Jerusalem Last spring, Israel’s former spy chief, Meir Dagan, said bombing Iran would be “a stupid idea” for Israel. It would mean regional war and give Iran “the best possible reason to continue its nuclear program.”
Those words hung in the air during an extraordinary media debate here over the last two weeks that preceded the release of a U.N. report giving new evidence of Iranian plans to build nuclear weapons. The debate laid out details on a topic rarely discussed here in public: Should the Jewish state attack Iran before its nuclear program produces a bomb?
The debate was triggered by a column by one of Israel’s best-known journalists, Nahum Barnea. Headlined “Atomic Pressure,” it revealed that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak were pressing reluctant military and intelligence chiefs to agree to an attack on Iran. Other media reports said the two men were trying to persuade a cabinet majority to green-light military action.
A deluge of leaks about recent Israeli long-range missile tests and training exercises followed. Barak even claimed in an interview that Israel would suffer only 500 casualties if Iran retaliated. The debate has calmed down now that the U.N. report is out, with Israeli officials going mum so as not to overshadow its conclusions.
But the question remains: Is Israel really preparing an attack, or was the war talk a bluff aimed at increasing pressure on Tehran in the wake of the U.N. findings? Obviously, no one can be sure. But after two weeks in the region and talks with several knowledgeable Israelis, I’d back the estimate of Avner Cohen, a noted expert on Israel’s nuclear program, who says, “It was 70 to 80 percent bluff, but there were elements of truth.”
Cohen doesn’t believe Israel wants to do anything now but wants “to leverage the [U.N.] report to put maximum pressure on Russia and China to agree to new [U.N. Security Council] sanctions, in order to avoid a war.” (So far Russia and China aren’t convinced, but the reports’ details may lead them to reconsider.)
Barnea, the journalist who provoked the debate, concurs, although he doesn’t think Barak and Netanyahu expected the debate would rage so intensely. He says, “This drama can put some fear in the hearts of the Iranians and lead NATO to conclude Israel is serious. You need this kind of drama to increase the chances that diplomacy will work.”
Whatever the manipulation level, Barnea says: “There is a consensus [in Israel] that the Iran project poses a real danger to Israel and the region and has to be stopped.” As we sat talking, in the Jerusalem YMCA’s peaceful outdoor restaurant, the current calm seemed light-years away from the subject of nuclear terror.
Yet Israelis feel they have to take Iranian denunciations of the Jewish state very seriously (even though many experts doubt Iran would actually use or even produce a nuclear weapon, preferring to use the threat as protection and a symbol of power.) “The Holocaust is part of our DNA,” Barnea added. This is a crucial explanation of the deep Israeli fears about Tehran.
However, despite the consensus on the threat, Barnea says, “there is major opposition [to an Israeli strike] not only among the heads of the security establishment in the past but also their successors.” The reason: A cost/benefit analysis of an Israeli military attack against Iran comes out in the negative.
“Even the optimists say Iran’s nuclear program would not be set back more than 2 to 3 years [by a military attack], and the pessimists say only a few months if at all,” says Cohen. “But a strike would create an Iran much more determined to get nuclear weapons.” Tehran would probably kick out all U.N. weapons inspectors, who make it harder for the Iranian program to operate unchecked.
Iran would also be likely to blockade the Arab Gulf, sending oil prices soaring at a time of global economic troubles.
And in a regional war, Israel would be vulnerable not only to Iranian missiles but also those of Lebanon’s Hezbollah and Gaza’s Hamas (both Iranian allies.)
Moreover, an Israeli attack on Muslim Iran would incite Arab publics in the region at a time when instability is already high. The Saudi and Gulf monarchs may privately urge a (U.S.) strike on Tehran, but what they really want is regime change. And an attack on Iran’s well-buried nuclear program won’t bring that result.
This is why old security hands such as Dagan, who served eight years as head of Mossad (Israel’s CIA), have urged Israel to use covert means — not military action — to prevent an Iranian bomb. The potential price of an Israeli strike is too high for the likely results.
Conversations with Israelis make clear they wish the United States would take a strong lead in confronting Tehran — in pressing for much stronger sanctions (good idea), and possibly with a military attack (bad idea).
The Israeli media drama of the last two weeks put pressure on President Obama to take action. It also encouraged GOP hopefuls Rick Perry and Rick Santorum to back an Israeli strike on Iran (which would inevitably involve us). Before they get carried away, U.S. leaders in both parties should heed Meir Dagan’s caution, and ponder why he thinks that’s a “stupid idea.”