by Cartwright, James and Yadlin, Amos
Two top retired Israeli and American generals last week published an unofficial theoretical sequence of events that is likely to precede any strike against Iran's nuclear program.
American general James Cartwright, most recently chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and Maj.-Gen. (res.) Amos Yadlin, former head of the Israel Defense Forces Military Intelligence and Israel Air Force chief of staff, used the exercise to determine what set of events would justify military action against Iran, and, if it comes to that, which nation - Israel or America - should lead the charge.
Generals Cartwright and Yadlin published the report simultaneously to the websites of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy and Israel's Institute for National Security Studies (of which Yadlin is the current director) in hopes of sparking more concerted discussion between the two nations' political and defense establishments over the topic.
The narrative of the Cartwright-Yadlin document follows more or less what Israel and its supporters increasingly expect to see happen. Iran will continue to rebuff all international efforts to curb its quest for nuclear arms, necessitating a difficult decision by Washington and Jerusalem to implement preemptive military strikes.
Despite a deep desire to avoid yet another Middle East war, US President Barack Obama will, according to the two generals, feel compelled to take action, acknowledging that allowing Iran to "go nuclear" would be far more dangerous to American interests in the long run.
If it comes to that, Cartwright and Yadlin have a few suggestions:
America should lead the attack. The Arab states are less likely to feel compelled to react if the US is at the forefront of the action, and America has more capability to inflict serious damage to Iran's fortified nuclear facilities.
The attack should be extremely limited in nature, and by no means include a ground invasion. By acting in this manner, Iran will find no viable excuse to respond with a full-scale war against either American or Israeli interests or allies.
Israel should play a strong behind-the-scenes role, as it has more operational experience in attacking nuclear facilities, and has a far greater moral purpose for striking what it sees as an existential threat.
|Israeli or U.S. Action Against Iran: Who Will Do It If It Must Be Done?
The case study presented below outlines one possible scenario for future U.S.-Israeli decisionmaking on Iran’s
nuclear program. Given the spectrum of other available options,
military force should only be employed against the program as a last
resort. Yet the military option must still be credible, and ready to use
if necessary. This case study is intended solely to stimulate and
inform further discussion on the potential repercussions of different
It is late 2013 and the prime minister of Israel has just received a phone call from the White House relaying the findings of a recent U.S. intelligence assessment: international sanctions and negotiations with Iran have yet to persuade the regime to halt its nuclear drive. Tehran previously rejected a generous U.S.
offer that would have allowed it to enrich uranium in exchange for
strong nuclear safeguards, and the program continues to advance
unabated. After agreeing to convene in Washington
in one week to discuss strategy going forward, the prime minister and
president each call a meeting with their national security advisors.
The president’s team acknowledges that the United States
is war weary, debt laden, and politically gridlocked. With U.S. forces
having just withdrawn from Iraq and on a path to end combat operations
in Afghanistan by late 2014, many hope that the attendant diversion of
resources will spring the country from its financial woes and accelerate
its economic recovery.
Nevertheless, the president, the prime minister, and their advisers reaffirm that a nuclear Iran is an unacceptable threat to U.S.
and Israeli national security, with the president reiterating his
strong and repeated 2012 commitment to prevention. Each leader then
reviews the redlines that the regime has already crossed since 2004
regarding enrichment of nuclear material, as well as the UN Security
Council resolutions it has violated in its pursuit of nuclear weapons.
They also consider the fact that five rounds of diplomatic negotiations
(in Geneva, Istanbul, Baghdad, Moscow, and Kazakhstan) have failed.
light of these concerns, both leaders agree that the time has come to
ready their contingency options for a military strike against Iran’s nuclear facilities. But if such action does indeed become necessary, they ask, which country should launch the attack—the United States or Israel?
To address that and other key issues, the president and prime minister
pose ten questions to their close advisers regarding military action.
Below are the most probable answers.
- Which approach would give the West more room to exhaust peaceful options: leaving the timing of a potential attack to Israel or the United States?
