Not If But When
What Israel’s 2007 strike on Syria tells us about Iran.
“This attack will be a precedent for every future government in Israel. . . . [E]very future Israeli prime minister will act, in similar circumstances, in the same way.”
—Menachem Begin, after Israel’s 1981 attack
As the standoff over Iran’s nuclear program persists, it is worth bearing in mind Menachem Begin’s words—an important statement of Israeli national policy that transcends domestic politics. With the strike on Osiraq, Israel announced that it would never allow itself to be dependent upon others for its defense against a nuclear threat. It reaffirmed that commitment in 2007, when it destroyed a nuclear reactor under construction in Syria. This policy of what we call “nondependency” is critical for assessing the present crisis with Iran, as negotiations and sanctions fail to yield results and Iran continues to enrich uranium and fortify its facilities.
Israel’s risk of having to depend on the United States to act against Iran’s nuclear program grows with the passage of time. We don’t know precisely when, in Israel’s calculation, Iran will enter a “zone of immunity” with respect to Israel—the point at which a unilateral Israeli attack would not stop Iran’s program—but we know that point will come sooner than America’s own deadline for action because of America’s superior military capabilities. Also, where there are uncertainties as to Iran’s capabilities, Israel is more likely than the United States to resolve them by assuming the worst—that Iran’s program is further along—given Israel’s far greater vulnerability to a nuclear Iran.
A review of the process leading up to Israel’s destruction of Syria’s clandestine nuclear program suggests how to think about Israeli policy over the next several months.
In late 2006, Israel learned that Syria, with help from North Korea, was building a clandestine nuclear reactor. Israel quickly concluded that the reactor represented an existential threat and had to be destroyed before it could become operational. Israeli fighter jets attacked the facility on September 6, 2007—days before the reactor would be ready to start operating.
Prior to this action, the Israeli government made the case to Washington that it was in the United States’s interest to destroy the facility, but also that if the Americans did not act, the Israelis would. The Bush administration reviewed the situation and proposed using the UN/IAEA process to delay the point at which the plant would become operational—something Israel could not accept.
Following Washington’s decision not to destroy the Syrian reactor, Israel worked closely with the United States, agreeing to postpone a strike planned for July and sharing intelligence and an attack itinerary. According to some reports, the United States provided information on potential Syrian air defense vulnerabilities. But Israel did not ask for permission to attack, and the United States did not grant it.
Ultimately Israel waited until the very end of its timeline. On September 3, a North Korean ship landed in Syria, potentially carrying nuclear material that would allow the plant to become operational. Three days later Israel struck.
What does this suggest about Iran? The first and fundamental lesson is Israel’s continued commitment to Begin’s policy of nondependency and its willingness to act unilaterally if necessary to dispose of a nuclear threat.
Second, the reaction to the strike was muted. The United States did not protest. Syria, Iran, and others responded with, essentially, silence. Syria eventually acknowledged the raid but downplayed it. Iran took the opportunity merely to scoff at any similar threat to its program. The loudest protest came from North Korea, which may have suffered some casualties in the attack.
It would be naïve to expect so little response in the event of a strike on Iran. Still, the experience of 2007 suggests we need not assume an Israeli attack on the Iranian facilities would spark a Middle East conflagration—or even the closing of the Strait of Hormuz. At a minimum, the risk of such events is not high enough to deter an Israeli attack given the alternative—a nuclear Iran.
For Iran, closing the Strait or attacking U.S. assets in the region, including the Gulf states hostile to Iran, would bring the near certain destruction of its navy—not a price worth paying if it believes (as it may have good reason to believe) that an Israeli attack would only set back its nuclear program, not destroy it. Indeed, the recent U.S. build-up in the Arabian Gulf may best be seen as a warning to Iran not to attack U.S. assets or attempt to close the Strait of Hormuz in the event Israel strikes.
Third, the military lessons from the 2007 raid include its relative ease, notably Israel’s success at avoiding or dismantling air defenses similar to Iran’s. To be sure, there are obvious differences between Syria and Iran, including Syria’s proximity to Israel, the greater dispersal of Iran’s far more advanced facilities, Iran’s burying of its facilities, a substantially diminished element of surprise, and Iran’s more formidable overall strength.
These differences should not be discounted, but neither should they be overstated. At bottom, they are tactical and operational difficulties that must be evaluated against the alternative of allowing Iran to possess nuclear weapons. In weighing these challenges, along with concerns about diplomatic protests and faux outrage from neighbors hostile to Israel but terrified of Iran, or even from alienated allies, one should ask a straightforward question: Is this enough to subordinate a national policy embedded in historical experience and twice affirmed in action? It is doubtful Israel will answer that question in the affirmative.
Statements from Israeli leaders over the past six months suggest they believe Iran may enter the zone of immunity (with respect to Israel) as early as autumn. Whether that timetable—reportedly hedged in recent discussions—is driven by clear intelligence of Iran’s capabilities or by the American election or both is uncertain. But taken at face value, Israel’s window is closing daily, and only an Iranian epiphany or an Israeli reversal of national policy will prevent a coming attack.
Stephen Cowen and Thomas Storch are co-chief executive officers of the Zosima Group LLC, a global investment advisory firm.