Will the US, or Israel, attack Iran?


I think that military action against Iran would be an absolute last resort, that any problems that we have with Iran, our first option should be diplomacy and working with our allies to try and deal with the problems that Iran is posing to us.


“I think that we have seen, in Iraq, that once war is unleashed, it becomes unpredictable. And I think that the consequences of a military conflict with Iran could be quite dramatic.


“And therefore, I would counsel against military action except as a last resort and if we felt our vital interests were threatened.”


Those are the words of Robert Gates, the newly appointed US Defense Secretary, at his confirmation hearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee on 5 December 2006 [1]. He was answering a question from Robert Byrd, the 89-year-old senator from West Virginia.  Byrd referred to “all these rumors about the potential for an attack on Iran due to its nuclear weapons program, or on Syria due to its support of terrorism” and asked Gates if he supported an attack on Iran.


The Chairman of the Committee, Senator John Warner, intervened to ask Gates to describe his “view of the likely consequences of a US attack on Iran”, to which Gates replied:


“... I think that while Iran cannot attack us directly, militarily, I think that their capacity to potentially close off the Persian Gulf to all exports of oil, their potential to unleash a significant wave of terror, in the Middle East and in Europe and even here in this country, is very real.


“They are certainly not being helpful in Iraq and are doing us -- I think, doing damage to our interests there.  But I think they could do a lot more to hurt our effort in Iraq.


“I think that they could provide certain kinds of weapons of mass destruction, particularly chemical and biological weapons to terrorist groups.


“Their ability to get Hezbollah to further destabilize Lebanon I think is very real.


“So I think that while their ability to retaliate against us in a conventional military way is quite limited, they have the capacity to do all of the things, and perhaps more, that I just described.”


Byrd also asked Gates if he supported an attack on Syria, to which Gates replied “No, sir, I do not”.  Byrd then asked him to describe his “view of the likely consequences of a US attack on Syria”, to which he replied:


“I think the Syrian capacity to do harm to us is far more limited than that of Iran. But I believe that a military attack by the United States on Syria would have dramatic consequences for us throughout the Middle East in terms of our relationships with a wide range of countries in that area. I think that it would give rise to significantly greater anti-Americanism than we have seen to date. I think it would immensely complicate our relationships with virtually every country in the region.”


Byrd then asked:


“Would you say that an attack on either Iran or Syria would worsen the violence in Iraq and lead to greater American casualties?”


to which Gates replied:


“Yes, sir, I think that's very likely.”


This is an extraordinarily blunt spelling out of the negative consequences for the US of attacking Iran or Syria, by a person who is now a senior figure in the Bush administration.  And the consequences would be no less negative for the US if Israel attacked Iran or Syria, since the world would assume (quite rightly) that Israel had been given a green light to do so by the US.


Congressional authority?

Of course, a decision to attack Iran or Syria is a matter for President Bush, not Defense Secretary Gates.  So, an attack, particularly on Iran, cannot be ruled out. 


The President is obliged under Article I, Section 8 of the US Constitution to seek congressional authority to take military action.  Congress granted this authority after 9/11 to invade Afghanistan and in October 2002 to invade Iraq.  But neither of these gives the President the authority to attack Iran or Syria.  That is the view of Gates, and of the new Democratic majority leadership in Congress, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. 


Senator Byrd asked Gates if he believed that “the president has the authority, under either the 9/11 war resolution or the Iraq war resolution, to attack Iran or to attack Syria”, to which he replied:


“To the best of my knowledge of both of those authorizations, I don't believe so.


On 19 January 2007, prior to the President delivering his State of the Union address to Congress, Reid and Pelosi delivered the Democrats’ version to the National Press Club in Washington.  Speaking about Iran, Senator Reid said [2]:


“Much has been made about President Bush’s recent saber rattling toward Iran. This morning, I’d like to be clear: The President does not have the authority to launch military action in Iran without first seeking Congressional authorization - - the current use of force resolution for Iraq does not give him such authorization.”


