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Why Israel Won’t Attack Iran

Zachary Keck lists [1] the reasons why Israel isn’t going to attack Iran. One reason is that an attack would be harmful to Israel:

Meanwhile, a strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities would leave Israel in a far worse-off position. Were Iran to respond by attacking U.S. regional assets, this could greatly hurt Israel’s ties with the United States at both the elite and mass levels. Indeed, a war-weary American public is adamantly opposed to its own leaders dragging it into another conflict in the Middle East. Americans would be even more hostile to an ally taking actions that they fully understood would put the U.S. in danger.

Keck also notes that an attack would give Iran a significant boost in international sympathy while wrecking nascent cooperation with regional Arab governments. The most important relationships that Israel has around the world would be strained by an attack, since virtually every government would be obliged to denounce their illegal and (as far as most of the world is concerned) unnecessary military action. Even if some of these governments tacitly supported an attack, they could not say so publicly, and they would be at pains to deny claims that they privately agreed with the action. An attack on Iran gains Israel virtually nothing in the short term at potentially very high cost over the longer term.

That may help to explain why Netanyahu has so little support within the Israeli national security establishment for attacking Iran. Keck continues:

Many former top intelligence and military officials have spoken out publicly against Netanyahu’s hardline Iran policy, with at least one of them questioning whether Iran is actually seeking a nuclear weapon.

This may be the most important reason why an Israeli attack is so very unlikely: too many of the people tasked with the responsibility for carrying it out don’t believe that it is worth doing. Unless that changes dramatically in the next year or so, it seems very unlikely that Israel would assume all the risks of starting a war with Iran.

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18 Comments To "Why Israel Won’t Attack Iran"

#1 Comment By Richard Parker On December 2, 2013 @ 1:38 am

It is time for Peace with the People of Iran. Only some of the ruling and babbling classes of Israel wants war.

#2 Comment By CharleyCarp On December 2, 2013 @ 2:09 am

There’s probably some benefit to the process from Netanyahu’s opposition to any deal, and to some loose talk about attacks from people without responsibilities. So long as the countries that matter take yes for an answer when the time comes (assuming that there’s a deal in six months . . .) this stuff just helps the optics for proponents of the deal in Iran.

#3 Comment By Dan Davis On December 2, 2013 @ 4:27 am

The only Americans who would be thrilled by an attack on Iran would be the usual grab bag of neocons and Christian Dispensationalists eager to jumpstart Armageddon.

#4 Comment By Puller58 On December 2, 2013 @ 6:34 am

Of course Israel will not attack Iran. The preferred course of action is to coerce the US into doing it. The infamous PNAC manifesto and the rogues gallery of signators has always been confused on the issue of Iraq vs Iran as military goals. The people who wanted to invade Iraq in part wanted to use it as a base of operations against Iran, whereas other people wanted Iran attacked instead of Iraq. As it is, Iran remains a bogeyman that Israel’s politicians use to keep the Israeli public cowed into voting for Likud coalition governments.

#5 Comment By TomB On December 2, 2013 @ 10:01 am

There’s a sort of condign symmetry behind this question: While of course the Israelis have been saying that the problem with Iran is that its leadership is not rational, the same question might be asked of Israel’s leadership.

As Keck and Larison note there’s all sorts of downsides for Israel to attack, and then even on the upside there’s the fact that any attack would seem to have only time-limited effects and then, even if Iran wasn’t wanting a bomb beforehand, any such attack would certainly make them crazy to not want one afterwards.

But then there’s the bigger rationality issue that really should seal the deal for the Israelis: After all, if they really really thought that Iran was likely to acquire nuke weapons and then use them willy-nilly the rational response for Israel would be to immediately hop on the idea of stringently verifiable Nuke-Free Mideast Accord such as Iran and many if not all others in the region have already said they’d sign as same would provide Israel *total* protection from any Iranian bomb, as well as from any others bombs in the region too.

That Israel has *not* hopped onto this at all however can only seem to mean that they’ve been bluffing about fearing an irrational Iran.

