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«CONTINGENCY PLANNING MEMORANDUM NO. 5 An Israeli Strike on Iran Steven Simon November 2009 The Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) is an independent, ...»

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Israeli officials are aware that no conceivable Israeli strike could completely eliminate the nuclear threat posed by Iran and that an attack might only intensify longer-term risks as Iran reconstituted covertly, advancing an argument long made by counterterrorism officials that any effort to counter Iran’s nuclear challenge is going to be like “mowing the lawn.” Just as the grass will grow again, so will the nuclear program; Israel will just have to mow again. And as Iran’s reconstitution effort goes underground and its defenses are enhanced, Israel’s intelligence and military capabilities will have to keep pace. They also argue, however, that the advantages of buying time should not be disregarded.

Thus, the 1981 Osirak attack won two crucial decades during which Operation Desert Storm effectively disarmed Iraq and Operation Iraqi Freedom finally decapitated it. Neither tectonic event could have been predicted in 1981. (The counterargument is that the Osirak raid stimulated Iraq to switch to an highly enriched uranium [HEU] route and vastly increased the money and manpower devoted to the program. Whether or not the bombing set back Iraq’s program, the point is that many Israelis believe that it did.) On this Israeli view, a strike might prove worthwhile in ways that neither Israel nor the United States can anticipate at this stage.

In assessing the likelihood of an attack, it is useful to look back on the origins of the Six Day War in 1967 and the raid on the Osirak reactor in Iraq. In each case, Israel attacked only after a long period of procrastination. In 1967, Washington’s hands-off posture tipped the balance in the cabinet in favor of preemption. In the case of Osirak, the Carter and Reagan administrations’ unwillingness or incapacity to intervene left Israel feeling cornered and compelled to act unilaterally. One lesson to be learned from this is that Israel is more likely to use force if it perceives Washington to be disengaged.

Finally, if the Russian analysis is correct—namely, that the sort of crippling sanctions that would help stave off an Israeli attack would also drive Iran out of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT)—then the probability of an Israeli strike would be correspondingly higher, since Iranian withdrawal from the NPT would itself be a casus belli. Moreover, Iran’s withdrawal would diminish the diplomatic opportunity cost of an attack.


Surprise would be essential to the success of an attack and Israel’s operational security would be correspondingly strong. Accordingly, tactical warning would be elusive. However, certain indicators have already surfaced; the appearance of others could indicate an Israeli intent to attack.

One indicator would be Israeli efforts to enhance the operational feasibility of the military option before a political decision to attack. Such actions would also serve the dual purpose of signaling Iran and others of Israel’s resolve and capability with an eye to deterring further Iranian movement toward a nuclear weapons capability. Recent developments in this category include the June 2008 longrange joint-air exercise—involving one hundred aircraft, long-range combat search and rescue helicopters, and refueling aircraft—which corresponded in scale and reach to an Israeli strike against Iran. The unprecedented June 2009 passage of an Israeli submarine through the Suez Canal, which showed that Israel had a maritime attack option in addition to air strikes, and that Jerusalem would have the support of at least one regional state, namely Egypt, represents another such signal. Similar indicators that might not be apparent outside of intergovernmental deliberations or the intelligence domain could include requests for targeting data and/or repositioning of strike aircraft within Israel once an attack path had been selected.

Other operational preparations could also portend Israeli action. These include bolstering homeland security, especially if it involves an emphasis on shelter locations, distribution of gas masks, or similar precautions against retaliatory attack. Tactical changes, including redeployment of ground forces to reinforce Israeli Northern Command and potentially enter Lebanon from a cold start, could also indicate a stronger likelihood of an Israeli attack.

Political developments inside Israel and Iran could also presage a decision to attack. For instance, broader public references to the Holocaust and warnings that time is running out would suggest an increasing probability of Israeli action. Netanyahu has sounded these themes regularly. If the political opposition echoed them, domestic political barriers to attack would have lowered.

Finally, delivery of advanced Russian S-300 surface to air missiles to Iran, which would multiply the risks of an air attack, Might spur Israel to strike before the missiles were fielded.


Some observers would view an Israeli attack that significantly degraded Iran’s nuclear weapons capability as beneficial to U.S. counterproliferation objectives and ultimately to U.S. national security.

The United States has a clear interest in the integrity of the NPT regime and the compliance of member states with meaningful inspection arrangements. The use of force against Iran’s nuclear program would, at a minimum, show that attempts to exploit the restraint of interested powers, manipulate the diplomatic process, game the NPT, and impede International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) access to nuclear-related facilities could carry serious penalties. Were Iran to acquire a nuclear weapons capability, the ability of the U.S. military forces to operate freely in the vicinity of Iran could, under some circumstances, be constrained. Looking into the future, a hostile Iran could also develop reliable long-range delivery systems for nuclear warheads that could strike American territory.

At the same time, an Israeli attack—even if operationally successful—would pose immediate risks to U.S. interests.

First, regardless of perceptions of U.S. complicity in the attack, the United States would probably become embroiled militarily in any Iranian retaliation against Israel or other countries in the region.

Given uncertainties about the future of Iraq and a deepening commitment to Afghanistan, hostilities with Iran would stretch U.S. military capabilities at a particularly difficult time while potentially derailing domestic priorities.

Second, an Israeli strike would cause oil prices to spike and heighten concerns that energy supplies through the Persian Gulf may become disrupted. Should Iran attempt to block the Strait of Hormuz by mining, cruise missile strikes, or small boat attacks, these fears would become realized. According to the GAO, however, the loss of Iranian oil for eighteen months would increase prices by only $6 to $11/bbl, assuming that the International Energy Agency coordinated release of reserves. This said, at the onset of the crisis, prices might hit $200/bbl (up from the current level of around $77/bbl) for a short period but would likely quickly subside.