Reid’s other remarks about Iran were remarkably mild:


“It is true, the Iranians and the Syrians have played a destabilizing role in Iraq, but that doesn’t mean we can’t communicate with them as part of a regional framework. As Secretary Jim Baker of the Iraq Study Group noted, we must talk to our enemies, not just our friends. ...


“Let there be no doubt, the Iranian regime poses one of the great threats of the new century, but the Iranian people - 2/3rds of which are under the age of 30 - - present a great opportunity for progress. Regrettably, this Administration has no strategy for connecting with this generation of potential reformers.”


According to the Washington Post on 4 February 2007, Pelosi told a gathering of House Democrats the previous day that [3]:


“if it appears likely that Bush wants to take the country to war against Iran, the House would take up a bill to deny him the authority to do so”.


It is unlikely that, under this new Democratic leadership, Congress would grant the President authority to take military action against Iran (or Syria) in present circumstances.  Times are very different today from the aftermath of 9/11 when Congress readily consented to the requests of a popular President.


Of course, it is always possible for the President to circumvent the necessity for congressional authority by manufacturing a casus belli, which was one of the US options under consideration in the summer of 2002 in respect of Iraq, before congressional authority was obtained in October 2002.  This was reported by the Chief of the Defence Staff, Admiral Boyce, to a meeting on Iraq chaired by the Prime Minister on 23 July 2002, minutes of which were published in the Sunday Times on 1 May 2005 [4].


But would a very unpopular president already mired in Iraq do it?  I doubt it, particularly when even he must know that an attack on Iran would make matters even more difficult for the US in Iraq - and would ensure that the Republican Party loses the 2008 presidential election.


Iranian nuclear threat

Gates was also questioned (by Senator Lindsey Graham) about the possibility of Iran acquiring nuclear weapons and the threat to Israel if it did.  He said that he believed that Iran was trying to acquire nuclear weapons, and was lying when it said it wasn’t.  However, amazingly, he said that its motivation was self-defence.  Asked by Senator Graham:


“Do you believe the Iranians would consider using that nuclear weapons capability against the nation of Israel?”


he replied:


“I don't know that they would do that, Senator. ... And I think that, while they are certainly pressing, in my opinion, for nuclear capability, I think that they would see it in the first instance as a deterrent.  They are surrounded by powers with nuclear weapons: Pakistan to their east, the Russians to the north, the Israelis to the west and us in the Persian Gulf.”


This is a remarkable reply, which justifies Iran seeking nuclear weapons as a deterrent against other nuclear powers in the region, including Israel and the US.  In other words, according to Gates, Iran is seeking nuclear weapons to prevent other states attacking it, rather than to attack other states, for instance, Israel - which comes close to saying that the US could live with a nuclear-armed Iran (and Israel should be able to as well).


Pressed by Graham about President Ahmadinejad’s supposed ambition “to wipe Israel off the map”, Gates said that there are “higher powers in Iran ... than the president”. 


Israel’s nuclear weapons

In the above reply, Gates acknowledged that Israel has nuclear weapons.  He has served in US administrations long enough to know it has been US policy for a generation not to do so, which has had the double benefit of not undermining Israel’s policy of ambiguity on the issue and of not requiring the US to take a position for or against Israel’s possession of nuclear weapons.


(For the fascinating story of how the US came to adopt this stance in a secret agreement between President Nixon and Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir in September 1969, see Israel crosses the threshold by Avner Cohen and William Burr in the May/June 2006 issue of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists [5].)


It was ironic that a week later, Israeli Prime Minister, Ehud Olmert, came clean about Israel’s nuclear weapons, albeit without meaning to.  The Jerusalem Post reported the story as follows on 12 December 2006 [6]:


“Meanwhile, the Prime Minister's Office denied there had been any change in Israel's long-standing policy of nuclear ambiguity, after Olmert appeared to admit that Israel had nuclear capability in an interview with the German television network SAT 1.


“Regarding Israel's alleged nuclear capabilities, during his television interview, Olmert became agitated when asked if the fact that Israel possessed nuclear power weakened the West's position against Iran.