Nevertheless, certainly they’d love to see the *U.S.* bomb Iran, and keep bombing it, but the real reason is just simply because otherwise if Iran gets a bomb of course it could constrict the Israelis future freedom of action in some unknown ways. Restrain it possibly from going all-out agaist Hezbullah, or invading Syria, or going to war against Egypt, or etc., etc.

The question thus is whether Israel is going to stick with this rational calculus, or surrender to the irrational hysterics it no doubt has in its leadership, and I doubt the latter. No Israeli PM on his own can launch a war it should be remembered: They have a war cabinet that must all agree before same as I understand it.

In my estimation then we are going to see that Israel has been bluffing all along: It won’t attack Iran itself. At least not now when Iran being closer to a bomb presents only a theoretical limitation on its freedom of action.

But, Israel also has to face another rationality and that is that so long as it possesses nuke weapons, it’s only logical that others in the region might well come to really want them too someday and can never really be trusted otherwise no matter what they say now.

And thus the answer to what is perhaps the biggest question for Israel which is whether it is ever going to live again with the threat of nukes being used against it being reduced to almost nothing overwhelmingly depends on nobody other than Israel itself.

#6 Comment By reflectionephemeral On December 2, 2013 @ 12:39 pm

This is a fine argument that Netanyahu would be irrational, from a long-term strategic standpoint, to attack Iran.

That is not the same thing as an argument that Netanyahu won’t attack Iran.

(And an attack might be in his short-term interests as well. The US military and intelligence establishment was not at all enthusiastic about invading Iraq, but we did it anyway).

#7 Comment By Divest from War On December 2, 2013 @ 2:49 pm

It is not clear if the Israeli establishment gives one hoot about the public opinion in the US. Why should they when their minions have “the Best Congress Money Can Buy” in their back pockets, and the media is too afraid of crossing them, for fear of being called anti-semitic.

So the US public (who are indeed opposed to this madness) are left without a voice. Unless we speak up in a different way, for example by pledging to Boycott Israel and Israeli Products if Israel attacks Iran:


Even those who do agree with Zachary Keck’s argument, are urged to sign this pledge, just in case!

#8 Comment By KXB On December 2, 2013 @ 3:35 pm

Over the Thanksgiving weekend, I had the chance to re-read Trita Parsi’s excellent book “Treacherous Alliance” – a book that goes into great detail about the working relationship between Israel and Iran during the Cold War, and even after the Khomeini revolution. Israel, being vastly outnumbered by their Arab neighbors, always sought an alliance with Iran, and other nations on the periphery of the Middle East, such as Turkey and Ethiopia.

During the Shah’s rule, Iran used Israeli know how in technical matters, and as a way to work with the U.S. But Iran never came out in full support of the Jewish state, mindful of how that would go down with the Muslim world.

After the Shah fell, Iran found itself surrounded by hostile Arab states, leading up to the invasion by Iraq. The U.S., still furious at the hostages in our embassy, were loathe to see anyone deal with Tehran. But Israel still believed it had a channel to Tehran, and would sell weapons to help them fight Saddam’s army.

But, with the end of the Cold War, Israel quickly realized its value to the U.S. was diminished, but it still had real security needs. Israel believed its security rested with its military hegemony, not in settling differences. A nuclear Iran would not threaten Israel’s existence, but it would threaten Israel’s military hegemony. Just as a weaker but nuclear-armed Pakistan can check India’s retaliation, so a weaker, but nuclear-armed Iran can limit Israel’s current dominance of the Middle East. That is what they are so nervous about.

#9 Comment By EarlyBird On December 2, 2013 @ 4:34 pm

Most Israelis don’t believe this deal with Iran will do anything to derail Iran’s nuclear weapons program, yet most Israelis are against an Israel attack on Iran, according to polls. Support slips further when the scenario includes such an attack being done with US backing.

All which begs the question: what would be so bad with Iran getting the bomb? Regardless of the mullahs’ rancid rhetoric about “wiping Israel off the map,” the only nation facing an existential crisis there at the moment is Iran, who has lived under the threat of US-led regime change for decades now. Makes you wonder if the cover of nuclear weapons would put the lie to the mullah’s paranoid security state and require them to evolve.

