Will the US, or Israel,
“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.
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.
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 .
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.
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.
that they could provide certain kinds of weapons of mass destruction,
particularly chemical and biological weapons to terrorist groups.
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:
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.
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 :
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
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. ...
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
“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
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
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
- and would ensure that the Republican Party loses the 2008 presidential
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:
believe the Iranians would consider using that nuclear weapons capability
against the nation of Israel?”
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).
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 .)
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 :
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
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 
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 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.
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.
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.
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
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
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 . 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
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
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
17 January 2007
Labour & Trade Union Review