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To Strike or Not To Strike

January 12, 2022

by: Ilse Strauss, News Bureau Chief

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Throughout 2021, the powers-that-be in Jerusalem hammered a targeted message: Israel has lost faith in diplomatic endeavors and has reverted to exploring a military approach to block Iran’s path to the nuclear bomb.

The year kicked off with Israel Defense Forces (IDF) Chief of Staff Aviv Kochavi instructing the military to develop operational strike plans. Nine months later, US $1.6 billion was allocated for the necessary preparations. A week later came a report that the Israeli Air Force was set to start training for a strike. Then Kochavi warned that the IDF was fast-tracking Iran-related operational preparation.

The rapid rise in rhetoric raises crucial questions. Why the sudden focus on a military solution to the Iranian nuclear problem? Are the warnings sincere or simply cogs in a psychological warfare strategy? Does Israel even have the capacity to pursue military action? If so, what would such action entail?

Strike in the Spotlight

Ten years ago, Israel was in a high state of readiness for a strike against Iran, explains Jonathan Spyer—author and director of the Middle East Center for Reporting and Analysis. Then came the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), and the military option moved to the back burner. So why the shift back?

Jerusalem’s priorities changed when the US withdrawal from the deal in 2018 triggered gross Iranian violation of restrictions. Tehran has since made significant progress toward military-grade nuclear fuel and great strides in ballistic missile production and capacity. Israel advancing its military preparations is therefore a direct reflection of Iran advancing its nuclear ambitions.

At the same time, “it has become clear that the US has no Plan B in the event that negotiations should fail,” Spyer says. “There is every sense that the Iranian nuclear program is only a secondary interest for the US, and therefore, if Israel wants to stop Iran, it is probably on its own.”

According to Spyer: “Israel wants to convey the message that even though it looks like America is not interested in a Plan B, it doesn’t mean the program is safe. There is a powerful regional state working on the capacity and making the effort to develop that ability.”

Jerusalem thus seeks to present a strong deterrent to dissuade the mullahs from rushing toward the nuclear finishing line. However, the insistent rhetoric and the increased efforts don’t mean the Israeli warplanes will be taking off for Iran anytime soon—if at all.

Near Impossible

Executing a successful strike that puts a long-term stop to Iran’s nuclear ambitions is extremely complicated, if not borderline impossible at present. Israel has in the past reduced two neighboring countries’ budding nuclear endeavors to ashes—Iraq in 1981 and Syria in 2017. The Iraqi and Syrian programs had much in common. Both were concentrated in one location, and both were the fruit of foreign experts’ labor, Spyer explains. The Iranian program is different. Facilities are spread out, well-fortified and in the case of the Fordow facility, embedded in a mountain. “It is not clear that Israel has the military capacity to deal all the main elements a fatal blow with a single action,” he holds.

Moreover, the Iranian nuclear program is homegrown, the product of Iranian research, knowledge and ability, cultivated in Iranian laboratories and universities. “Even if Israel did inflict significant damage, the regime can reconstruct the program,” Spyer concedes. “Successful military action may buy four or five years of respite before Iran could be back where they were.”

The bottom line? “It is very complicated. It isn’t something to be settled by a single knock-out blow.”

Iranian Payback

Israeli military strategists must also take into account Iranian retribution. Reprisals, Spyer explains, would probably go well beyond a counterstrike and should be considered within a broad regional context. Iranian power and influence extend to various Middle Eastern countries as the regime seeks to surround Israel with terror armies.

In the aftermath of an Israeli attack, Iranian puppet masters may well activate their terror puppets: Hamas in Gaza, Shiite militias in Iraq and Hezbollah in Lebanon, unleashing their arsenal of 150,000 missiles on the Jewish state. Moreover, incitement may trigger an uprising among Arab Israelis, translating to Israel facing an onslaught both externally and on the home front.

“This is all part of a single picture, with the nuclear threat being one element embedded into a larger context,” Spyer says. “For an Israeli planner thinking about action against Iran, all these different pieces on the board must be taken into account.”

Toeing the Line

Despite the limitations and likely reprisals, Israel may still choose to act—if Iran crosses the line. Iran has stated its desire to destroy Israel, but lacks the capacity, Spyer explains. On the day Iran successfully tests a nuclear weapon, it officially becomes an existential threat to Israel. Jerusalem will not allow Tehran to cross that threshold without a fight. “If there was clear information that Iran was rushing forward to that point,” he holds, “even with all the limitations, it will almost certainly trigger some kind of Israeli military action.”

Iran knows that, and is unlikely to call Israel’s bluff. According to Spyer, Tehran may rather continue moving forward at a steady pace—with Jerusalem working behind the scenes to block its efforts—until reaching a junction where it could test a nuclear weapon within a relatively short time, and then call halt. “At that stage, they may stop, having made their point, having become a nuclear threshold power. My sense is that Iran is moving toward that point but may choose not to make the final sprint, because if it does, Israel will act.”

So, where does that leave Israel—and the rest of the world? With more of the same. Spyer explains: Iran will continue steadily building up its capacity, and Israel will continue watching very carefully, all the while making every effort to plan, strategize and prepare for military action, should it become necessary.

Will Israel be able to gain the capacity necessary to strike a fatal blow to an Iranian nuclear program that is fortified, embedded in rock and spread out across multiple locations? Perhaps it is enough of a deterrent for Iran to know that there is someone watching, working, willing to strike as soon as the mullahs cross the red line. Israel has proven time and again that its bite equals its bark.

Photo Credit: Pvt Eden Briand/IDF Spokespersons Unit/flickr.com

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