It has been a while since we have last seen as much saber-rattling in the Middle East. Israel’s president Shimon Peres – usually a restrained man – had argued that a preventive strike against Iran has become more likely. One ought not to wait until the arch enemy has gained control of nuclear weapons, he argued. Israeli pilots are already training air refueling and air fight tactics. In Tel Aviv, the civilian population is trained for emergency measures in case of an Iranian counter-attack. After all, the state media of Iran’s “Islamic Republic” has warned the “Zionist structure” that revenge of “apocalyptic proportions” would result. In Europe, the UK government has announced that it would support a hypothetical strike by Israeli and US forces. In Germany, the country’s largest newspaper asked: “Will there be war this year?” The answer: War is very unlikely, for a number of reasons.
One factor are the military unknowns. Despite the work of the Mossad, Israel knows little about the location and structure of underground Iranian facilities. It is also aware that any first strike would depend on the availability of US logistical support and on permission to use Iraqi, Saudi and Jordanian airspace. Yet it is doubtful whether Barack Obama would give his consent to such a mission. Why would he want to engage in hostilities with a strong regional power at a time when he oversees the exit of US forces from two other conflicts, in Afghanistan and Libya? Even a rhetorically gifted politician like Obama would have trouble to sell the flip-flop to American voters.
The US government is also aware of the precarious state of affairs in the Middle East in the wake of the Arab spring. It is possible that an Israeli attack on Iran would ignite a wave of populist resentment and violence across the region. Don’t forget Assad in Syria, Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in the Gaza Strip. They all wait for an opportunity to condemn “Zionism” and divert attention from the respective domestic problems.
Israelis, too, are well-aware of these challenges – hence the hard-fought debates within Israel about the merits of a military strike. Behind closed doors, some already admit that Iran’s ascension to the league of nuclear powers cannot be prevented. The Iranian regime has probably gained control of nuclear technology already, a recent IAEO report suggests. The West could not prevent Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and his cronies from pursuing their aggressive foreign policy. Presumably, Iran only laughed at Western sanctions.
Obviously, Israelis are disappointed by that sad realization. Again and again, they demanded that the international community embraced harsher measures against Iran. Many verbal condemnations followed, but few concrete actions resulted from them. Now, Israel has decided to take the initiative. The saber-rattling is a political tactic to force the United States and Europe into applying more pressure on Tehran. If that happens, Israeli politicians imply, the Jewish state would be willing to abandon a military mission for the time being.
Israel has good reason to feel threatened by Ahmadinejad’s regime. On several occasions, the Iranian regime explicitly argued that the best option would be the eradication of Israel from the political map. Are those just empty threats? A state whose existence has been questioned since the very beginning must still take them seriously. If Israel became convinced that an Iranian attack was imminent, it would not hesitate to launch a preemptive strike.
But we are not there yet. Israel still relies on Nobel Peace Prize laureate Shimon Peres to fight its diplomatic battles. It still believes that an international front against Iran might become possible. It still hopes to convince the international community that Iran with nuclear weapons is a threat not just to Israel but to global security. Rather than arming its warplanes with first-strike weapons, is rattles its sabers. War remains the ultimate, final option – even for Israel.