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2 - Likelihood and consequences of an Israeli attack on Iran

William Polk 2

We did not then know how very close we had come to total world annihilation in the real-life Cuban Missile Crisis and how much had depended on sheer luck[33] -- and on the bravery or foolhardiness of Nikita Khrushchev.[34]

 To supplement or correct the war-game, America has evolved a second means of evaluating the present and predicting the future.  This is the “National Intelligence Estimate” (NIE) like the one on Iranian nuclear capacities and intent of November 2008.  An NIE represents the considered opinion of the most knowledgeable (or at least best informed) senior officials of the US government who are presumed to speak without fear or favor.  I have myself requested several NIEs and have allowed to sit through the preparation of a number of others.  NIEs are the common way that major problems are examined and predictions are made on how they will evolve.

 The flaw in the NIE is perhaps lesser than that in the war-game, but it is nonetheless serious.  It depends upon assembling “facts.”  That is, the staff that prepares the draft takes the vast input of statements, acts and capabilities of the adversary and from them makes an “appreciation” describing what the adversary is doing and drawing from it the inference of what he is likely to do.    What is often deficient in this approach is that no assemblage of facts can ever be complete.  Even more  important is that it cannot account for all the “non-facts,” the emotions, religious beliefs, fears, memories and even ignorance of the opponent.   

The draft thus prepared is then put before a designated group of senior officials, drawn from all over the Executive Branch, to be discussed and brought to a consensus. The consensus may or may not be right: what seemed to the National Intelligence Council in 2005 was the opposite of what seemed right in 2008. 

 So let me suggest an alternative.  It relies in part on what the war-game and the NIE require, as much information as can be assembled, but it then goes in a slightly different direction:  it involves putting oneself on “the other side of the table.”  That is, it requires that one try to look at the issues the way the opponent does.  Let me take the issue before us and pretend to play the role in the Iranian government that I actually performed in the Kennedy administration.   As an Iranian policy planner, how would “I” see events and trends and what would I advise?

  I am here attempting to accomplish two purposes:  first, in my diplomatic and business experience, I have found that it is always enlightening to put oneself “on the other side of the table,” to try to understand what the other person sees, what he is thinking and what he wants.  Then, second, with as much of a sense of how the other person one sees the issue, one can evaluate whether or not there is a basis for a “deal” and if so what it costs, how likely it is to be successful and what the alternatives are.

I begin with what my hypothetical Iranian policy planner – “I” -- thinks America (under the Bush administration) has been aiming to do:



   Reading in the press what President Bush, Vice President Cheney and other administration officials were saying, “I” (the Iranian Policy Planner)  would begin by assuming that they are planning to attack Iran, abort its nuclear program and “regime change” it.[35]  The policy of the Bush administration is more extreme but continues elements of the Clinton administration policy;[36] so I believe it is likely to continue into the Obama administration.

     My job as the regime’s policy planner is to figure out how to make invading Iran less attractive, and so less likely, and to offer an alternative that America will accept and that Iran’s rulers can afford to approve.  My first step is to ask Iran’s intelligence analysts what the risks are.  In American terms, this is equivalent  to asking for a NIE.  I believe that the Iranian equivalent to the National Intelligence Council would probably respond with this:

 “The first danger is espionage.  That is, the United States could attempt through covert action to bring about a coup d’état.[37]  It did this in 1953 when the CIA and the British MI6 overthrew the government of Prime Minister Mosaddegh.  Could it do so now?  The odds are against it because the Iranian regime has both purged the regular army of the kind of officers  who in 1953 supported the monarchy and has stationed among all army and air force units mullas who monitor officers and men; it also has offset the regular army with the Revolutionary Guard. Moreover, with members of the ulama living in every community throughout the country, it would be very difficult for any significant group of Iranians to assist foreigners, as the senior army leaders and some political dissidents did in the 1953 coup. 

  “Even without mullahs watching them, the Security Services believe that the bulk of the Iranian people are with the regime at least on the issue of national defense.[38]  True, there are dissident groups among the minorities – the Kurds in the northwest, the Arabs in the southwest  and the Baluchis in the southeast  -- but these dissident groups are small, uncoordinated, distant from strategic centers and unpopular with the bulk of the Iranian population.  They can commit occasional terrorist acts, as each has done  -- for example, murdering a Revolutionary Guard officer and blowing up a cultural center in Shiraz[39] -- but those acts will only increase popular antipathy to them. 

“The only truly Iranian dissident group was the Mojahedin-e Khalk and they were effectively destroyed or chased out of Iran from 1982.  They have no significant following in the country and blackened their name by their association with Saddam Husain during his attack on Iran.  The Americans initially aided and abetted their terrorist attacks on Iran,[40] but subsequently the Americans bombed their bases in Iraq in 2003.[41]  Our friend and ally in Iraq, Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, has ruled that they cannot use Iraq as a staging ground for attacks on Iran.

