Sunday, January 16, 2005

Israeli pre-emptive strike on Iran

Douglas Davis argues in The Spectator (14 Jan) that Iran presents a clear and present danger to Israel and the West which the Europeans, especially, wilfully ignore.

Two thirds of Spectator readers find Davis’s analysis convincing, according to an online poll on their site.

I wish to outline elements of a case against this interpretation, on the grounds that in a game where the stakes are so high, every aspect of a proposed strategy should be severely tested.

Davis, who is London correspondent of the Jerusalem Post, writes:

Israel’s senior intelligence and military officials have already produced a chilling countdown to Iran’s imminent emergence as a nuclear power: by spring 2005 Iran will have acquired a fully independent research and development capability; by 2007 it will have reached the ‘point of no return’, and by 2008 it will have produced its first nuclear weapon.

This may well be true. He also writes:

Israel itself is a veteran of the nuclear club, but its weapons are labeled ‘deterrence-only’ and would not be rolled out unless Israel faced a doomsday scenario.

The first clause here is correct. Israel achieved this capacity as early as the 1950s or early 1960s thanks to French help.

But the second and third clauses bring me to a first caveat for Davis and those who support his argument. The Israeli government and military surely see their nuclear capacity as deterrent, but are they right to assume that the only reason other nations in their neighbourhood would seek to acquire a similar capacity is for a pre-emptive strike? Does the Cold War teach no lessons?

The US wanted to maintain a nuclear monopoly after 1945 but was unable to do so. Some, including the Air Force Chief Curtis LeMay, advocated the early and frequent use of nuclear weapons against the Soviet Union while it had an inferior nuclear capacity. In the event, this view was overridden – and millions of lives saved – in favour of what became the ‘classic’ strategy of mutual deterrence which lasted until the collapse of the USSR.

Davis and others see this comparison as wrong:

...while existing nuclear powers acquired their devastating capability for defence and deterrence, Iran might intend using its nuclear weapons to project its power in the cause of its geopolitical objective — Islamic dominance and, ultimately, a global Islamic state.

The difference, says Davis, is this:

Iran’s political compass is fixed on a symbiosis of ideology and religion, which imbues its decisions with a mystical, transcendental supernaturalism, beyond the experience and understanding of conventional Western political thought and practice.

I disagree with this analysis for the following reasons. The Iranian revolution has lost its ideological steam. The rulers have become [even more] corrupt and sclerotic, fighting a rearguard action to hold on to the good things they have (e.g. personal control of and profit from large swathes of the entire national economy) in the face of enormous changes in Iranian society. They see themselves as surrounded by both internal and external enemies (this is not entirely unreasonable: the US, their sworn enemy has air bases in virtually all the surrounding countries, and large numbers of ground troops in the countries on their eastern and western borders). Cracking down on conspicous domestic dissidents such as Shirin Ebadi (see here) is a sign of weakness, not strength.

Further, even if Iran were to have in place by 2008 a small number of nuclear weapons with the capacity to deliver them (e.g. on the Chinese CSS-2 missiles to which Davis refers), the regime will surely know from its senior military advisors that in any nuclear exchange with Israel – never mind its ally the US – Iran would be hopelessly outgunned and outclassed.

Iran might be able to deliver two or three devices to Israeli population centres, killing hundreds of thousands or perhaps one or two million (a terrible blow, but not an existential threat to Israel). Israel could pre-empt or reply with scores or even hundreds of nuclear weapons, killing scores of millions of people.

For this reason, belligerent language toward Israel is likely to be for domestic purposes - pumping up the Iranian equivalent of rednecks , creating a climate in which it's easier to crack down on domestic opponents.

The Iranian regime wants to survive and it has a return address. For these reasons it is capable of being deterred. It remains a state actor. Confusing it with non-state actors in the "war on terror" is a mistake.

(Non-state actors may well acquire nuclear weapons, and this is a worry, but Shia Iran is not going to be enthusiastic about putting nuclear weapons in the hands of Sunni-Wahabist groups like Al-Qaida, which, as a shepherd in nothern Pakistan put it to me, "want Shia finish".)

It looks likely that the arguments I have made here will be discounted, even if made more forcefully and effectively by others. Davis writes:

The Iranians have learned the lesson of Osirak. Their nuclear facilities are widely dispersed in scores of sites throughout the country — above ground, underground and, most problematically, in civilian population centres. It would be hideously difficult to destroy them all. But nothing less will do.

There it is. Civilian population centres must be attacked. Nothing less will do. And feasibility?

For a military strike to be successful, all Iran’s nuclear installations must be taken out, says [my source at the IAEA] — who notes that Iran’s nuclear production facilities have been duplicated and, in some cases, triplicated.

Does Israel have the capacity to take out Iran's nuclear complexes with a combination of air strikes and sabotage? This is presumably where Israeli and US military minds are concentrated right now.

No comments: