Is Israel really likely to attack Iran next summer?
That's the argument in an Atlantic Monthly cover story out this week. Others say Israel is striking a tough pose on Iran to push the Obama administration toward taking action on its own.
Jeffrey Goldberg writes in the September issue of the Atlantic Monthly that there's a more than 50 percent chance Israel will seek to attack and destroy Iran's nuclear program by next summer and that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will probably make his mind up on the issue by December.Skip to next paragraph
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To Mr. Goldberg and a number of commentators, his article is merely a fairly accurate depiction of current Israeli thinking. To others, the mostly anonymous Israeli officials who spoke to Goldberg were being self-serving, seeking to create a greater degree of political and public comfort with the idea of an attack on Iran that most expect would see retaliation against US as well as Israeli interests and potentially draw the United States into its third major conflict in a decade.
“Although Goldberg does not explicitly call for the United States to attack Iran, and is careful to acknowledge the potential downsides of this option, the tone and thrust of the article is clearly intended to nudge the Obama administration toward an attack,” argues Stephen M. Walt, a professor at Harvard’s Kennedy School and co-author of the "The Israel Lobby and US Foreign Policy," on his blog at Foreign Policy magazine.
“The implication is clear,” Mr. Walt writes. “’If you meant what you said, Mr. President, and you don't want people to think you're a wimp, you'd better get serious about military force.’"
To critics like Walt, the bellicose rhetoric is a piece of political theater that deliberately overstates the likelihood of an Israeli attack. They find the vast distances Israel’s air force would have to cover, the dispersal and hardening of Iran’s sites, and the limited return (Israeli planners expect a strike of their own would delay Iran’s nuclear program by five years, at most) convincing arguments against an imminent attack.
"I frankly think this is a rhetorical game," says Kaveh Ehsani, an Iran analyst and political scientist at DePaul University in Chicago. Mr. Ehsani says that an Israeli strike would complicate an already delicate diplomatic and strategic game with unpredictable outcomes for everyone, something Israel is aware of. “They’re just sending a signal, just kind of saber-rattling without really being able to carry it out."
Goldberg writes that "there is a better than 50 percent chance that Israel will launch a strike by next July." What convinces Goldberg of this? In interviews with "roughly 40 current and past Israeli decision makers about a military strike, as well as many American and Arab officials," he asked for their percentage estimate, and this was the consensus that emerged.
To be sure, Israeli officials would have reason to publicly appear more belligerent than their possible actual intentions, as Goldberg acknowledges. For a number of years in foreign policy, military, and diplomatic circles, there's been a theory that Israel is seeking to force the US into taking stronger action against Iran by confronting Washington with the specter of a unilateral Israeli attack, for which the US would likely be blamed by most of the Muslim world, whatever its actual foreknowledge and involvement.