A barely perceptible but hugely important shift has occurred in recent months. Israel now appears to believe that the benefits of attacking Tehran’s nuclear sites outweigh the costs. As Iran builds an enrichment complex underground near the city of Qom, the timing has also become critical. All of which may mean that, as Defense Secretary Leon Panetta reportedly told a Washington Post columnist, Israel will probably strike Iran in April, May, or June. (Panetta wasn’t quoted directly, and a Pentagon spokesman tells National Journal that the secretary has “refused to comment” on the story.)
Western powers had thought that a preemptive strike on oil-rich Iran could have devastating implications for the region and the world. It could undermine the global economy (especially at a time of high oil prices) and peace in the Middle East. It could rain rocket fire on Israeli towns and possibly shift global power balances. But now, some American and Israeli experts—both inside and outside their governments—argue that Iran is less likely to retaliate in a serious way. An attack, in other words, may have fewer drawbacks than the skeptics first thought.
Partly, this has to do with Iran’s internal problems. Its government is mired in chaos and infighting, its military is weak and disorganized, and its economy is crippled. Iran’s main proxies, Hezbollah and Hamas, are not eager to attack Israel, and the United States is less vulnerable in Iraq now that its military has withdrawn. Tehran’s lone ally in the region, Syria’s Bashar al-Assad, is fighting a civil war. Iran “basically only has three asymmetric options for retaliation,” says Matthew Kroenig, who recently published a controversial essay in Foreign Affairs urging a U.S. attack on Iran as “the least bad option.”
First, it could support terrorists and proxy groups. But Kroenig points out that Hezbollah and Hamas, which both possess missiles and rockets along Israel’s border, do not want to relive the devastating Israeli counterattacks of the 2000s. “Neither wants to provoke another Israeli invasion,” Kroenig says. “They might engage in some kind of token retaliation just to satisfy Iran,” but it wouldn’t fundamentally change life for Israelis.
Second, Iran could fire ballistic missiles “at population centers in the region and at U.S. bases and ships,” says Kroenig, who until last July was a special adviser in the office of then-Defense Secretary Robert Gates. “But their missiles aren’t all that accurate.”
Third, its irregular navy, run by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, could wreak havoc in the Persian Gulf or even possibly close strategic oil-shipping lanes in the Strait of Hormuz, as Tehran warned recently. “They do have a bunch of guys on speedboats,” Kroenig says. “But if we bombed half a dozen nuclear facilities, I don’t think their response is going to be to close the straits, especially if we issue a clear deterrent threat.… We could completely destroy their navy in a matter of weeks.” Anyway, Iran desperately needs oil sales to keep its sanctions-damaged economy going, so it is unlikely to halt the petroleum trade. That fact could assuage White House fears about a spike in gas prices bad enough to shake the global economy during an election year.
The pressure is growing to act soon. Israel has previously used its air force to demolish nuclear facilities in Iraq and Syria, and it has warned for a decade that it would do the same to prevent Iran from getting a bomb. “This time, the Israelis seem truly serious,” says one European diplomat who works on Iran negotiations. The reason is that Iran’s new facility at Fordo is buried so deep in the mountains that Israel may not be able to destroy it. So if it can’t at least cripple the station before Iran transfers many more than the several hundred centrifuges it already has there, Fordo’s enrichment program may be out of reach. Those transfers are happening this year.
Meanwhile, Arab states in the Persian Gulf region—beginning with Saudi Arabia, whose former intelligence chief, Prince Turki al-Faisal, warned bluntly last year that an Iranian bomb would lead to a Saudi one—are more eager than ever for action to stop Tehran. President Obama even spent half of his pre-Super Bowl interview with NBC’s Matt Lauer (before an audience of 110 million Americans in an election year) worrying about Iran.
Still, some experts argue that a miscalculation—say, striking before Obama’s sanctions run their course—could actually make the danger from Iran far worse, particularly for Israel. Because the Israelis don’t have the firepower the Americans do (their “bunker-buster” bombs are smaller), “the biggest worry is that the attack will be ineffective, that it just won’t take out enough to make a difference,” says David Albright of the Institute for Science and International Security. “Then what you get is an Iran that feels justified in racing to get nuclear weapons, potentially sooner than they would if we just continue this [current sanctions] pressure.” Nevertheless, Israeli strategists believe the danger of a nuclear-armed Iran is “far greater” than the potential danger of retaliation, according to a senior Israeli official who asked to remain anonymous.
The most likely response to an attack, analysts agree, would be Iranian-sponsored terrorist attacks on Jews—and possibly Americans—worldwide. American diplomats in Shiite-dominated Iraq are still vulnerable, as are U.S. forces in Afghanistan, says Matthew Levitt of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “The biggest issue,” he says of an Iranian response, “is that you don’t know what you don’t know.”
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article misstated Kroenig's posiition. He worked as a strategist in the Office of the Secretary of Defense.
This article appears in the February 11, 2012 edition of National Journal Magazine.