There is much sense in today’s (paywalled) Wall Street Journal editorial on Iran, but I think it is too hasty to condemn Gen. Martin Dempsey for saying publicly that he’s worried about the regional destabilization effects of a possible Israeli strike on Iran:
“That’s the question with which we all wrestle. And the reason we think that it’s not prudent at this point to decide to attack Iran,” the General said, referring to a possible Iranian response to an attack. “That’s been our counsel to our allies, the Israelis. And we also know or believe we know that the Iranian regime has not decided that they will embark on the capability—or the effort to weaponize their nuclear capability.”
Facially, these criticisms strike me as correct. But I wonder if this is what the Pentagon is really saying to Israel, in private. I wouldn’t put it past this administration. On the other hand, I hope you won’t think me indulging in a flight of Tom Clancy fancy if I were to suggest there may be a longer game here. Consider: There is active fear and hatred of the Tehran regime in the Arab Middle East. But that fear and hatred is exceeded by the fear and hatred of Israel. This is why, when it comes to American intervention in that region, you can either go to war alongside an Arab coalition or you can go to war alongside Israel, but not both. E.g., the maintenance of the coalition in the Gulf War famously depended on the non-participation of Israel, despite Iraqi missile attacks against Israeli targets designed to provoke Israel into the conflict and thereby dissolve the Arab coalition.
Consider also the relationship between the advancement of the Iranian nuclear program and the scale of the intervention that would be necessary to interdict it. Right now, with development limited to a handful of facilities and nuclear expertise relatively clustered, serious disruption of the program can be affected by covert, targeted bombings and assassinations, cyber warfare, and the like. Which is precisely what’s happening. Moreover, the near-total obliteration of the nuclear capacity could be affected by short, focused aerial bombardment of a small number of targets. But as the refinement process advances, weapons-grade material spreads throughout the country, and , God forbid, weaponization begins, Iran becomes substantially harder to deter and interdiction starts to require full-scale invasion or at least a sustained air war.
UPDATE: Then again, if you buy this Times story, an Israeli strike, even now, would have to be quite sizable indeed. One hundred planes, or more.