Scenarios about the growing possibility that Israel will attack Iran in was would very likely be a feckless attempt to destroy the Iranian nuclear weapons program and more or less permanently to prevent Iran from getting a nuclear weapons capability were discussed in this space earlier this week (“Israel, Iran, and the United States”) and generally concluded both that such anattack was becoming increasingly likely and that it does not serve U.S. interests. This column takes the analysis a step forward, with the purpose of trying to answer the hypothetical (at least for the moment) question of what happens after such an Israeli strike occurs. As the title suggests, the attractiveness of post-attack options for the United States are unpromising.
The heart of the speculation that follows is what does Iran do in response to an attack? In a literal sense, of course, we do not and cannot know in advance, and neither do the Iranians or the Israelis, which is why it is an exercise in speculation. The reader can disagree with the premises here, and I cannot refute them with facts not in hand; the same is true for my arguments against counter scenarios.
Two things seem safe to presume, however. First, if Israel attacks Iran, the Iranians will respond, almost certainly violently. They will have no choice for both domestic and international political reasons, and whatever they do will receive less criticism than their policy actions before such an attack occurs. Second, the nature, severity, and reactions to an Iranian counterattack will depend on the nature, extent, and effects of an Israeli raid. The more extensive and, presumably, effective an Israeli attack is, the larger the probable responses by the Iranians will likely be.
If it cannot restrain the Israelis in the first place (the fairly clear intent of the Obama administration), the United States will not have many options in dealing with Iranian responses. There will be international sympathy for the Iranians that does not exist now, because they will have been the victim of aggression under the provisions of the UN Charter, and the more dead Iranians (especially civilians) the raid produces, the more widespread sympathy will be, even among Arabs who the Israelis maintain actually approve of the general idea of punishing the Iranians and defanging their nuclear potential. The American post-attack position is thus conmpromised in that support for Israel in effect sanctions an illegal act of aggression that results in the deaths of innocent Iranians. The degree to which the United States will further be compromised depends on how complicit this country was in the attack in the first place: the more we were involved, the more we will fall within the blanket of condemnation. Possibly the most we can do is to warn eveyone–especially Iran–quietly that their retaliation cannot threaten Israeli existence. Doing so will not, of course, please either the Israelis or their more dogmatic supporters in the United States.
If an attack occurs, the Iranians will have several response options, depending on how extensive the attack was. The sronger the response, of course, the less it serves U.S. interests.
1. If the attack is small and the effects minor (in other words, if it fails from an Israeli viewpoint), they can simply complain about the act of aggression and use it as leverage to lift international sanctions against it. In the process, they will almost certainly blame the United States for helping to plan and execute the raid, with reminders of U.S. perfidy toward Iran in cases like Operation Ajax (the 1953 CIA operation that overthrew Iran’s only popularly elected government) and the shoot down of an unarmed Iranian commercial airliner in the late 1980s.
2. Since the Israeli attack is likely to be more successful than that (or the Israelis wouldn’t do it), then the responses begin to escalate. At a minimum, they would include additional resources to Hezballah in the form of additional rockets that will coming raining down on Israel. The Israelis will complain that these are unprovoked, and hardly anyone will believe them internationally (escept the political right in the U.S.). An Israeli raid equals more “terrorist” attacks against Israel.
3. Depending on the level of success the Israeli attack achieves, there are two additional actions the Iranians can contemplate. The first would be retaliatory air strikes against the Israelis. Such a response would possess symmetry to the Israeli raid, and given that they were responses to the original Israeli action, regimes that normally do not support Iran (such as Jordan) would likely not object to Iranian overflight to reach Israeli targets. The Israelis would, of course, object loudly both to the provisions of those rights and the attacks, raising the prospects of escalation to a broader conflict that could involve the region.
4. Ultimately, Iran could begin a retaliatory campaign intended or with the side effect of causing an escalation to general war in the Middle East against Israel. Hardly anyone wants to see this or argues it is very probable, but once the dogs of war are unleashed, they are sometimes hard to control.
None of these options, and counter responses to them, serve any visible U.S. interests. The cessation of the Iranian nuclear program would serve such an interest, but it is one of the most unlikely outcomes, and only becomes less implausible as the scale of the Israeli attack and thus the likely virulence of the Iranian response expands. The larger that response becomes, the more difficult the problem of U.S. responses becomes. Success on one objective makes other objectives (e.g. regional stability) more problematical.
Israel and many of its supporters seek to deny what Iran will (or may) do in reaction to an Israeli attack, and they may be right. No one can know for sure, but it is counterintuitive to believe that a chauvinistic, paranoid, authoritarian Iran will take an attack lying down. They will respond somehow, and one or more of the options suggested here seems reasonable. Each option puts the United States in an increasingly untenable position of defending Israel from a retaliation many around the world (including many who dislike Iran and oppose their nuclear weapons effort) will feel is either justified or understandable. In these circumstances, the U.S. can shoulder-to-shoulder with Israel, or it can side with the rest of the world. It is not a happy set of options.
The only way to avoid something like these dynamics is to avoid and, to the extent possible, prevent an Israeli attack in the first place. That is what the Obama administration is doing, and the radical right is condemning this as limp-wristed and inadequately supportive of our ally Israel. They are wrong!