Will Iran Deter an Israeli Attack?

Will Iran Deter an Israeli Attack?

By Jed Babbin - June 2, 2010

Monday's Israeli action against the convoy bringing pro-Palestinian activists to Gaza evidences the Jewish state's determination to defuse threats against it, the greatest of which is the Iranian nuclear weapons program.

Because Iran understands this, it has for months been building up the missile arsenal of its proxy in neighboring Lebanon, the terrorist organization Hizballah, in an attempt to deter an Israeli attack.

From Tehran's standpoint, its greatest need is time. Scientific success is inevitable given enough time, and to achieve that goal Tehran must avoid any effective international sanctions that could possibly stop its nuclear program. And it must also deter military action against the nuclear facilities which could delay or destroy its program.

The ayatollahs are masters of diplomatic avoidance. They have been misleading the UN's International Atomic Energy Agency - the supposed international watchdog of nuclear proliferation - for decades. Under Mohammed el-Baradei, the IAEA was Iran's chief apologist until last February when the IAEA confirmed that Iran had "past or current undisclosed activities" to develop a nuclear warhead. For eight years, President Bush threatened Iran with isolation but took no action -- diplomatically or otherwise -- that affected the Iranians' pursuit of nuclear power.

President Obama has apparently abandoned any thought of effective diplomatic action. In last weekend's UN Non-proliferation Treaty Review Conference, the United States endorsed a 188-nation agreement which called upon Israel to join the NPT and open its nuclear facilities to international inspection, but failed to even mention Iran.

The Iranians continue to thumb their noses at the UN and the United States, and to threaten Israel with annihilation. Since the ayatollahs took power in 1979, there has been no diplomatic negotiation that has changed their behavior or reduced their aggressiveness. Deterrence will not work against them. But it can work for them.

The remaining question is whether Iran can deter Israel from making a military strike against its nuclear facilities that would delay indefinitely Iran's achievement of nuclear weapons.

Cold War deterrence worked not only by dissuading both sides from a nuclear "first strike" but also by establishing a nuclear war threshold limiting both sides' actions. The U.S. sought to contain Soviet expansion, and the Soviet Union, in turn, wanted to deter the U.S. from interfering with its conventional and unconventional effort to expand its empire.

There was a short but steep learning curve. Both nations learned how easy it was to reach that threshold in the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis. There hasn't been an equivalent crisis in the Middle East, so the main players have not learned those lessons.

Iran's experience with Israel is in provocation, not deterrence. Hizballah was created by Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps in Lebanon in 1982. Hizballah is Khomeneist in doctrine and is supported financially and militarily by both Iran and Syria. And Hizballah has served as their proxy in provoking Israel to take military action.

The Israelis were provoked into invading Lebanon in 2006 by a series of Hizballah rocket attacks and kidnappings of Israeli soldiers. Hizballah suffered considerable losses in the conflict but Israel under Prime Minister Ehud Olmert made so many mistakes and was so roundly condemned in the international media that many even in the Israeli government came to believe Israel had lost the war.

The situation today is very different. Hizballah -- rebuilt, re-embedded in Lebanon and rearmed -- didn't suffer lasting harm. It is now reportedly being equipped with Scud missiles which bring all of Israel within range. These missiles are apparently being shipped into Lebanon with the help of the Syrian government and based in Lebanon's Bekaa Valley.

If Israel attacks Iran's nuclear facilities, those missiles will be fired at every Israeli population center. Even without the chemical munitions both Iran and Syria are believed to have, the missiles could cause thousands of Israeli deaths.

In Israel, too, the situation is different. Ehud Olmert, unusual among Israeli leaders, had not served in combat. Benjamin Netanyahu has considerable personal experience in combat. That doesn't mean he will or won't attack Iran despite the Hizballah deterrent force. But it does mean that he will do a better job of balancing the risks and deciding how and whether to attack Iran.

From Tehran's standpoint, then, the strategy is to increase the risk to Israel's civilian population to a point where Netanyahu cannot risk an all-out Hizballah missile attack. Iran's objective, however, is to do that without making Hizballah's new missile force so great a threat that it will compel Israel to attack into Lebanon with greater precision and force than it did in 2006.

This is the delicate sort of balance of power -- or balance of terror -- which America and the Soviet Union maintained for almost a half-century. Maintaining that fragile a balance among Iran, Syria, Hizballah and Israel is unlikely. It is made more so by the widening breach between Israel and the United States.

But it can be done. If Hizballah is able to assemble a large enough missile force to threaten Israel's population and hide it from Israeli intelligence well enough to make a preemptive strike against it unlikely to succeed, Netanyahu's government will likely be deterred against striking at Iran, at least temporarily. And Iran may be able to buy the time it needs to achieve its nuclear weapons ambition.

Jed Babbin served as a deputy undersecretary of defense under George H.W. Bush.

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