than how the public would react to U.S. involvement in another unnecessary war.
P.S. If the Israeli military has a recent record of being unprepared for more straightforward military campaigns in neighboring Lebanon and Gaza, why is the Israeli government going to believe that it is capable of pulling off a difficult, risky air attack on the other side of the region? Wouldn’t the experience of the 2006 Lebanon war discourage Israeli leaders from launching a war against Iran? Bush rejected requests for aid that would have helped Israel attack Iran, and that was probably informed by the administration view that attacking Iran was a bad idea. Is Obama more likely than Bush to give Israel a green light?