“‘Israel is a democracy, Israel doesn't threaten any country with anything, never did’, he said. ‘The most that we tried to get for ourselves is to try to live without terror, but we never threaten another nation with annihilation. Iran openly, explicitly and publicly threatens to wipe Israel off the map. Can you say that this is the same level, when they [Iran] are aspiring to have nuclear weapons, as America, France, Israel, Russia?’”


It will be news to its neighbours that Israel has never threatened anyone, with anything.  And, of course, the answer to the original question is that Israel’s possession of nuclear weapons does weaken the West’s position on Iran, particularly when the West’s nominal position is that there should be a nuclear free zone in the Middle East.  Even the US signed up to that at the NPT 25-year review conference in 1995.


Iran: Time for a new approach

Gates has form on Iran.  He was the co-chair (with Zbigniew Brzezinski) of a Council on Foreign Relations task force reviewing US policy towards Iran which reported in July 2004. The recommendations for US policy from its report entitled Iran: Time for a new approach [7] are all about diplomatic engagement with Iran. They begin:


“The United States should offer Iran a direct dialogue on specific issues of regional stabilization. This should entail a resumption and expansion of the Geneva track discussions that were conducted with Tehran for eighteen months after the 9/11 attacks. The dialogue should be structured to encourage constructive Iranian involvement in the process of consolidating authority within the central governments of both Iraq and Afghanistan and in rebuilding their economies. Regular contact with Iran would also provide a channel to address concerns that have arisen about its activities and relationships with competing power centers in both countries. ...”


This approach is reflected in the report of the Iraq Study Group, of which Gates was a member until his nomination as Defense Secretary.


Will Israel attack Iran?

It is widely believed that, even if the US doesn’t attack Iran, at some point Israel will attempt to destroy Iran’s nuclear facilities from the air, with the objective of reducing Iran’s ability to produce fissile material for nuclear weapons.  After all, it attacked an Iraqi reactor with that intent in 1981, and did so successfully.


My guess is that Israel will not take military action against Iran - because the US will not authorise it to do so.  And Israel will not do so without authorisation from the US.  The analogy with Iraq in 1981 is false, because (a) in contrast to an attack on Iran’s facilities today, there were no negative consequences for the US from Israel’s attack on the Iraqi reactor in 1981 and (b) mounting a successful attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities is difficult, if not impossible, for Israel.


Israel’s alliance with the US is very important to it.  Without it, Israel’s existence as a state would be problematic.  As Gates spelt out, an Israeli attack on Iran would have serious repercussions for US interests in the Middle East and further afield.  Those repercussions would be as serious, if not more serious, as the repercussions from an attack by the US itself.  For Israel to attack Iran without authorisation from the US, and bring about those repercussions, would risk doing serious damage to Israel’s alliance with the US.  So I don’t think it will happen.  I don’t think Israel will attack Iran without authorisation by the US.


The US will do the job itself

And, if asked, I don’t think the US would give Israel permission to attack Iran.  If the US were to decide that Iran’s nuclear facilities should be destroyed, there is no advantage to the US in contracting the job out to Israel, rather than doing the job itself.  There is nothing to be gained by way of reducing the repercussions for US interests and, more fundamentally, the US is much more capable of doing the job successfully than Israel.  It would be foolish for the US to suffer the consequences of an attack on Iran, without eliminating, or at least substantially reducing, Iran’s capacity to produce fissile material for nuclear weapons.


It is important to note that this is a much more difficult task than the destruction of Iraq’s capability by Israel in 1981.  Then, Iraq’s entire nuclear programme depended on one facility, the Osirak reactor at the Al Tuwaitha Nuclear Center near Baghdad, which was highly vulnerable to air attack.  Had this reactor been operational, it would have produced plutonium, which could have been used as fissile material in a nuclear weapon.  But, before the reactor became operational, Israel destroyed it from the air on 7 June 1981.  Israel knew that the destruction of the reactor would terminate Iraq’s development of nuclear weapons by this route - and it did.


By contrast, and in part because of Israel’s destruction of the Osirak reactor, Iran’s nuclear facilities are widely dispersed and much better protected by air defense systems and, in some cases, by being underground.  The Iranian nuclear programme hasn’t got a single vulnerable point which, if attacked and destroyed, would stop the programme or stall it for a long time.  So, to be effective, any attempt to attack the Iranian nuclear facilities requires sustained attacks on several relatively well-defended targets.