#10 Comment By EarlyBird On December 2, 2013 @ 4:36 pm

I meant to so write, “an Israeli attack down withOUT US backing.”

#11 Comment By NB On December 2, 2013 @ 5:06 pm

I agree that Israel is unlikely to attack Iran in the near term, as the new agreement must be given a chance to work. However, it is not clear that the following is true (as claimed above):
“Indeed, a war-weary American public is adamantly opposed to its own leaders dragging it into another conflict in the Middle East.” for example:
64% of Americans say it is important to prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons even if it means taking military action:

#12 Comment By T. Sledge On December 2, 2013 @ 5:16 pm

Bibi wants so badly to be the hero that his older brother Yonathan, who was killed in the Entebbe Raid, genuinely was, that he is willing to risk WW III to be so.

To hell with all the former Mossad and Shin Bet leaders who say that an attack on Iran is not only unwise but also unnecessary; Bibi is determined to play out his sibling envy drama, even if it results in chaos in the Middle East.

Either we are to believe that Bibi and his Bibettes (American neocons) know more about the risk that Iran poses to Israel than a dozen high ranking former intelligence officers, who spent most of their lives defending Israel, or we have to conclude that Bibi is totally delusional (we ALREADY know that the Bibettes are not merely delusional, but outright deranged).

#13 Comment By James Canning On December 2, 2013 @ 6:06 pm

I think Netanyahu comprehends that Obama would not allow Iran to build nukes, or to get too close to ability to build nukes quickly.

#14 Comment By Crist On December 2, 2013 @ 7:14 pm

I enjoy reading the comments left on this site pertaining to the articles I read. I find them astute, prudent and well thought-out. That being said I would like to propose a question; might one reason Iran would want to acquire nuclear weapons be, as they are predominately Shi`a and surrounded by predominately Sunni nations, to stave off any aggression from any radical or extreme Sunni regime bent on their destruction? I look forward to your responses.

#15 Comment By a spencer On December 2, 2013 @ 9:12 pm

Israel’s existential threats are, in no particular order:
water resources

Iran has little to do with it, except as a distraction.

Jews, Arabs and Persians have lived together in the Middle East for a long time and will continue to do so.

#16 Comment By EngineerScotty On December 2, 2013 @ 10:22 pm

Attacking Iran would be a massive undertaking for the Israeli military; if for not other reason than the distance involved; and at least two countries (Syria/Iraq, Jordan/Iraq, or Jordan/Saudi Arabia) territories to cross. IIRC, the planes they possess that can deliver significant ordnance to take out hardened Iranian targets, lack sufficient range to reach Iran and return, so a refueling operation would be necessary. The logistics of this would be daunting.

And that’s ignoring the fact that Iran has competent air defenses, unlike Iraq or any of Israel’s immediate neighbors.

There’s a good reason that Bibi wants the US to be involved; the US is one of a handful of countries that has the capability to do so. Obama, surely, knows this.

#17 Comment By Ken_L On December 2, 2013 @ 10:54 pm

If Israel was willing to take military action, it’s hard to see why they would not have done it by last year at the latest. Their strategy has always been to foster bad relations between Iran on the one hand and the USA/Europe on the other, in the hope that will be enough to prevent anyone challenging their regional superpower status.

If the improbable really happens, and Iran manages to satisfy the 5+1 that it has no nuclear weapons program, the logical next step would be to turn global attention to eliminating Israel’s WMDs. They are the factor that will inevitably tend to encourage an arms race in the region, sooner or later. It’s natural that the Israeli government is desperate to avoid becoming the focus of disarmament efforts but that doesn’t mean America should agree.

#18 Comment By cameyer On December 2, 2013 @ 10:59 pm

Canning:I think Netanyahu comprehends that Obama would not allow Iran to build nukes, or to get too close to ability to build nukes quickly.

I think Iran comprehends that Iran won’t give Obama a reason to ‘take military action’ against it.

NB: Chicago GLobal Affairs Council showed 70% of Americans opposed US bombing Iran without international support. Presumably, that means the UN. This was their 2012 survey of American opinion on international issues. The 2013 one should be out soon.