Cenk Sidar Potential Israeli Strike on Iran: Assessment and Geopolitical Scenarios
August 27, 2012


As the international talks on Iran’s nuclear program have all but failed, and sanctions have not persuaded Tehran to back down, the possibility of an Israeli strike on Iranian nuclear facilities looms larger on the global agenda. While the rumors of an attack have been circulating for several months, recent statements by senior Israeli officials and the current geopolitical climate are early warning signs that an attack might be more likely than ever. Amidst the Syrian crisis, the ongoing struggles of the global economy, and the upcoming US presidential elections, such an action would have severe political and financial repercussions around the world. If such an attack would be bad news for Iran, it would in some ways be worse for the US, Turkey, and the world’s financial markets. The global community shall take steps to prevent an event that could plunge the Middle East into deeper chaos.

Amid the current impasse, questions persist about Iran’s real intentions. While Tehran continues to assert that its nuclear program is for civilian purposes only, the reluctance of the government to discuss potential solutions that would limit Iran’s nuclear capability for civilian purposes short of military objectives proves the Israeli claims that the program’s goal is to build a weapon. International sanctions levied as a result of this have taken their toll on the Iranian economy. The country’s oil exports have fallen to record lows, and the Iranian currency has lost half of its value. Soaring costs of food and other staples have made life difficult for average Iranians. SGA analysts monitoring social media platforms and Iran-focused websites are picking up strong signs that sanctions are starting to take their toll on the Iranian population, although it remains to be seen what effect, if any, public opinion will have on official policy. It seems that the Iranian government sees nuclear capability as a means to protect itself, even at the cost of its own people. There is also a national security aspect, as officials recall Saddam Hussein’s inability to build a nuclear weapon before his regime in Iraq fell to the US-led coalition. As a result, the government has made no changes to its nuclear policy; to the contrary, recent reports suggest that Iran has sped up uranium enrichment by installing hundreds of new centrifuges in recent months. There are signs that Iran is focused on enriching uranium to a level of 20 percent, making it easier for the country to build a nuclear bomb.

Considering the mistrust between the two countries and the failure of diplomacy, Israel seems convinced that the only way to contain Iranian hostility is a serious threat of using force. Even though such an attack might not terminate the Iranian nuclear program for good, it would postpone the acquisition of nuclear weapons, probably for another five years. It would also open a new window of potential regime change.

Israel would prefer to have US support in launching a strike, but President Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu disagree at this point on whether it is necessary.  Although still trying to lobby Washington for military support, Israeli officials seem resigned to the fact, supported by recent Obama administration statements, that the US will not give them a green light. Instead, Israel is prepared to do it alone, and its geopolitical and technical calculations make the chance of an Israeli military strike before November quite high. In addition, recent internal debates in Israel indicate that hawkish arguments are gaining ground fast.  

While experts estimate Iran would need at least two years to develop a warhead that could be used with a missile, Iran has been expanding its nuclear complex near Qom to put key facilities deeper underground, making it difficult for Israeli forces to pinpoint targets. Within a few months, it is believed, Israeli military capabilities will not be sufficient to destroy the facilities; at that point Israel would need the assistance of the US military to successfully carry out the intended mission. Given the Obama administration’s strong objection to an attack, Israeli policymakers might be calculating the potential benefits of organizing a unilateral attack while they can still do significant damage on their own. If they wait until past November or into the new year, they believe, it will be too late.

Many Israelis are rightly convinced that the US will never agree to such an operation. The White House has made it clear on numerous occasions that it does not want Israel to attack Iran, especially as the presidential election looms, and would rather give more time for diplomacy and sanctions to work. Simply put, US policymakers do not like the idea of being held hostage to Netanyahu’s timeline. At the same time, though, the Israeli rationale rests on the assumption that once an attack is launched, the Obama administration will have to support Israel to ensure it does not lose critical votes in the election.

If the attack takes place today, Iran’s reaction is likely to be limited. It does not have adequate military capability to hit Israeli cities, and its decreasing economic powers suggest that using proxies will be more difficult. Embroiled in civil war, Syria would not be able to come to its ally’s aid. While Iran’s response will certainly be asymmetrical through the use of Hezbollah and Hamas, those groups have limited military capability, and Israeli internal security is prepared for them. Reports suggest that the Israelis have been testing their text-message alert systems and distributing gas masks in anticipation of potential retaliatory attacks.

The current tide of events in the Middle East and further abroad has removed geopolitical barriers to an Israeli strike. Regional powers such as Turkey and Saudi Arabia are deeply involved in the Syrian crisis, and they don’t have enough political or diplomatic capital to oppose or intervene. The level of self-confidence reflected in the statements of Turkish officials does not match the country’s actual political leverage in the region, as has been demonstrated time and time again in the past couple of months. A few years ago, Turkey had great potential to broker a deal, but it lost its chances as its relations with Israel became strained over the Gaza blockade. Turkey is now a polarizing force in Syria and beyond, and has been facing serious national security risks, including a rise in domestic terrorism. Meanwhile, the US is busy with political campaigns and the ongoing fiscal crisis, while cash-strapped Europeans are focused on saving the eurozone. 

This situation gives Israel an opportunity to accomplish its ultimate objective of getting rid of the Iranian nuclear threat—and to maneuver amid global politics to its advantage. Here is how that would unfold: In the case of an attack, Iran would react by closing the Strait of Hormuz, which would drive up oil prices with harsh effects on the already fragile world economy. It would affect the US election, possibly to the point of costing Obama a victory. Polls have long indicated the economy as the issue on which the election will turn, and a great part of the US population is already disappointed by how Obama has handled economic matters. An Obama loss in November would be a desirable outcome for the Israeli administration, which would clearly favor GOP rival Mitt Romney as the candidate more likely to support a strike on Iran. Romney’s inclusion of Israel in his trip abroad earlier in the summer highlighted these warmer ties.

An Israeli attack on Iran would put Turkey in an interesting position. Israelis may see it as an opportunity to warm up relations, as Turkish policymakers would be forced to take Israel’s side in such a conflict. Turkey’s “zero problems with neighbors” policy has continued to crumble, as its relations with Iran and Syria are even worse than they were 10 years ago. As it intervenes in the Syrian civil war and supports Sunni groups, Turkey has seen an increasing level of terrorism at home and threats coming both from Tehran and Damascus. Ankara’s geopolitical capabilities do not match its unrealistic level of confidence. If an attack happens, Turkish officials will have to work with Israel, since other options are not on the table. Also, Turkey is hosting a NATO radar system in the south of the country that could potentially be put to use if Israel launches a strike. This could further alienate other neighbors, pushing Turkey closer to Israel and the US.

Given that the US appears unlikely to endorse an attack within the time frame that Israeli leaders feel they need to act, they may have concluded that they need to act unilaterally—and sooner rather than later. Hawkish arguments might also be further reinforced by the assumption that domestic political considerations in the run-up to the elections would force the US to get on board if Israel launches an attack. But a military strike would only be truly beneficial to Israel, not to anyone else in the world. However, even the benefit to Israel would be short-lived as such a move is likely to feed anti-Israel sentiment in the region. As the likelihood of a strike increases, the international community must keep its cool and continue to insist on a diplomatic solution, as the alternative would be far too costly for all the parties concerned. However, with the regional and global powers preoccupied and the P5+1 talks having largely failed, averting the use of force will be a difficult task.<<

Cenk Sidar
Sidar Global Advisors
August 2012