“Even with the support of some people in minority communities, American “Special Operations Forces” constitute no serious threat to our regime.  They can be provocative, occasionally kidnap or kill a few of our officers or commit sabotage, but these are only pin-pricks.

 “The U.S. Air Force has consistently violated Iranian airspace with unmanned drones in recent years.  What our radar and ground observers told us has been confirmed even in the western press.[42] Their intrusions are insulting but not a serious problem.  In any event, even if we shoot down the drones, we cannot prevent satellite photography; however, we can hide whatever we wish to prevent being photographed by simply roofing our facilities as we did at our IR-40 Nuclear Research Reactor.[43]

 “More serious is the risk of air attacks. The American Air Force appears eager to stage such attacks.  They have publicly stated that they can destroy our armed forces, our industry and indeed our whole country.  Perhaps the closest they came to acting was in April 2007 when we had a minor confrontation with the British in the waters off the Shatt al-Arab.  The  Americans offered to act, but British refused the offer.[44]   At about the same time, judging that the Americans were on the edge of military action, the head of the International Atomic Energy Agency warned against “new crazies who say ‘let’s go and bomb Iran.’”[45]  He did not name American Vice President Dick Cheney, but just a few days before Mr. Cheney had issued threats to Iran on the deck of an American aircraft carrier just off our coast.[46]  At the present time, we do not have the capacity to stop a massive or sneak air attack, but we are getting advanced anti-aircraft rockets (SA-20 and later models) from the Russians.   We probably could not stop the USAF but we might be able to stop the Israelis.

 “We have had a curious relationship with the Israelis. They were close allies of the Shah, as we learned when the students who had seized the American embassy pieced together shredded secret documents, but we have traded with them and, during the Reagan administration, have even purchased military equipment from them.  More recently, they have repeatedly threatened to do to us what they did in their attack on the Iraq on June 7, 1981. They demonstrated recently over the eastern Mediterranean that they could attack us.  We could not now stop them.  Perhaps we could after we get more anti-aircraft missiles.  But, unless they used nuclear weapons, they could not defeat us.  To attack us, they would have to refuel in the air or at American bases in Iraq. Before he left office, President Bush told them they could not do this; the cost to America of allowing Israel to attack us would be high.

“Moreover, since Israel and Iran do not share a frontier,  Israeli aircraft would have to overfly Turkey – and we don’t think the Turks would allow this – or Syria[47] and Iraq.  The Syrians would not be able to stop them and we doubt that any American administration would or even could prevent them from overflying Iraq.  No American president could afford to order the USAF to shoot down Israeli aircraft flying against Iran. 

 “So we have taken such precautions as we can, by burying many of our installations at least 70 feet (21 meters) underground (much as America and Russia did their nuclear facilities and missiles); so we think an attacker would have to use nuclear weapons.[48]

 “The use of nuclear weapons against us would be catastrophic for us and also for the Israelis, but  Israel has the means and has been training for a nuclear attack on Iran at least since 2007.[49]  It is the world’s fifth largest nuclear weapons power with what the US Defense Intelligence Agency publically estimates to be 60 to 80 bombs.[50]   Two of its “Dolphin-class” submarines, each armed with 24 US-made Harpoon missiles,  perhaps nuclear tipped, patrol off our southern and western coasts, well within range of every town in Iran.[51]  Other Israeli missiles could be fired from Israel itself; they would be disturbing but not decisive unless they were nuclear armed.

 “Israel is thus Iran’s greatest danger, but it is only the tip of our security problem:  Iran is surrounded by nuclear powers – India, Pakistan, China and Russia in addition to Israel.  We now have relatively favorable relations with these powers, but conditions could change.  The Russians, particularly, might be prepared to drop their (somewhat tepid) support of us in exchange for the Americans pulling NATO back and/or dropping their plan to install missiles in Central Europe.  Of more immediate concern, the United States maintains nuclear weapons and delivery systems in bases in Qatar, Iraq, Turkey, Uzbekistan and Afghanistan; America has the capacity to deliver bombs directly from the continental United States;  and its huge fleet in the Persian Gulf varies between 2 and 6 carrier battle groups with hundreds of aircraft and cruise missiles, each of which can be tipped  with nuclear weapons already present on the ships.[52] The Americans have threatened time after time to use them[53] and have even developed a special bomb, which they have apparently also given Israel, that US Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld called a “robust nuclear earth penetrator.”

 “If nuclear weapons were used, probably tens or hundreds of thousands of our citizens would be killed immediately;[54] the bombs would also throw up perhaps one million cubic meters of radioactive soil with unimaginable consequences for us but also for people all around the world.  Consequently, we think this would be such a catastrophe that sane governments would not do it.  Now that the Bush administration is gone, we think the danger has somewhat lessened. But, the danger remains.  Particularly from Israel.”

