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.

By , Staff writer

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    Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (2nd r.) attends the weekly cabinet meeting at his office in Jerusalem August 8. Is Israel likely to attack Iran's nuclear program by next summer?
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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.

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.

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“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."

The reasoning

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.

On the basis of that theory, the Obama administration would push for tougher sanctions on Iran to forestall such Israeli action and, perhaps, strike itself if convinced Israel couldn’t be deterred. The logic is that since the US military is far more capable than Israel's, and America will take the blame no matter what, it might as well do the job right.

While acknowledging the possibility that Israel is exaggerating, Goldberg says it's unlikely he's being spun, because he spoke to "multiple sources both in and out of government, and of different political parties. Citing the extraordinary sensitivity of the subject, most spoke only reluctantly, and on condition of anonymity. They were not part of some public-relations campaign."

Still, the view of Iran as an existential threat to the Jewish state is near universal in Israel and is held by leaders of all the main parties. Recent polling shows that a majority of Israelis would support an attack on Iran. And in the journalism business, sources are if anything more likely to be deceptive when granted the shield of anonymity.

The scenario

After discounting the likelihood that President Obama would drag a weary American public into another foreign war, Goldberg imagines Israel's response: "What is more likely, then, is that one day next spring, the Israeli national-security adviser, Uzi Arad, and the Israeli defense minister, Ehud Barak, will simultaneously telephone their counterparts at the White House and the Pentagon, to inform them that their prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, has just ordered roughly one hundred F-15Es, F-16Is, F-16Cs, and other aircraft of the Israeli air force to fly east toward Iran."

This imagines an air campaign, involving flying without permission through some combination of either Saudi Arabian and Iraqi or Turkish airspace, hundreds of miles into Iran itself and hitting many of Iran's 17 known, widely dispersed nuclear sites.

Iran has been preparing for such an attack almost as long as it's had a nuclear program; its facilities are not single, above ground, and unprotected as were Iraq's Osirak reactor that Israel destroyed in 1981 and the unfinished nuclear reactor in Syria that Israel attacked in 2007.

Brig. Gen. Shlomo Brom (ret.), former head of strategic planning for the Israeli military's general staff and now a senior researcher at the Institute for National Security Studies in Tel Aviv, told this paper late last year that an attack on Iran would be dangerous and complex. He also agrees that a successful operation would set back Iran's nuclear program by a maximum of five years.

Goldberg has written alarming articles in the past. In a 2002 article for The New Yorker called “The Great Terror,” Goldberg wrote that it was likely that Saddam Hussein still possessed chemical weapons and that he would use them on foreign population centers, and he listed a number of anonymous allegations that, if true, “would mean that the relationship between Saddam’s regime and Al Qaeda is far closer than previously thought.”

After the invasion of Iraq, it was discovered that there were no more weapons of mass destruction in the country’s arsenal and that the former regime's ties to Al Qaeda, if any, were tenuous and limited (Al Qaeda did make major inroads in Iraq during the US occupation). Most of Goldberg’s sources for the article were Kurdish politicians and guerrilla fighters, who were eager for a US invasion to depose Saddam.

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