Furthermore, the potential Iranian targets are much further away from Israeli airbases than the Iraqi target attacked in 1981 (1,500-1,750km compared with 1,000km).  To attack these targets, Israeli aircraft would either have to overfly Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Iraq without permission, with the possibility of being detected and attacked, or to fly around the Arabian peninsula, making the journey to and from the target much longer and requiring inflight refueling.  14 aircraft (8 F-16s and 6 F-15 escorts) were used in the attack on Osirak; several times that number would be required for a successful attack on Iranian nuclear facilities, so the possibility of detection is much greater.


For a discussion of this, see, for example, an article by retired Israeli General, Shlomo Brom, in Getting Ready for a Nuclear-Ready Iran, published by the US Army War College’s Strategic Studies Institute in October 2005 [8].  General Shlomo Brom concludes:


“... any Israeli attack on an Iranian nuclear target would be a very complex operation in which a relatively large number of attack aircraft and support aircraft (interceptors, ECM [electonic countermeasures] aircraft, refuelers, and rescue aircraft) would participate. The conclusion is that Israel could attack only a few Iranian targets and not as part of a sustainable operation over time, but as a one time surprise operation.” (p 149)


So, it is by no means certain that Israel is capable of mounting a successful attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities, successful in the sense of eliminating, or at least substantially reducing, Iran’s capacity to produce fissile material.  Leaving aside other considerations, successfully attacking Iran’s nuclear facilities is on the edge of practicality for Israel.


It is a much more practical proposition for the US, which has a much wider range of attacking options.  It can attack with B2 bombers based in Diego Garcia in the Indian Ocean and the US itself.  It can use carrier based aircraft.  It can use ship-launched cruise missiles.  It has the use of airbases in the Gulf States and in Iraq, though it may prefer not to use them, since states in the region would probably object to their territory being used to attack Iran.  There is little doubt that, with or without the latter, the US could mount sustained attacks on Iran’s nuclear facilities to such an extent that its ability to produce fissile would be seriously impaired.


Should the US take a decision to mount such an attack, it would begin by destroying Iran’s air defence facilities and, most likely, attack tens, if not hundreds, of military targets in order to limit Iran’s ability to retaliate - which would be impossible for Israel to achieve.


To summarise: whereas Israel is probably capable of mounting a single attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities, it is not capable of doing so in the sustained fashion necessary to achieve the desired success.  Only the US has the capacity to do that - and at the same time do damage to military targets across Iran.


So, if the US were to decide that Iran’s nuclear facilities should be destroyed by military action, it will do the job itself.  I think it’s unlikely that the US will make such a decision in present circumstances, because of the negative consequences for the US in the Middle East and further afield, as described by Robert Gates at his confirmation hearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee.


But one cannot rule out another bout of irrationality in the White House.




I have quoted liberally above from Senator Robert Byrd’s examination of Gates.  Here is another remarkable exchange between them:


B: Who is responsible, Dr. Gates, in your judgment, for the 9/11 attacks, Saddam Hussein or Osama bin Laden?


G: Osama bin Laden, Senator.


B: Over the past five years, who has represented the greater threat to the United States, Saddam Hussein or Osama bin Laden?


G: Osama bin Laden.



David Morrison

17 January 2007

Labour & Trade Union Review





[1]  media.washingtonpost.com/wp-srv/politics/documents/rgates_hearing_120506.html

[2]  democrats.senate.gov/newsroom/record.cfm?id=267725&

[3]  www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2007/02/03/AR2007020300701.html

[4]  www.timesonline.co.uk/article/0,,2087-1593607,00.html

[5]  www.thebulletin.org/article.php?art_ofn=mj06cohen

[6]  www.jpost.com/servlet/Satellite?cid=1164881872535&pagename=JPost/JPArticle/ShowFull

[7]  www.cfr.org/content/publications/attachments/Iran_TF.pdf

[8]  www.strategicstudiesinstitute.army.mil/pdffiles/pub629.pdf