 This is what I imagine an Iranian intelligence analyst would tell his government.




Based on this analysis, Iran’s policy planner would be expected to recommend what his government should do.  Imagining myself  in that role, I believe he would say something like this:

 “Looking at the Axis of Evil sequence and hearing the cacophony of American threats, I urge that Iran get a nuclear device as quickly as possible.  That, after all, was the successful policy of Russia, China, India, Pakistan and Israel.  Indeed, as a leading student of strategy at the Hebrew University recently said, ‘Had the Iranians not tried to build nuclear weapons, they would be crazy.’ 

 “But, the acquisition process – that is, when other governments believe a country  is working on getting a bomb but does not yet have one -- is a time of great danger.  How to get through this period of danger is the major challenge.  There are several components in the answer:

 “Clearly we must make a military strike on Iran unattractive. Iran’s first defense is its people.  Although the government may be unpopular with many Iranians, they are as unlikely to aid a foreign invader as the anti-Castro Cubans were during the American attacks on Cuba at the Bay of Pigs in 1961 and the anti-Saddam Iraqis were during the 2003 American invasion. Iran is better prepared and in a position to inflict more damage on an invader than either the Cubans or the Iraqis.  The Cubans were few in number and the Iraqis had no organized fallback force after its  army cracked.  The Iranian regime must assume that a campaign of “shock and awe” would destroy its regular armed forces,  but Iran has a potent fallback force.  The 150,000 Revolutionary Guards and even more numerous Sazman-e Basijs (who showed their fanatical bravery during the Iraq-Iran War) are trained and equipped for guerrilla warfare.  We should make it clear that they would inflict large and continuing casualties on any invader.  Iran is large and has several times the population of Iraq so the cost of invading or trying to occupy it would be many times that of Iraq.  We must be sure that the United States realizes this.

 “In addition to this land-based guerrilla potential, Iran learned from the Iraq-Iran war, when America sank its larger ships, to go for small boats.  Iran has nearly a thousand high-speed boats scattered among more than 700 little ports along the Persian Gulf.  They could be used in Kamikaze type attacks with missiles and bombs and would certainly do great damage to attacking forces.[55]  Again, we need to be sure that all outsiders realize the consequences of an attack.

 “Iran has developed and built missiles of which at least the Shihab-3 has a range of about  a thousand miles (1,600 kilometers) and so could reach Israel.  We must make it clear that if attacked we will use them against Israel.   Iran also has large numbers of smaller missiles that could be used to destroy oil facilities and sink ships along the Gulf.  In response to an attack, Iran like any other state would naturally use all its means of defense or counter-attack.  The states in the Gulf should be made to realize the cost to them of any attack on us.

 “Additionally, unlike remote and isolated North Korea, Iran has trading partners, friends and allies abroad.  Both China and India rely heavily on Iranian energy exports.  An attack on us, they should be reminded,  would derail their own development programs. Other countries – indeed the whole Islamic world -- would view an American  and even more an Israeli -- attack on Iran, as an attack on Islam. Iran’s national religion, Shia Islam, has millions of adherents in Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, Indonesia, Lebanon, Syria, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain.  Our enemies will try to accentuate the Shia-Sunni split, but we must portray the attaack as one on the religion as a whole. An attack by America and/or Israel would also conjure memories, even more widely shared,  of imperialist “gunboat diplomacy.”  Africans and Asians are already sensitive to this issue and we can draw on their anger.  Finally, America’s European allies would not support the attack.  We need to keep the issue before them.  Americans are well aware of these facts. Iranians must doubt that the American people would support a ruinously expensive war particularly in the midst of their enormous financial difficulties; America would have to be mad to add Iran to its problems.  The logic of our position should be self-evident.

 “From these short-range considerations, Iran needs a longer-range policy that has two features:  first,  it should aim at a result that would give it safety,  prosperity and, above all, dignity.  The simplest answer to this objective would be acquisition of a nuclear weapon.  Once that was achieved, Iran would automatically be made a member of “the club” of nuclear powers.  However, we must not lose sight of the fact that acquisition of a nuclear weapon is only a means, and not necessarily the best means, to accomplishing our objectives.  It is expensive in terms of money, industrial capacity and talent.  Once acquired, a nuclear arsenal is expensive to maintain and control.  Moreover, having a weapon does not get us further toward the development of our country.  Look at Pakistan.  And we learned from the regime of the Shah that excessive expenditure on the military weakens a country.  But, it is fool-proof:  if we have a weapon we will not be attacked.

  “If our leaders decide to weaponize, we must protect ourselves during the dangerous acquisiton phase.  Doing so will require shrewd tactics and subtle action.  It will also require --  and must aim to acquire -- time to bring the various elements together. 

