Israel is pursuing a studied ambiguity on whether it will attack Iran, keeping its options open on how to rein in Tehran’s alleged nuclear weapons ambitions, Israeli experts say.
Speculation about an Israeli attack on Iranian nuclear facilities has reached fever pitch in recent weeks, driven by comments from Israeli officials and a slew of articles in the international media.
Israel, like much of the international community, accuses Tehran of using its nuclear program to mask a weapons drive, a charge denied by Iran.
And the Jewish state, the sole, if undeclared, nuclear power in the region, has made clear it sees a nuclear-armed Iran as a threat that it will prevent at all costs.
But experts say Israel’s rhetoric about a military strike could be seen as a strategy to obviate the need for an attack by piling on the pressure on Iran and the international community.
Various ways of confrontation
Political science professor Yehezkel Dror’s book “Israeli Statecraft” analyses various ways Israel could confront Iran’s alleged nuclear ambitions and says that bellicose rumblings from the Jewish state serve a range of purposes.
“Israel certainly wants other countries to prevent Iran from having nuclear weapons, and is surely using the possibility of an Israeli attack on Iran as one of the means to convince them to do so,” he told AFP.
By brandishing the threat of military action, Israel targets policy-makers both in Tehran and the West, Dror says, using “a very accepted means of creating deterrence, as well as a motivating force.”
Israel’s sabre-rattling appears to have stepped up, with Strategic Affairs Minister Moshe Yaalon warning that no Iranian facility, however reinforced, is immune to Israeli attack.
But Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is also said to have asked officials to stop “blabbing” about such an attack, warning it could create the impression an attack was imminent or be seen as undermining tough new European sanctions against Tehran.
U.S. President Barack Obama said Sunday that he does not think Israel has decided whether to attack Iran, telling NBC News in an interview that the United States was “going to be sure that we work in lockstep as we proceed to try to solve this - hopefully diplomatically.”
For Israeli military and intelligence writer Ronen Bergman, the attack rhetoric is a good way for the Jewish state to preemptively justify an eventual military operation.
“Israel is trying to tell the world: ‘We told you that if you wouldn’t act, we would,’ “he said.
“Part of the international legitimacy for the decision-makers is to say: ‘We raised the alert, we did everything throughout the years to get the world to impose sanctions to prevent an attack.’”
Bergman caused a splash last month with a New York Times magazine cover article entitled “Will Israel Attack Iran?” which concluded, based on discussions with senior Israeli officials, that an attack this year is likely.
But he acknowledges that even among his most informed sources, there is still uncertainty. “There has not been a decision to attack,” he says.
Keeping options open
Avner Cohen, an Israeli-American professor with the Non-Proliferation Centre at the Monterey Institute of International Studies, also believes Israel is keeping its options open for tackling Iran’s nuclear program.
Israeli talk of an attack “may be an 80 percent bluff in the current context, in the sense that Israel has not made a decision,” he said.
But he notes that “Israel under Netanyahu and (Defense Minister Ehud) Barak is committed to act, if nothing else would stop Iran, if Iran continues and develops nuclear weapons.”
“Israel would likely act alone, so in that aspect it’s not a bluff,” he adds.
Cohen acknowledged that there is still uncertainty about whether Iran is in fact seeking nuclear weapons, and that any preemptive attack could galvanize their resolve to obtain them.
“The Iranian decision very much depends on how the world would respond,” he said.
“They don’t need actual weapons, they would like to be perceived as very close to the weapon, to the point that it doesn’t really matter whether they actually have the weapon or something short of it,” said Cohen.
“Only if Iran would be attacked would they leave the Non-Proliferation Treaty and declare their right to have nuclear weapons in the name of self-defense.”
Such uncertainty contributes to Israel’s mixed messages, Dror said.
“It is not reasonable, to my mind, that the ambiguous threat to attack alone might be a ‘bluff’ solely meant to galvanize others into action,” he said.
“It is much more reasonable to assume that Israel is keeping its options open, which is the right thing to do.”
“Few people know all the details,” he added. “All the rest is speculation.”
History of lashing out
On Friday, Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, called Israel a “cancerous tumor that should be cut and will be cut,” and boasted of supporting any group that will challenge the Jewish state.
When faced with such threats, Israeli has a history of lashing out in the face of world opposition. That legacy includes the game-changing 1967 Middle East war, which left Israel in control of vast Arab lands, a brazen 1981 airstrike that destroyed an unfinished Iraqi nuclear reactor, and a stealthy 2007 airstrike in Syria that is believed to have destroyed a nuclear reactor in the early stages of construction.
Armed with a fleet of ultramodern U.S.-made fighter planes and unmanned drones, and reportedly possessing intermediate-range Jericho missiles, Israel has the capability to take action against Iran too, though it would carry grave risks.
It would require flying over Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Syria or Turkey. It is uncertain whether any of these Muslim countries would knowingly allow Israel to use their airspace.
With targets some 1,000 miles (1,600 kilometers) away, Israeli planes would likely have the complicated task of refueling in flight. Iran’s antiquated air force, however, is unlikely to provide much of a challenge.
Many in the region cannot believe Israel would take such a step without a green light from the United States, its most important ally. That sense is deepened by the heightened stakes of a U.S. election year and the feeling that if Israel acts alone, the West would not escape unscathed.
Even a limited Israeli operation could well unleash regionwide fighting. Iran could launch its Shihab 3 missiles at Israel, and have its local proxies, Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in the Gaza Strip, unleash rockets. Israel's military intelligence chief, Aviv Kochavi, warned last week that Israel's enemies possess some 200,000 rockets.
Hezbollah leader, Sheik Hassan Nasrallah said on Wednesday in case of such an attack, his leadership would meet and decide what to do.