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.”
The editors argue this sort of talk emboldens and legitimizes the regime in Tehran, admitting as it does that Washington buys the Iranian official line–that it has no intentions of weaponizing its nuclear capability–and is keeping its distance from its ally, Israel.
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.
Now take those two facts together. The best option in the near term is an Israeli surprise attack, acting alone (or with covert support from the United States). Operations Orchard and Opera are the models. But under this scenario, the U.S. needs plausible deniability to minimize regional fallout (that the U.S. is no longer in nominal control of Iraqi airspace, which an Israeli strike would have to violate, is here a plus). So it cannot very well be seen as endorsing the attack beforehand. On the other hand, if an Israeli strike does not come or is ineffective, and the advancement of the Iranian nuclear program now requires a full-scale war, then the United States will need — or at minimum very much want – buy-in from the Arab powers, with whose interests the checking of Iran lay. But to get this they’ll need to keep Israel at arms length. This is how the game has been played in the Middle East for thirty years or longer. It ain’t pretty, but there isn’t much about the region that is.
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.