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Not If But When

What Israel’s 2007 strike on Syria tells us about Iran.

8:35 AM, Jul 30, 2012 • By STEPHEN COWEN and THOMAS STORCH
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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.

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