Israel’s military capability to strike Iran’s
proliferating nuclear sites—especially those bunkered deep within a
mountain, such as Fordow—is more limited than that of the United States. Israel’s window for military action is therefore closing, while Washington’s more advanced capabilities mean that it can wait, affording the West a final attempt to exhaust all other options.
- Which attack option would have more international legitimacy?
international community is unlikely to support military action if
diplomacy or sanctions still have a chance of succeeding. Again, America’s superior military capabilities provide more time to exhaust these options. From this perspective, a last-resort U.S.
strike would enjoy greater legitimacy, while a unilateral Israeli
strike amid Western efforts to find a diplomatic solution would not be
received well internationally.
Yet the Iranian nuclear program does not pose an existential threat to the United States as it does to Israel, so only an Israeli attack could legitimately claim self-defense. Numerous U.S. officials, including President Obama, have therefore qualified their warnings against a unilateral attack by recognizing Israel’s sovereign right to defend itself.
- Which option would cause greater damage to Iran’s nuclear facilities?
U.S. military’s superior capabilities—including B-2 stealth bombers,
air refueling craft, advanced drones, and 30,000-pound massive ordnance
penetrators—are more likely to severely damage Iranian targets. Yet the
United States has no operational experience in strikes against such facilities, unlike Israel, which successfully conducted similar operations against the Osiraq nuclear reactor near Baghdad in 1981 and, according to foreign reports, against a Syrian reactor in 2007.
- Which option would avoid violating the sovereign airspace of third countries?
Any Israeli operation would have to cross the airspace of at least one other country (Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Iraq, or Syria). Yet a U.S. attack could be launched directly toward Iran from bases or aircraft carriers in the Persian Gulf and elsewhere.
country could better carry out a focused military campaign that causes
the least collateral damage or potential for escalation?
Without the advanced military capabilities to carry out a sustained bombing campaign against Iran’s
nuclear sites, any Israeli attack would necessarily be quick and
surgical, with less collateral damage. This is a significant advantage.
After such an attack, the Iranian regime would still have a lot to lose,
and its retaliation would likely be much more measured, diminishing the
potential for escalation.
The United States
has one of the best air forces in the world, and its superior
capabilities and massive ordnance penetrators leave it well poised to
carry out an efficient surgical operation. Although there is no
guarantee that these heavier bombs would be effective against all
targets, they are nonetheless more powerful than their Israeli
counterparts. If Washington wants to
avoid getting bogged down in another war in a Muslim country, however,
such a strike must be geared solely toward stopping Iran’s
nuclear efforts, not regime change or conquest. Toward this end, a
surgical strike would be highly preferable to putting boots on the
- If poststrike escalation leads to war, which country has more efficient mechanisms in place to end the conflict?
Assessments of the day after an Israeli or U.S. strike range from limited Iranian retaliation that could be checked within days to full-scale regional war. If the United States attacked, however, it would have less moral authority than if Israel attacked— as mentioned above, Israel could legitimately claim that it was acting in self-defense. Moreover, Washington’s
ability to serve as an honest broker in negotiating a ceasefire would
be diminished if it ordered the strike. For their part, China and Russia would be less incensed by an Israeli strike than a U.S. attack, and perhaps more willing to play a role in poststrike de-escalation.
- Which option would have the least potential for producing an Iranian nationalist backlash that could strengthen the regime?
more the Iranian people understand that the attack is targeting the
regime’s nuclear program, not the country or its people, the less likely
they are to rally behind Tehran
out of indignation and fear. A short, surgical strike that minimizes
civilian casualties is therefore preferable in this regard as well,
since a prolonged attack might lead the public to fear for its safety
and look to the regime for protection. A message to the people
explaining the purpose and target of the attack could also help assuage
their concerns, perhaps even turning public opinion against the regime.
Yet such a message would necessarily stymie any attempt at a deniable,
low-signature attack, which could also prove useful. If the origin of
the attack were unclear, rumors would fly, making it more difficult for
the regime to rally the public behind a single convincing narrative.
