The Magazine

A Raid on Iran?

Don’t count out the Israeli military. It has a record of pulling off daring, surprise strikes.

Dec 30, 2013, Vol. 19, No. 16 • By URI SADOT
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A RAND report later concluded that Israel’s success was due not to its technological advantage. “The Syrians were simply outflown and outfought by vastly superior Israeli opponents. .  .  . The outcome would most likely have been heavily weighted in Israel’s favor even had the equipment available to each side been reversed. At bottom, the Syrians were .  .  . [defeated] by the IDF’s constant retention of the operational initiative and its clear advantages in leadership, organization, tactical adroitness, and adaptability.” In other words, Israel won because of its creative and skillful orchestration of a well-organized fighting force.

And then there is Israel’s most recent high-profile conflict with Syria. When Israeli intelligence discovered that Bashar al-Assad’s regime was building a plutonium reactor in the northeast Syrian Desert, Israeli and American leaders disagreed on the best course of action. Israel’s then-prime minister Ehud Olmert argued for a military solution, while the Bush administration feared the risks, demurred, and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice pushed to take the matter to the U.N. The Israelis, however, confident in their cyberwarfare capabilities, knew they could disable Syria’s air defenses. Moreover, as careful students of Syrian decision-making, they believed they could destroy the reactor without triggering a costly reaction from Assad. And on September 6, 2007, Israel once again overturned the expert predictions and assessments of others and successfully destroyed the Syrian reactor at Al Kibar. 

With Iran, American and Israeli leaders once again disagree on what might be gained by a military strike. While the American debate is riddled with doubts about the efficacy of force, Israeli experts harbor far fewer doubts. As former chief of military intelligence Amos Yadlin asserts unequivocally: “It can be done.” There are some Israeli strategists less optimistic, but the nature of their dissent is fundamentally different from that of American skeptics. U.S. policymakers and analysts question Israel’s ability to strike, or how far even the most successful strike might set back Iran’s nuclear program, but Israelis largely believe they can take effective military action. The question for Israeli strategists is at what cost? A 2012 IAF impact evaluation report predicted 300 civilian casualties in the event of an Iranian retaliatory missile attack. Former defense minister Ehud Barak offered a higher number, contending that open conflict with Iran would claim less than 500 Israeli casualties. Responding to Barak’s relatively optimistic assessment, onetime Mossad director Meir Dagan argued instead that an attack on Iran would take a heavy toll in terms of loss of life and would paralyze life in Israel. 

Regardless of the number of potential casualties, the frank discussion of what an attack on Iran might cost Israel in human lives is an essential part of preparing the country, and steeling it, for the possibility of war. Israel has also devoted material resources to the eventuality of a military campaign against the regime in Tehran. According to Ehud Olmert, Israel has spent over $10 billion on preparations for a potential showdown with Iran. “We’ve worked long and hard to prepare ourselves,” former IDF chief of staff Gabi Ashkenazi said recently. Israel, he added, “will be able to deal with the consequences of a military attack on Iran.”

The question of how exactly Israel might act to stop the Iranian nuclear program is an open one. In part, that’s because it’s hard to know how Israeli strategists see the problem or might reconfigure the working paradigm. The basic operational assumption is that Israel would attack from the air, but who knows? If the goal is to slow down Iran’s nuclear program, there are other ways to do it, perhaps by targeting Iran’s economy, its powergrid, its oil fields, or the regime itself. Or military action might not take the form of an aerial attack at all, but rather a commando heist of Iran’s uranium. Recall the raid on Entebbe: With commandos operating 2,000 miles from Israel’s borders disguised as a convoy carrying the Ugandan leader Idi Amin, that 1976 operation, like many of Israel’s air triumphs, combined strategic surprise with tactical deception.

What is certain, however—what many historical precedents make clear—is that it would be an error of the first order to dismiss Israel’s ability to take meaningful military action against Iran. Israel has left its enemies, as well as American policymakers and military experts, surprised in the past, and it may very well do so again.

Uri Sadot is a research associate at the Council on Foreign Relations and holds a master’s degree in international affairs from Princeton University.

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