Washington Post columnist David Ignatius created a tempest last week when he reported U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta's prediction that Israel will attack Iran and its nuclear complex "in April, May or June." Ignatius's column was as startling as it was exasperating. When the sitting U.S. defense secretary -- presumably privy to facts not generally available to the public -- makes such a prediction, observers have good reasons to pay attention. On the other hand, the international community has been openly dealing with the Iranian nuclear issue for nearly a decade, with similar crescendos of anticipation having occurred before, all to no effect. Why would this time be different?
Further, an Israeli air campaign against Iran would seem like an amazingly reckless act. And an unnecessary one, too, since international sanctions against Iran's banks and oil market are just now tightening dramatically.
Yet from Israel's point of view, time really has run out. The sanctions have come too late. And when Israeli policymakers consider their advantages and all of the alternatives available, an air campaign, while both regrettable and risky, is not reckless.
1. Time pressure
In his column, Ignatius mentioned this spring as the likely deadline for an Israeli strike. Why so soon? After all, the Iranian program is still under the supervision of IAEA inspectors and Iran has not made any moves to "break out" toward the production of bomb-grade highly enriched uranium.
But as a new report from the Bipartisan Policy Center discusses, Iran's uranium enrichment effort continues to advance, even after the Stuxnet computer attack and the assassination of several of its nuclear scientists. According to the report, Iran seems to be successfully installing advanced, high-efficiency uranium-enrichment centrifuges, which foreshadows a significant increase in enrichment capacity and output in the near future. More ominously from Israel's perspective, Iran is now installing centrifuge cascades into the Fordow mountain site near Qom, a bunker that is too deep for Israeli bombs to penetrate.
On-site IAEA inspectors are currently monitoring Iran's nuclear fuel production and would report any diversions to military use. As Tehran undoubtedly assumes, such a "breakout" (tossing out the inspectors and quickly enriching to the bomb-grade level) would be a casus belli, with air strikes from Israel likely to soon follow. Israeli leaders may have concluded that Iran could break out with impunity after the Fordow site is operational and the enrichment effort has produced enough low-enriched uranium feedstock for several bombs. According to the Bipartisan Center report, Iran will be in this position later this year. According to the New York Times, U.S. and Israeli officials differ over their calculations of when Iran will have crossed into a "zone of immunity." Given their more precarious position, it is understandable that Israeli policymakers are adopting a more conservative assessment.
2. Alternatives to military action now fall short
Israeli leaders undoubtedly understand that starting a war is risky. There should be convincing reasons for discarding the non-military alternatives.
The international sanctions effort against Iran's banking system and oil industry are inflicting damage on the country's economy and seem to be delivering political punishment to the regime. But they have not slowed the nuclear program, nor are they likely to have any effect on the timeline described above. And as long as Russia, China, India, and others continue to support Iran economically and politically, the sanctions regime is unlikely to be harsh enough to change Israel's calculation of the risks, at least within a meaningful time frame.
Why can't Israel's secret but widely assumed nuclear arsenal deter an Iranian nuclear strike? Israel's territory and population are so small that even one nuclear blast would be devastating. Israel would very much like to possess a survivable and stabilizing second-strike retaliatory capability. During the Cold War, the United States and the Soviet Union achieved this mainly with their ballistic missile submarine fleets, which were always on patrol and held each others' cities at risk. Israel does not have large numbers of submarines or any nuclear-powered subs capable of long submerged patrols. Nor can it be confident that its policymakers or command-and-control systems would survive an Iranian nuclear first strike.
Even if Iran sought a nuclear weapons capability solely to establish its own defensive deterrent, the outcome would be gross instability in the region, very likely leading to one side or the other attempting a preemptive attack (the Iranian government denies that its nuclear program has a military purpose). Very short missile flight times, fragile early-warning and command systems, and no survivable second-strike forces would lead to a hair-trigger "use it or lose it" dynamic. An Israeli attack now on Iran's nuclear program would be an attempt to prevent this situation from occurring.