A quick, clandestine strike that results in fewer civilian casualties plays to the strengths of Israel’s military. As for the “hearts and minds” issue, neither country has proven adept at this sort of public messaging.
- What effect would an Israeli strike have on public opinion in the Middle East compared to a U.S. strike?
attack by either country is unlikely to provoke widespread anger or
sympathy for the Iranian regime among Arabs in the region, especially
given widespread Sunni hostility toward Tehran
for its ongoing support of the embattled Syrian regime. Many analysts
also believe that Gulf leaders would applaud an attack in private,
however harshly they condemn it publicly. Yet given the historical
tensions between Israel and the Arab world, an Israeli attack would probably draw greater criticism than a U.S.-led attack. In fact, a U.S. strike might even help America repair its tarnished image in the Sunni world (though it would likely incense the masses in Afghanistan and Pakistan given U.S. military involvement in those countries).
- Politically speaking, which option would be more beneficial for the U.S. president, and which would be better for the Israeli prime minister?
The outbreak of another war with a Muslim state would not bode well politically for any U.S. administration, and Washington would therefore prefer that its ally take action. For Israel’s part, no prime minister has ever asked another country to fight Israel’s battles, and breaking this mold would be difficult. From that perspective, an Israeli strike would be preferable. Yet if Israel believes a U.S. strike is less likely to invite Iranian retaliation against Israeli civilians, then it would prefer that Washington take the lead.
- In the event that repeated military attacks are required, which country is better poised to carry them out?
The United States
is a global superpower with highly developed capabilities to project
power from various locations and bases all over the world. If further
military action became necessary, it would have the advantage of
launching a second attack from a different location than the first. Israel’s ability to repeat an attack while varying its approach is more limited.
discussing these issues, the president and prime minister’s advisers
suggest that a U.S.-led strike is preferable from a military
perspective, since it would produce affirmative answers to more of the
above questions than would an Israeli attack. Yet determining which
country should strike extends far beyond military capabilities.
Attacking Iran’s nuclear
facilities is but a tactical step toward the strategic goal of
permanently halting the regime’s drive toward nuclear weapons.
Mechanically damaging the program is not an end goal in itself, since
no amount of bombs can destroy Iran’s nuclear knowhow. Any strike must necessarily be followed by negotiations and a self-enforcing diplomatic deal that prevents Tehran from reconstituting the program or achieving breakout capability in the future.
the advisors point out that the operational benefits of a U.S.-led
attack must be weighed against the poststrike political and military
implications. In particular, a U.S. strike could limit Washington’s ability to negotiate with Iran’s leaders, who would not want to be seen as having been coerced by the “Great Satan.” Preserving the U.S.
negotiating role is crucial. An Israeli attack may have a better chance
of meeting that goal, but it would almost certainly not enjoy the same
international support as a U.S. strike. Israeli military action could therefore topple the international
regime of export controls and sanctions that President Obama has so
carefully cobbled together. And without strict sanctions in place to
from reimporting nuclear material, it may be a matter of years before
the regime reconstitutes the program—this time entirely bunkered
underground to protect against future strikes.
Lastly, the advisors caution, Israel cannot and will not ask the United States to fight on its behalf, nor does Washington wish to be seen as having entered another costly and unpopular war in a Muslim country at Israel’s behest.
adjourning their respective security meetings, the prime minister and
president call for future consultations with a mind toward reconciling
their principal goals: (1) delaying the Iranian nuclear program as much
as possible, (2) preserving the international export controls and
sanctions regime, and (3) creating favorable diplomatic conditions for
denying Iran a nuclear weapon.
This article is published simultaneously by the Washington Institute for Near East Policy as Policy Note 14, and by the Institute for National Security Studies as INSS Insight No. 432.
Gen. James Cartwright, USMC (ret.), is the Harold Brown chair in defense policy studies at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
Maj. Gen. Amos Yadlin, IDF (ret.), is
Director of Israel's Institute for National Security Studies, former
chief of Defense Intelligence, and one of the eight Israeli fighter
pilots to strike the Osiraq nuclear reactor near Baghdad in 1981.