Later this week in Baghdad, Iranian representatives will meet with their Western counterparts to discuss Iran’s nuclear program. For the West, the conference objective is a verifiable agreement that ensures Iran will end any pursuit of nuclear weapons. Iran’s conference objectives are less clear. While a diplomatic outcome to this crisis is still possible, if the Baghdad talks fail, I believe that Netanyahu is likely to launch a military attack on Iran’s nuclear infrastructure within six months.
The rationale for a six-month timeline comes from my assessment of three key factors that underpin Netanyahu’s strategic calculus with regard to Iran. These factors are as follows: First, Netanyahu’s belief that preventing Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons is a necessity. Second, the Israeli PM’s consideration of a closing window of time in which an Israeli strike could be successful. Third, Netanyahu’s belief in Israel’s military capacity to successfully degrade Iran’s nuclear program and contain the possible Iranian retaliation that might follow such an attack.
The first factor — Netanyahu’s perception of necessity — represents an Israeli policy notion that is stationary and non-evolving. Put simply, Israeli prime ministers have always regarded an Iranian nuclear weapon as an existential and thus an unacceptable risk. While Iran’s foreign policy is rooted in an imbued hatred toward Israel, Israeli threat perception is magnified by Israel’s small size and population. Israel has just over 7.5 million citizens, many of whom live in localized urban areas. The impact of even one nuclear explosion on Israeli soil would be catastrophic. Alongside this physical conception of threat, Israeli security strategy also rests on the emotional, psychological legacy of the Holocaust. This is a legacy with a creed: “never again.”
These physical and psychological understandings underpin Netanyahu’s attitude toward Iran. We must remember that this is not just “paper analysis,” it is analysis evidenced by precedent. It is this Israeli perception of necessity that led to anti-nuclear strikes against Iraq in 1981 and against Syria in 2007. In both cases, Israel risked retaliation and international condemnation, and did so without knowing whether the missions would succeed.
The second factor — the issue of timing — is equally important. While most Western intelligence analysts believe that Iran will be unable to produce a nuclear weapon for a number of years, top officials in Netanyahu’s circle view Iran’s nuclear program with much greater temporal concern. The urgency on the part of these officials stems from their concern that Iran’s nuclear infrastructure is becoming increasingly diffuse, hardened against attack and possessive of redundant capabilities. Israeli policymakers fear that if a military operation were to be delayed too much, any future operation would, at best, offer a weak or negligible outcome. While the U.S. has sought to alleviate these concerns, I doubt Netanyahu believes that Obama would authorize U.S. military involvement in an attack against Iran. This makes U.S. statements effectively moot and reinforces Netanyahu’s stated understanding that at least with regard to Iran, Israeli security ultimately relies upon him alone. Illustrative of this, Netanyahu has made no effort to support the current nuclear negotiations.
Let us now consider the third and final factor: Netanyahu’s belief in Israel’s capability to successfully launch a military operation against Iran and to absorb the retaliatory consequences that might follow such an attack. Contrary to the arguments of some, Israel does have the capacity to attack Iran and withdraw. Israeli pilots regularly train for long-duration missions and the Israeli Air Force possesses advanced bunker-buster munitions. In addition, the deep, abiding hostility that underpins the Iranian relationship with many of Iran’s Sunni Arab neighbors means that Israel might find passive regional support for any operation. It is, for example, possible to imagine a situation in which Saudi Arabia gives tacit over-flight clearance to the Israeli Air Force during an operation. Such clearance would enable Israeli bombers to reach Iran, hit their targets and then refuel over Saudi airspace on the way home.
Netanyahu also believes that any Iranian retaliation would be containable. From Netanyahu’s perspective, while Iran would likely unleash Hezbollah rocket cells in southern Lebanon and attempt to conduct covert operations against Israeli/Jewish interests globally, these actions would be unlikely to cause severe loss of Israeli life. Whatever he might say in public, Netanyahu believes that Iran would be rational in its retaliatory calculations — that Iran would seek to strike a balance between retaliation that causes damage to Israel and severe retaliation, which, because of its impact, would invite regime-threatening counter-retaliation from the United States. For example, if Iran were to attempt to mine the Straits of Hormuz or to attack U.S. interests in the region, while oil markets would rocket in the very short term, Iran would be unable to maintain such action for any substantial period. In addition, Iran understands that if it took such action, the U.S. would likely inflict severe losses on Iranian military capabilities and perhaps even against Iranian government power.
Crucially, both Israel and Iran understand that the U.S. would not be a passive actor if Iran were to conduct major rather than minor retaliatory action. In this sense, U.S. military capabilities liberalize Israeli action while restraining Iranian action.
While we should not write off chances for a deal with Iran, we must also understand the Israeli strategic calculation that an Iranian nuclear weapon is absolutely unacceptable. Netanyahu believes that time is running out and that a military option still remains available. Unlike the legal analytical mentality of the leaders of many of Israel’s allies, as a former Special Forces soldier, Netanyahu is comfortable acting on instinct and risk. The Israeli prime minister cares little about Obama’s concerns over what impact an Israeli strike might pose for the U.S. president’s re-election prospects.
I believe that in Netanyahu’s eyes, a failure in Baghdad to reach a basis for a credible deal would constitute a new Munich moment, a moment in which Netanyahu would feel he had to choose between becoming Israel’s Chamberlain and becoming Israel’s Churchill. This polarized choice might well be false, but in the end, policy is made by the policymaker.
If diplomacy is to succeed in Iraq this week, the diplomats must act with urgency and skill.
Tom Rogan is an American blogger and writer currently studying in London, England. He holds a BA in War Studies from King’s College London and an MSc in Middle East Politics from SOAS, London. His blog can be found at TomRoganThinks.com.