July 27, 2004
Israel may be compelled to pre-emptBy Rachel Neuwirth
Iran is moving rapidly to become a nuclear power. The Iranian mullahs have publicly promised to use nuclear weapons to exterminate Israel even if Israel were to achieve peace with the Palestinians. They also claim that Iran, with 70 million people, could absorb and survive any response from Israel while Israel, with only 5.5 million Jews, is vulnerable to devastating losses if only a few of Iran's missiles got through.
Each time these Iranian threats were announced, the U.S. administration failed to issue any statement in opposition. (When Saddam Hussein earlier vowed to 'burn half of Israel' the US administration also remained silent.) The Iranian mullahs could not fail to notice the significant American silence and to draw conclusions. They can also note that Israel is outside NATO and has no mutual defense treaty with the U.S. If Iran attacks Israel they need not fear any U.S. response.
All of Israel's past experiences with America and the U.N. underscore the reality of Israel's isolation and vulnerability. Some examples:
At its birth Israel totally accepted the U.N. partition resolution. The Arabs rejected that resolution and attacked the new state, attempting to destroy it at birth. The U.N. failed to help Israel and America imposed a regional arms embargo, which only affected Israel because the Arabs were already well—armed. Israel survived only due to its own sacrifice and would have perished if it depended upon the U.N. and the U.S. There was no subsequent punishment or even criticism for Arab aggression.
In 1967 Egypt and Syria were openly poised to launch an unprovoked attack to 'drive the Jews into the sea' as Gamal Abdul Nasser vowed. There was no strong U.S. warning to Egypt and Syria not to attack. Instead the U.S. urged Israel not to pre—empt and to wait on U.S. diplomacy. When it became clear that U.S. diplomacy was failing and Israel could face catastrophic losses if the Arabs were allowed to strike first, Israel was forced to pre—empt. Again there was no subsequent punishment or even criticism for Arab aggression.
In 1973 Egypt and Syria again were openly poised to launch an unprovoked attack on Israel. And again there was no U.S. warning to Egypt and Syria not to attack. But this time Secretary of State Henry Kissinger did not just urge Israel 'not to fire the first shot,' he warned Israel not to pre—empt and to not even mobilize, lest it face the loss of American support, and then have to face Egypt and Syria backed by Russia and be left all on her own. Israel obeyed, was attacked, and almost lost that war while sustaining horrendous loss of life and suffering a brutal blow to its economy. Again there was no subsequent punishment or even criticism for Arab aggression.
These examples illustrate an ongoing pattern of U.S. behavior from Israel's birth until this day. The Arabs are always free to commit aggression and launch repeated attempts to destroy Israel without facing punishment or even criticism. It appears that the U.S. will always act to restrain Israel from exercising its full right of self—defense but will never act decisively to blunt Arab aggression. If Israel obeys U.S. pressure it could gravely endanger its security but if it acts in legitimate self—defense it could face U.S. punishment because of a consistent U.S. double standard.
Today the Iranian threat poses the greatest danger ever, because even a single nuclear missile reaching an Israeli population center could cause catastrophic damage and casualties. The U.S., the U.N. and the Europeans are also concerned, but only because Iranian nukes could also endanger them. However, they have so far failed to generate a sufficient collective response to guarantee that the ongoing Iranian quest for nuclear weapons will be halted and dismantled in time.
The U.S. is the lead player in all this and recent reports suggest that President Bush is unlikely to act until after the November election, assuming that he is re—elected, and that there is still enough time left to act. Note that President Bush, after Iraq, is now gun shy about pre—emption and he has announced no deadline for Iran to terminate its nuclear program.
Perhaps the West believes that Israel is their free insurance policy. They may prefer to have Israel take out Iran's nuclear facilities for them, as in 1981 when Israel bombed the Iraqi reactor. This means that Israel takes all the risk, Israel takes all the blame and the other nations benefit for free. The U.S. and the other nations still want to avoid alienating more Muslims and want to appear 'even handed' concerning Israel. Bluntly put, the survival of Israel may be desirable for the nations, but not at any cost in jeopardizing their essential oil supplies and facing increased enmity among the world's Muslims.
