Israeli President Shimon Peres, left, with U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta during a meeting in Jerusalem, Aug. 1, 2012. Israel's threats to attack Iran and the violence in Syria top the agenda of Panetta's meetings with Israeli leaders.
"A Security Guarantee Now"
August 4, 2012
Author: Chuck Freilich, Senior Fellow, International Security Program
Belfer Center Programs or Projects: International Security
A Hebrew-language version of the op-ed appeared in Haaretz on July 31, 2012 and can be accessed here: http://www.haaretz.co.il/opinions/1.1789471
This translation was provided by the author.
"Bomb or the bomb" has become the slogan that ostensibly expresses Israel's dilemma regarding Iran's nuclear program. In practice, this is not the true choice we face and the dichotomy presented is illusory. Even a successful bombing will not end the danger of an Iranian nuclear bomb, but gain a delay of one–two years according to some, three–five according to others. The technical know-how Iran has developed will allow it to reconstruct its capabilities after a bombing, should it desire to do so.
In Israel's circumstances, a gain of up to five years is not trivial. During this period regime change may take place in Iran, and Israel will undoubtedly act to further extend the delay gained. On the other hand, there is the question of the attendant costs. An Israeli attack will open a bloody feud with the Iranian people that will not necessarily end with the demise of the current regime. It will push Tehran to complete its developmental efforts, from which it has apparently refrained due to external pressures, and provide it with international and regional legitimization for doing so. Iran, Hezbollah, and Hamas may retaliate by firing tens of thousands of rockets and missiles onto Israel's home front, the conflict may broaden to additional states, and the peace agreements with Egypt and Jordan may collapse. We will also be forced to cope with U.S. fury and a tough international response, including possible sanctions.
Given the severity of the threat, we may in the end have no choice and may have to act despite the costs, but first it is worth exploring one further option, a U.S. security guarantee. A guarantee of this sort was the basis of Western security throughout the Cold War. Critics will immediately stress, correctly, that the circumstances are different and that relying on a foreign power for our very existence contradicts fundamental tenets of Israel's national security doctrine. Moreover, they will point out that a guarantee of this nature might curtail Israel's freedom of maneuver, entail demands that Israel expose and even dismantle strategic capabilities in exchange, and that the rapid pace of events in the Middle East is such that the United States might be hard-pressed to intervene on time.
The possibility of a U.S. security guarantee has been raised in the past in various contexts. Israel's national security establishment was adamantly opposed, for the above and other reasons, and the United States itself was not enthusiastic, so there are serious reasons for opposing this idea. However, the choice we face today is not between good options, but is to determine which would be the least bad one—and the option of "bomb or the bomb" may prove to be the worst of all.
An Iranian nuclear capability will indeed pose a dire and even existential threat to Israel's security, but a military strike will achieve no more than a delay, at a heavy price. The United States is adamantly opposed and even if an attack does not lead to a long-term rupture in relations, it will cause significant harm, especially if it is not accompanied by a significant peace initiative.
In these circumstances, Israel should explore the possibility of obtaining a U.S. security guarantee that is limited to the Iranian nuclear program (and possibly other existential threats), on the condition that it does not restrict our freedom of maneuver in other areas—or limit our strategic capabilities. These capabilities are the ultimate guarantor of our security and cannot be compromised, indeed, they may be sufficient in themselves to deter Iran. The United States, in any event, which is greatly concerned over the ramifications of an Israeli strike and is doing everything in its power to prevent one, may demonstrate greater openness to the idea than it did in the past and heightened flexibility regarding its conditions.
The author, an International Security Program senior fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School's Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, was a deputy national security adviser in Israel.
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