 “There are well-tested models for handling this dangerous process.  The United States, Russia, Israel, China, India, Pakistan and North Korea each rushed through the acquisition phase as rapidly and as secretly as possible.  Iran cannot hope to achieve the same degree of secrecy, but it has a means to overcome excessive surveillance or interference.  The model for that action was provided by China and Vietnam, and if done with care, it can be effective.  In essence, it simply alternates offers to negotiate with moves to build the still-legal nuclear manufacturing capacity.[56]  We Iranians add an element to the Chinese and Vietnamese model.  It is the traditional Shia protective mode of dissimulation  (taqiyyah). Such a tactic would give Iran the option at any time of agreeing to nuclear restraint or, if our conditions are not met or we find that danger increased to an intolerable level, of moving ahead to acquire a weapon.  Alternating the two activities, what Mao called “talk talk fight fight” thus for Iran would become ‘offer to talk, offer to talk, spin centrifuges, spin centrifuges.’  “Such a policy requires subtlety and close attention to the temper of the United States and Israel.  Pushing too hard or fast could precipitate an attack. 

 “We may not have a free choice in these matters.  Israel may attack us whatever we do and even whatever the cost to Israel itself. After all, governments do not always act on rational intelligence assessments and are often driven by anger, fear or ideology.  Consequently, I must affirm that  the most certain way to deter attack is to acquire at least one nuclear weapon and the means to deliver it.  That is what Russia, China, India, Pakistan and Israel have done.  The means to deliver a weapon, the Shihab-3 missile, has been in hand for five or six years.[57]  The bomb itself is not in hand.  And getting it will be both dangerous, as I have said, and costly in intellectual resources and money.

 “Therefore, if security can be achieved in ways that also contribute to the wealth of the country, they would be obviously preferable.   So, we should explore the alternatives.”




Now reverting to my own position as an American and drawing on considerable experience in planning policy, negotiating difficult problems (including helping to end the Algerian war as head of the US government Algerian Task Force and negotiating a ceasefire in the “Suez War” at the request of Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir), I suggest that the answer to the question I posed above is that there is the possibility of a “deal” that would prevent war and thus work to American and world interests.

  As I see the major elements of such a deal, they include, in order of precedence, the following:


1.                  The United States must renounce its assertion in the “National Security Paper of the United States” of its right and intention to preëmptively attack any country   “at the time, place, and in the manner of our choosing.”[58] As long as this remains a valid statement of American policy, the Iranian government would be foolish not to seek a nuclear weapon.  As the former head of the U.S. National Security Agency, Lt. General William Odon, wrote, “…President George W. Bush’s threat of regime change has only driven Iran and North Korea to accelerate their efforts”[59] to acquire nuclear weapons and as Charles Ferguson added, “a U.S. attack would undoubtedly convince Iran’s leaders to take that momentous step.”[60]  An attack would not only guarantee that Iran would acquire a weapon, but would set off a race among other powers to acquire them.
2.                  The second step is to help to organize and become a signatory to an internationally guaranteed statement recognizing Iran’s sovereign independence and certifying that no other state will attack it. As even senior American generals and other officials have pointed out, “Iran cannot accept long term restraints on its fuel-cycle activity as part of a settlement without a security guarantee.”[61]  
3.                  Such guarantees have often been made among states, but in and of themselves they have rarely prevented war.  So the third step would be to create a nuclear-free Middle East. This and other steps could be taken in a phased manner.  It could begin with a decision by the US to stand down its own enormous naval and air forces on Iran’s frontier.
4.                  More complex, of course, is what to do about the neighboring already nuclear-armed states.   The means to accomplish this part of the objective will require international negotiation of a high order.  But the essential element is clear:  “imbalance” is what has successively motivated other  powers to acquire nuclear weapons.  Russia had to have the bomb because America had it; China, because of Russia, India and Pakistan,  because of one another.  So Iran will not definitively give up its ambition unless other states do too. We must recognize that this is virtually a universal truth: it was clearly stated by the then head of the Indian nuclear program to justify his nation’s acquisition of the bomb.  He said, essentially, that there can’t be one standard for the Europeans who were the original members of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and another for the Asians who were late comers.  But cutting back and then abolishing nuclear weapons inventories is in everyone’s interest.   This now appears to be the policy of the Obama administration.  It is the correct policy since nuclear weapons anywhere are a danger to people everywhere. 
5.                  Would Israel join in such an effort?   Now, it will certainly say “no,” but Israel has logical reasons to reconsider this decision because soon, whether or not Iran decides to get a nuclear weapon, other countries in the area eventually – and probably soon -- will.  So while, arguably, nuclear weapons were a source of security for Israel in the past  its nuclear arsenal is now becoming a source of insecurity. It will be extremely difficult to convince Israel of this point, but the logic will become clearer as time passes, and there are incentives that can be offered to encourge this move.
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