On 22 December the Financial Times published a response by BICOM Senior Visiting Fellow Brig. Gen. (Ret.) Michael Herzog, to an article by David Miliband, which had argued that talk of military action against Iran’s nuclear programme could undermine diplomatic efforts and create momentum for war.
In his response, Michael Herzog sets out the extent of the threat posed to Israel by Iran’s nuclear programme, and why Israel is publicly debating the wisdom of a military strike. He also argues that a credible military option, far from weakening sanctions and diplomacy, is essential to their success.
The response can be read on the Financial Times website here. Following is a longer version of the response.
While David Miliband and Nader Mousavizadeh recently warned in the pages of the Financial Times that “war talk” regarding Iran’s nuclear programme may become a “self-fulfilling prophecy”, Israel has been publicly debating the wisdom of a preventative military strike on Iran’s program. But Israel is not “sleepwalking” into a war with Iran. It is seriously addressing one of the most acute policy dilemmas in its history.
Israel is unique in that it perceives a nuclear Iran as a potentially existential threat. The combination of an extreme Islamist ideology, a messianic leadership calling to “wipe Israel off the map” and the push to acquire nuclear weapons, is deeply sobering for Israel. Given their collective memory of the Holocaust and the hostile surrounding in which they have had to defend themselves, Israelis take this threat especially seriously.
When Israel defines a nuclear Iran as “unacceptable” it therefore means it both conceptually and practically. It suspects that for the rest of the world, “unacceptable” essentially means “undesirable.” Miliband admits that the price of a nuclear-armed Iran would be “unacceptably high” but stops short of saying what should be done if all non-military pressures fail.
The public discussion in Israel should not be dismissed as sabre-rattling. It is a real debate driven by the feeling that Iran’s nuclear project is advancing, international resolve to stop it is insufficient and regime change does not look imminent. We are approaching a choice between “bomb” and “bombing” and the decision point for applying a military option, before too late, is getting nearer. Ehud Barak, Israel’s minister of defense, implied that this critical point would be reached in less than a year, in a recent CNN interview.
There are clearly no “good” options available. Either choice comes with a very heavy price-tag. Even assuming that Iran can be deterred from using a nuclear bomb against Israel (the price of error here is prohibitive), a nuclear Iran will dramatically upset the volatile strategic balance in the Middle East. The impact will be augmented in a region undergoing revolutionary transition. Having defeated international pressure and acquired an umbrella of nuclear deterrence, Iran will be greatly emboldened as a radical regional pole.
A nuclear Iran will strongly impact the calculations of regional actors, trigger a regional nuclear arms race, destroy the Non-Proliferation Treaty and increase the danger of miscalculation towards a nuclear crisis. Iran will engage in bolder, destabilizing power projection, threatening Israel and moderate Arab regimes, undermining any Israeli-Arab peace process, manipulating the energy markets and posing as guardian of certain Muslim communities even beyond the Middle East. Down the road, one cannot rule out nuclear proliferation to non-state actors. Containment and deterrence will do little to offset these very serious strategic consequences.
A military strike, on the other hand, poses the grave question of the day after. The intended consequences will be accompanied by unintended ones. Iran will surely respond violently, both directly and through proxies such as Hezbollah, which has well over 40,000 rockets covering all of Israel. The conflict could escalate into a regional war. Iran may take aggressive action in the straits of Hormuz, leading to a spike in oil prices, even though disrupting the flow of oil would be self-defeating.
Moreover, to make a military strike worth the cost, Iran must be deterred and prevented from rebuilding its programme. This will require international resolve in the face of a wounded and defiant Iran – a real challenge.
The right choice is not self-evident, which explains the debate in Israel. But whatever the correct judgment, there is no evidence to substantiate Miliband’s assertion that discussing the military option “weakens our hand.” On the contrary, the only time Iran froze its nuclear weaponisation programme was when the US invaded Iraq in 2003 and the Iranians believed they were next. A credible military option, far from weakening sanctions and diplomacy, is actually essential to their chances of success.
I do not write these lines to advocate war. I know first-hand the terrible price of it. The nature and intensity of Israeli public debate reflect the fact that Israelis do not want war. Rather, they feel that while the problem is not exclusively theirs, a failure of international pressure will leave them alone with that terrible choice. Far from sleepwalking, Israelis are keeping their eyes wide open and expect others to do the same.
Michael Herzog is a senior visiting fellow at BICOM. He has served as senior military advisor and chief of staff to four Israeli ministers of defence. A shorter version of this article appeared as a letter in the Financial Times on 22 December.