It is not unreasonable to speculate that the U.S. and Europe may have decided to wait and let Israel be forced to pre—empt and do their dirty work, and hopefully be successful. But if something goes wrong they can always claim plausible deniability and join in the denunciation and possible punishment against Israel to appease the Arabs. It has happed before after the 1981 Israeli attack on the Iraqi reactor.
Another possibility is for the U.S. and Europe to reluctantly allow Iran to go nuclear in the same way that we allowed North Korea to go nuclear while downplaying the real threat. And once they do go nuclear to then say that they have become too dangerous to attack and now we must negotiate — just as with North Korea which signed agreements, accepted U.S. aid and then secretly violated their agreement and brazenly announced their nuclear capability. We have established the pattern and Iran can simply follow suit.
Iran will then have additional options besides overt missile attack. They could build mini nukes and secretly distribute them to various terrorists for smuggling into target countries to be used against Israel and the West while adamantly denying all culpability. Heavy Western pressure might be put on Israel, including possible threats, to not pre—empt and to rely on their missile defense. This approach may appeal to the West because it simply plays for time and avoids having to take unpleasant decisions today that could upset their voters in the next election.
What is the military option? Retired Air Force and Army Generals, Thomas McInerney and Paul E. Vallely wrote the book, Endgame: The Blueprint for Victory in the War on Terror. At a recent lecture they claimed that the U.S. has the military capability to effectively take out the nuclear facilities of both North Korea and of Iran and can reach facilities buried deep underground. They stated that American capabilities are much greater than Israel's. If that is true then it is primarily a U.S. political decision rather than one of military capability.
There are further complications if Israel feels compelled to pre—empt. Unlike Iraq in 1981 Iran's facilities are buried underground, dispersed and well protected with air defenses. Israel may not be able to readily neutralize these facilities. Iran also had ample time to develop a counter strategy to deter Israel that may include Syria's launching chemical and biological attacks on Israel combined with Iranian—backed Hezbolla attacks on northern Israel. If Israel is forced to pre—empt, other Arab countries may join in a general attack on Israel. This would rapidly create an entirely new situation that could escalate out of control. In such a situation Israel may be forced to use some of its nuclear weapons. (Note that prior to the invasion of Iraq, the U.S. publicly reserved the right to use tactical nuclear weapons if required.) A worst—case scenario could also include an oil embargo and even destruction of some oil fields resulting in major damage to Western economies. Thus a Western policy that results in Israel feeling gravely threatened and forced to pre—empt could backfire severely against Western interests.
There is also the question of knowing just how close Iran is to having the bomb. Keep in mind how often Western and U.S. intelligence have been wrong in the past. There has also been a tendency to underestimate the capabilities of rogue nations and their ability to deceive. We were fooled by North Korea and then surprised at their progress. After the 1991 Iraq war we were surprised at how close Saddam was to having a nuclear bomb. He fooled us again by moving his nuclear weapons program to Libya while we were still searching in Iraq. We only found out when Momar Khadaffi decided to come clean. And Iran insists its program is only for non—military purposes that legally allow it to progress just short of weapons level. If all their nuclear components are fabricated but unassembled, they may be able to assemble them suddenly and then announce they are now a nuclear power. We know they are also acquiring more and better missiles as delivery systems. We may tell Israel that there is still plenty of time to act but we have little credibility, and Israel can also suspect that we may be lying just to restrain her for our own convenience.
There are still other complicating factors, including the paranoia of the Iranian mullahs who may also act irrationally in response to their own fears, both real and imagined. Nevertheless the Iranian bomb must be stopped. The best way is to mobilize a solid Western front plus any other international support, with an ultimatum to Iran combined with support for Iran's large internal opposition. This will require America to lead with more firmness and more wisdom than we have seen in the past. Any perceived weakness by our side will only serve to increase the defiance of the Iranian mullahs.
In summary, it is definitely not in American or Western interests to leave Israel with no other security option except to pre—empt and thus open Pandora's Box of horrors. The longer we wait to act the higher the stakes and the greater the danger. And to again push this problem into the future may be the worst option of all.