Third, since the United States would be viewed as having assisted Israel, U.S. efforts to foster better relations with the Muslim world would almost certainly suffer. The United States has an enduring strategic interest in fostering better relations with the Muslim world, which is distinct from the ruling elites on whom the United States depends for an array of regional objectives. In part, this interest derives from the need to lubricate cooperation between the United States and these governments by lowering some of the popular resentment of Washington that can hem in local leaders and impede their support for U.S. initiatives. A narrative less infused by anti-Americanism also facilitates counterterrorism goals and, from a longer-range perspective, hedges against regime change. The perceived involvement of the United States in an Israeli attack would undercut these interlocking interests, at least for a while.

Fourth, the United States has a strong interest in domestically generated regime change in Iran.

Although some argue that the popular anger aroused in Iran by a strike would be turned against a discredited clerical regime that seemed to invite foreign attack after its bloody postelection repression of nonviolent opposition, it is more likely that Iranians of all stripes would rally around the flag.

If so, the opposition Green movement would be undermined, while the ascendant hard-line clerics and Revolutionary Guard supporters would face fewer constraints in consolidating their hold on power.

Fifth, an Israeli attack might guarantee an overtly nuclear weapons capable Iran in the medium term.

Sixth, although progress toward an Israeli-Palestinian final status accord remains elusive, an Israeli strike, especially one that overflew Jordan or Saudi Arabia, would delay fruitful renewed negotiation indefinitely. Both Washington and Jerusalem would be too preoccupied with managing the consequences of an attack, while regional capitals would deflect U.S. appeals to upgrade relations with Israel as an incentive to concessions. If Hamas or Hezbollah were to retaliate against Israel, either spontaneously or in response to Iranian pressure to act, any revival of the peace process would be further set back.

Finally, the United States has an abiding interest in the safety and security of Israel. Depending on the circumstances surrounding an Israeli attack, the political-military relationship between Jerusalem and Washington could fray, which could erode unity among Democrats and embolden Republicans, thereby complicating the administration’s political situation, and weaken Israel’s deterrent.

Even if an Israeli move on Iran did not dislocate the bilateral relationship, it could instead produce diplomatic rifts between the United States and its European and regional allies, reminiscent of tensions over the Iraq war.


Assuming that the U.S. continues to assess an Israeli attack to be undesirable, options to forestall or hedge against a strike would have to be geared to negating factors that would lead Israel to assess that the benefits of an attack outweigh the costs. These factors include perceptions that the White House has given at least a yellow light to the strike; that the United States is disengaged either because it has run out of diplomatic options or because an agreement with Iran has met Washington’s security objectives but left Israel exposed; and that the United States has not proffered to Israel convincing security guarantees against a nuclear-capable Iran. This list implies the importance of firm, direct communication of U.S. opposition to a strike from the White House to the Israeli prime minister; continued U.S. engagement that reflects an awareness of Israel’s greater exposure to the Iranian threat relative to that of the United States; and a willingness to consider a palpable tightening of the U.S.-Israel strategic relationship that secures Israeli restraint and, conversely, warns of a rupture should Israel attack Iran despite the U.S. president’s explicit opposition. If, over time, events develop in a way that, from a U.S. perspective, more fully warrants Israeli anxiety, the balance between warning and reassurance would of course shift, both privately and publicly.

To facilitate this new bilateral understanding, Washington could take any or all of the following

preventive measures:

 make progress toward a verifiable, highly transparent agreement with Iran that will make it very difficult to produce highly enriched uranium and/or weapons-grade plutonium, and secondarily to weaponize.

 recreate the “Eagleburger” Mission. In 1991, Deputy Secretary of State Lawrence Eagleburger led two small delegations to Israel when it was under Iraqi Scud attack. His objective was to urge Israeli restraint. The missions succeeded because the United States was firm in refusing Israeli access to Iraqi airspace, but worked with Israel on ways the United States could destroy the Scuds. The United States should establish a similar channel to Israel (if it has not been already) to gauge Israeli intentions and discuss steps to reduce the threat to Israel, while arguing that an Israeli military option would test the U.S.-Israel relationship without reducing the longterm Iranian threat. Other objectives would be to make clear that overflight of Iraq would not be permitted; share the U.S. assessment of the risks and potential costs of overflight of third countries; and explore Israeli expectations and response options about Iranian retaliation.

 continue to declare the “unacceptable” nature of a nuclear Iran and that “all options remain on the table” to reassure Israel that the United States would not seek a diplomatic accommodation that compromised Israel’s security.

 send high-profile visitors to Israel on reassurance missions; a presidential visit to express solidarity with Israel and emphasize measures the United States is taking on the nuclear issue would be helpful.

– extend to Israel the option of a defense treaty with the United States. Such a treaty would contain unambiguous security guarantees to Israel that it would be covered by the U.S.

“nuclear umbrella” so as to deter Iran. Although it is unclear whether Israel would welcome such a treaty, other states that felt threatened by Iran’s acquisition of nuclear weapons, notably Egypt and Saudi Arabia, would likely demand similar coverage if it were extended to Israel.

Finally, the United States could also consider the option advocated by former national security adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski, that of the United States actively impeding an Israeli attack once it is under way. It is hard to imagine, however, that the United States would risk the severe—even permanent––damage such action would incur on its longstanding strategic relationship with Israel.


While doing all it can to forestall an Israeli attack, the United States must also plan for managing and minimizing the crisis that would ensue if the primary policy fails and Israel does in fact attack Iran.

Such planning should include the following steps:

 work with basing countries—especially Bahrain, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates (UAE)—on first response, consequence management capacities, and intelligence exchanges;

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