October 2012 Commentary

Is Israel Going to Attack Iran?

by J. L. Granatstein

Is Israel going to strike Iran’s nuclear production facilities? The voices of Israel’s leadership have become increasingly strident in the last few months, and even the Israeli intelligence experts who have urged that their nation should hold back may well be part of a good cop/bad cop routine that aims to confuse Tehran. Certainly all Israelis are worried—and rightly so—by the anti-Semitic rhetoric from President Ahmadinijad and the mullahs. The threats to erase Israel from the map not unnaturally stir seventy-year-old memories of the Holocaust among Israelis, and many believe that an Iran with nuclear weapons poses an existential threat to the Jewish state.

But what now seems clear is that no Israeli attack will be launched until after the American elections. If Mitt Romney should win, Premier Netanyahu likely counts on US participation in a strike. If President Obama is re-elected, the Israeli leaders expect either US participation at the outset—they are likely wrong in this assumption--or American military retaliation against Iranian attacks on their bases in the Persian Gulf or Afghanistan if Iran is foolish enough to do this. Another argument for delay, as the Israeli intelligence website DEBKAfile argues, is that the recent sabotage of Iranian power lines has slowed Tehran’s steady progress on building a bomb, already upset by the 2010 Stuxnet computer attacks that disrupted the centrifuges processing high-grade uranium. This allows more time for Jerusalem to bring the Americans onside. No attack then until late November at the earliest.

In the meantime, sanctions continue to hurt Iran, cutting its oil exports substantially and crippling its bankers’ ability to operate internationally. Many Iranians probably like the idea of their nation having the bomb; most likely would prefer to live without galloping inflation and the mullah’s interference in every aspect of domestic daily life. An attack, however, would certainly galvanize Iranian nationalism and, unless the regime’s leaders were directly targeted and killed, help the ayatollahs to stay in power.

Few military analysts expect an attack by Israel alone to be completely successful. The Israelis have some older US bunkerbuster bombs, enough if the attack succeeded to possibly delay Iran’s nuclear progress by one to three years. But if the US, with its new and huge bunkerbusting GBU-57weapons that can penetrate even the deepest of Iran’s underground concrete nuclear facilities, joins in an attack there is the possibility of seriously—perhaps permanently--crippling the Iranian nuclear program.

But the Israelis must expect retaliation if they strike Iran. The Iranians have sent some thousands of troops into Syria to help President Assad, and they pose a nuisance threat on the Golan Heights. There are suggestions that Iranian advisors are also helping Hezbollah in Lebanon, and Hezbollah has thousands of missiles that can reach heavily populated Israeli cities. Its cadres can also be expected to launch incursions into northern Israel. The Palestinians, some financed and well armed by Tehran, will also likely hit at Israel. There will be heavy Israeli casualties, for sure, and Jerusalem’s retaliation against those who strike at it will be fierce. The political ramifications are hard to calculate, but there seems little doubt that the Middle Eastern turmoil will be widespread.

And what of Canada in such a situation? The Harper government has been a strong and vocal supporter of Israel, seeing it as the only democracy in the region. It has condemned Iran’s rhetorical excesses, its support for Assad, and its terrorism, and it has closed its embassy in Tehran and expelled the Iranian embassy staff from Canada. But if there is an Israeli or Israeli-US strike against Iran? The prospect of terror attacks against Jewish targets in Canada is very real, and Ottawa and the provinces will need to be on the alert. But certainly there is no prospect of Canadian military assistance to the Israelis and, in fact, there is nothing that the Canadian Forces have that we could provide that would be of use. In other words, we can expect Ottawa to say that while a resort to force is never a good move, the government will indicate that it understands the reasons for the Israeli action. There will be few other nations offering even that much understanding to the Netanyahu government, although the anti-Iranian Saudis and the Gulf Emirates will quietly applaud Israeli action.

The only certainty is that chaos will ensue throughout the Middle East after any attack on Iran, and it will possibly spread around the globe.

J.L. Granatstein is a Distinguished Research Fellow of the Canadian Defence and Foreign Affairs Institute.

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