Painting a scary picture of a world with a nuclear-armed Iran, the editors of The Economist nevertheless argue emphatically against mounting an airstrike against the Islamic state. It’s been a tense week in the Middle East, with U.N. nuclear inspectors jettisoning Iran after the country refused to grant access to a suspectedexplosives-testing site in Parchin, and military analysts sketching out a playbook for ways Israel might attack Iran’s nuclear facilities.
Urging restraint, The Economist editors posit that bombing Iran won’t eradicate its nuclear program, but will make matters worse in the region:
[Iran] could retaliate, including with rocket attacks on Israel from its client groups in Lebanon and Gaza. Terror cells around the world might strike Jewish and American targets. It might threaten Arab oil infrastructure. … Even if all its sites are hit, Iran’s nuclear know-how cannot be bombed out of existence. … Iran would probably withdraw from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, under which its uranium is watched by the International Atomic Energy Agency. At that point its entire programme would go underground-literally and figuratively. … [T]he world cannot eliminate Iran’s capacity to gain the bomb. It can only change its will to possess one. Just now that is more likely to come about through sanctions and diplomacy than war.
NOW for the opposing view:
Can Israel attack Iran? If it can, will it? If it will, when? If when, how? And what happens after that?
[Earlier this month] with Matt Lauer, President Obama said “I don’t think that Israel has made a decision on what they need to do.” That didn’t square with the view of Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, who’s been reported as saying he expects an Israeli attack this spring. Nor does it square with public warnings from Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak that the Iranians would soon enter a “zone of immunity” from foreign military attack if nothing is done to stop them.
Yes, these war drums have been beaten before. But this time it’s different. Diplomacy has run its course: Even U.N. diplomats now say Iran uses negotiations as a tactic to buy time. The sanctions are too late: Israel can’t afford to wait a year or two to see if Europe’s embargo on Iranian oil or the administration’s squeeze on Iran’s financial institutions will alter Tehran’s nuclear calculations. Covert action—computer bugs, assassinations, explosions—may have slowed Iran’s progress, but plainly not by enough.…
Two additional points. Washington and Jerusalem are at last operating from a common timetable—Iran is within a year of getting to the point when it will be able to assemble a bomb essentially at will. And speaking of timetables, Jerusalem knows that Mr. Obama will be hard-pressed to oppose an Israeli strike—the way Dwight Eisenhower did during the Suez crisis—before election day. A re-elected President Obama is a different story.
That means that from here until November the U.S. traffic light has gone from red to yellow. And Israelis aren’t exactly famous for stopping at yellow lights. But can they do it?
There’s a mountain of nonsense exaggerating Israel’s military capabilities: Israel does not, for instance, operate giant drones capable of refueling jet fighters in midair. At the same time, there’s an equally tall mountain of nonsense saying that Israel is powerless to do significant damage to Iran’s nuclear-weapons complex, as if the Islamic Republic were the second coming of the USSR. In fact, Iran is a Third World country that can’t even protect its own scientists in the heart of Tehran. It has a decrepit air force, antiquated air defenses, a vulnerable electrical grid, exposed nuclear sites (the uranium conversion plant at Esfahan, the heavy water facility at Arak, the reactor at Bushehr), and a vulnerable energy infrastructure on which its economy is utterly dependent. Even its deeply buried targets can be destroyed. It’s all a question of time, tonnage and precision.
The bottom line is that a strike on Iran that sets its nuclear ambitions back by several years is at the outer periphery of Israel’s military capability, but still within it.…
What happens on the day after? Israelis estimate that between Hamas in Gaza, Hezbollah in Lebanon, Syria and Iran itself, there are some 200,000 missiles and rockets pointed in their direction. They could start falling before the first sortie of Israeli jets returned to base. Israel’s civil defenses have been materially improved in recent years. But the country would still have to anticipate that missile and rocket barrages would overwhelm its defenses, causing hundreds of civilian casualties. Israel would also have to be prepared to go to war in Lebanon, Gaza and even Syria if Iran calls on the aid of its allies.
Put simply, an Israeli strike on Iran would not just be a larger-scale reprise of the attacks that took out Iraq’s nuclear reactor in 1981 and Syria’s in 2007. On the contrary: If it goes well it would look somewhat like the Six Day War of 1967, and if it goes poorly like the Yom Kippur War of 1973. Nobody should think we’re talking about a cakewalk.
So: Should Israel do it? If the U.S. has no serious intention to go beyond sanctions, Israel’s only alternative to action is to accept a nuclear Iran and then stand by as the rest of its neighbors acquire nuclear weapons of their own. That scenario is the probable end of Israel.… [And] destroying Iran’s nuclear sites will be a short-lived victory if it isn’t matched to the broader goal of ending the regime.