Earlier this month, Israel sent more than 100 warplanes on military maneuvers across the Eastern Mediterranean. An unnamed U.S. official described the exercise as practice toward honing the skills for a long-range strike. The assumption is that the maneuvers signal an Israeli willingness and capability to strike Iran’s nuclear facilities, if all other measures to stop Iran’s program fail.
MESH has invited a number of responses to this question: Assuming the United States decides than Iran must be stopped, and that only military action can stop it, should the United States delegate Israel to conduct the necessary military operations? Or should the United States undertake the operations itself, and insist that Israel stay on the sidelines (as it did during the two Iraq wars)?
Josef Joffe begins, followed in the comments by Mark T. Clark, Mark N. Katz, Stephen Peter Rosen, Martin Kramer, and Chuck Freilich.
From Josef Joffe
Israel’s well-publicized war game in the Eastern Mediterranean was a classical signaling stratagem. The message to the European Union and the United States is: “Unless you get serious about real sanctions, we’ll go the Samson route. We’ll throw some 100 F-15s and F-16s against the Iranians, and we don’t care what they do to the rest of the Middle East. Whatever they do, escalation dominance is ours because we have the nukes and they don’t. And our threat would be credible because our existence is at stake.”
This Schellingesque game (“if you don’t do what we want, we’ll lose control over ourselves and take the plunge”) makes perfect sense for the Israelis, being the only nation on earth that is existentially threatened by the Khomeinists. It also makes some sense for the United States to have Israel strain against its chain in order to soften up Iran. But it does not make sense to “delegate” Israel or to let it strike on its own. Here is why.
The basic problem is the divergence of interest once you go beyond the shared loathing of the Tehran regime and the common U.S.-Israeli abhorrence of Iranian nukes. Since these threaten Israel’s existence, other items like oil fields in Saudi Arabia, tanker traffic in the Gulf or terror in Iraq are logically secondary concerns. For the United States, on the other hand, these “secondary” concerns are primary ones. In the war in Iraq, it matters a great deal how the Iranians would respond on that front line. Forget the Mahdi Army; even Moqtada Sadr is not a flunky for the “Supreme Leader.” But how about a straightforward lunge of the Revolutionary Guards into the Basra province—oil wells and all?
For the world’s economic Number One, it matters whether burning oil fields and sinking tankers add up to short-term oil prices of $300 or $400 per barrel. So Israeli and U.S. interests on these “secondary” items are not alike, whence two conclusions follow.
First, the global power can’t “delegate” to its “continental sword” in the Middle East. If you’re in on the crash, you want to be in on the take-off. The idea that the United States could pretend non-involvement is absurd. At a minimum, the United States would have to give overflight permission for Iraq as the Israelis would hardly fly around the Arabian Peninsula to strike Iran from the sea. To permit is to condone, and to condone is to be in cahoots. “Who, me?” is not an American option in this highest-stakes game. As predestined target of retaliation, the United States would want to be in the cockpit ab initio—especially since this has to be done right the first time round.
Hence the second and properly strategic reason why the United States can’t outsource this act of pro-active de-proliferation. This would not be a one-afternoon cakewalk as against Iraq’s Osirak reactor in 1981. This would have to be a massive and sustained air campaign the Israeli air force could not prosecute (though it is larger than the German or French air forces). And it would have to be flanked by a serious naval engagement, which only the United States can mount.
The war, given those crucial American “secondary” interests, would have to consist of three parts.
- One, lasting, say, a week or even two, would take out all of Iran’s air defenses. The drill is well-known, it has been executed twice over Iraq and once over Serbia. But remember: we could never detect, let alone destroy, all of Saddam’s mobile missile launchers.
- The second campaign would have to proceed almost simultaneously. Its purpose would be the elimination of all Iranian assets—naval or air—that could threaten tanker traffic in the Gulf. This is where the U.S. Navy comes in. Before that first cruise missile is launched against Bandar Abbas, the United States would want to establish an intimidating (or shall we say: terrorizing?) presence in the Gulf so as to sharpen Iranian risk assessments.
- The third campaign would be launched consecutively against those nuclear targets proper. This author does not believe that we don’t know where all of these targets are; the Israelis for sure know the addresses and ZIP codes. But some of them are hardened, and others are located within cities. So the bombing will have to be smart, surgical and repetitive. Again, it is better to think in terms of weeks rather than days.
The Israeli air force cannot stage such a three-pronged campaign. Nor would it have to because even $300 oil pales in significance to national survival. For the United States as the global power, however, Iranian retaliation in Iraq or against oil assets matters greatly. Therefore, these threats would have to be eliminated along with the Bushehr reactors and the enrichment and reprocessing plants.
Hence, it is either a real war or none at all. Israel cannot be “delegated.” Nor should it be.
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