Some critics accuse Israel of provoking the United States into a war with Iran. The only country, however, that called for the use of military force is Saudi Arabia, which believes it has the most at risk if Iran has the bomb. The Saudis were frustrated by the failure of both the Bush and Obama administrations to act and publicly said they would acquire a bomb if Iran were allowed to develop one.

Iran did not believe Obama would use military force and was willing to accept what it saw as short-term restrictions on its nuclear weapons activity in exchange for a financial windfall and sanctions relief. President Donald Trump’s decision to withdraw from the JCPOA has raised the possibility of Iran resuming its nuclear activities. He warned if Iran resumed its nuclear program, there would be “very severe consequences,” raising the possibility of a military response (Politico, May 9, 2018).

Israel does not want to go to war with Iran if it can be avoided. Given Iran’s threat to the Arab world and U.S. and European interests, Israel believes one or more other countries should act against Iran to protect those vital interests. In the past, Israel and the United States disagreed on the point at which it would be too late to act. Israel believes that Iran must be stopped before it reaches the “zone of immunity,” when it will have the capability to assemble a bomb, whereas the United States has suggested it could still act even after Iran built a bomb.

The United States and Israel also disagree on the implications of taking military action. The U.S. and others believe the cost of any attack will likely exceed the benefit of what many believe will be only a short-term delay in Iran’s ability to build a bomb. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has argued this argument is backward – he believes the cost of not stopping Iran would be higher than the expense of acting. As he said in 2012, “There’s been plenty of talk recently about the costs of stopping Iran. I think it’s time we started talking about the costs of not stopping Iran.” A nuclear-armed Iran, he said:

  • Would dramatically increase terrorism by giving terrorists a nuclear umbrella; that is, Iran’s terror proxies such as Hezbollah and Hamas will be emboldened to attack the United States, Israel, and other countries because they will be backed by a power that has atomic weapons.
  • A nuclear-armed Iran could choke off the world’s oil supply and make real its threat to close the Strait of Hormuz.
  • If Iran gets nuclear weapons, it will set off a mad dash by Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and others to acquire nuclear weapons of their own.  The world’s most volatile region would become a nuclear tinderbox waiting to go off.
  • And here’s the worst nightmare of all, with nuclear weapons, Iran could threaten all of us with nuclear terrorism.

Still, Netanyahu said, Israel prefers a peaceful resolution to the issue (AIPAC Policy ConferenceMarch 5, 2012).

Besides the basic desire to avoid war, several factors mitigate a military operation. The Europeans are unlikely to act without the United States because they lack the military capability to sufficiently damage the Iranian facilities and, more importantly, the will to use force. It is possible that one (most likely Britain) or more may be willing to act in concert with the United States.

The United States is the one country that has the military capability to destroy or at least seriously set back Iran’s nuclear program. Nevertheless, the United States has its reasons to hesitate besides the potential consequences of initiating a war. First, before resorting to military force, the president would want to demonstrate to the American people that he has done everything possible to avoid war. Second, like the Trump administration, President Biden wants to focus on the economy and domestic issues. Third, like Trump, Biden has talked about withdrawing from areas of conflict and will be even more reluctant to start a new war after withdrawing from Afghanistan. Fourth, Biden is unlikely to launch a major operation without the support of America’s European allies, who want to return to the JCPOA. Fifth, Biden appears willing to continue to use sanctions in the hope Iran will eventually negotiate a new deal that will be more stringent than the JCPOA or the collapse of the regime, neither of which appears likely.

Iran has continued to pursue a nuclear weapon, flouting the terms of the JCPOA, first covertly and now openly. While the Europeans have ignored the violations and sought ways to evade U.S. sanctions,  Israel, in some cases with the aid of the United States, has demonstrated it can sabotage Iranian facilities through cyber warfare and other means to impede the development of a nuclear weapon.

Still, as Iran gets closer to having the capability to build a bomb, Israel will be faced with two bad options: Use the IDF to destroy Iran’s nuclear installations or live with a nuclear Iran. If Israel chooses the military option, historian Benny Morris noted that it might succeed in crippling Iran’s nuclear program, but it may also:

  • Cause massive environmental damage.
  • Provoke Iran to launch ballistic missiles and drones at Israel and unleash a worldwide campaign of anti-Israeli and anti-Jewish terrorism that would, in turn, require an Israeli response that would escalate the level of violence.
  • Prompt Hezbollah and perhaps Hamas and Islamic Jihad to fire rockets at Israel. Palestinians in the West Bank might start an intifada. Any or all of these actions would force Israel to fight a multifront war.
  • Draw the United States and possibly the Europeans into a war they don’t want to fight. Israel’s relations with its allies will likely suffer if they don’t engage.
  • Threaten relations with Sunni Arab countries.

Morris notes that living with a nuclear Iran also has costs.

  • Iran might decide to attack Israel with nuclear weapons.
  • Iran and radical Islamists will be emboldened by their perceived victory over the West.
  • Arab nations may decide it is safer to side with Iran than with Israel.
  • The belief that time is on the Palestinians’ side would be reinforced.
  • Iran’s allies would feel free to attack Israel and other Middle East nations protected by Iran’s nuclear umbrella.
  • Israel’s economy would suffer because of the need to increase defense spending, the reluctance of foreigners to invest in Israel, the prospect of Israelis leaving for safer homelands, and potential immigrants and tourists seeking alternative places to move or visit.
  • It is likely other countries will seek nuclear weapons to counter Iran increasing the danger to everyone in the region (Haaretz, September 27, 2021).

Iranian Capabilities

Iran reportedly used reinforced materials and tunneling deep underground to store nuclear components to protect them in the event of an attack (AP, March 4, 2005; Telegraph, January 25, 2006). Public reports suggest Iranian facilities are now so deep underground that only the largest “bunker buster” type bombs could damage them. The United States is the only country with these weapons.

In September 2013, Iran and Oman signed a defense cooperation accord, which is not likely to impact Iran’s ability to attack or defend itself (Jomhuri Islami, September 20, 2013). More significantly, in 2016, Russia delivered its most advanced air-defense system to Iran (Bloomberg, March 7, 2018).

One of the major concerns of the United States and others is that Iran could interfere with shipping in the Persian Gulf and thereby pose a threat to global oil supplies and has deployed assets to protect vessels from Iranian action. Iran has developed sophisticated naval technologies, including limpet mines, coastal defense cruise missiles, speedboats, uncrewed explosive boats, and small to medium-size submarines. It also has cruise missiles deployed along its coast and on Abu Musa, the Tunbs, and the Farsi islands (Washington Institute, June 10, 2020). 

In November 2012, the Iranian Navy unveiled two new submarines and two missile-launching warships. This capability is viewed as a potential threat to the strategic balance in the Persian Gulf and, therefore, to the United States and the West (DPA, November 28, 2012). Earlier, Iranian officials had said they planned to design nuclear-powered submarines, enabling the navy to keep the subs on patrol for extended periods and distances. They do not yet have this capability. In 2021, the country’s largest warship caught fire and partially sank in the Gulf of Oman. The cause of the fire was not reported (Washington Post, June 2, 2021).

A new threat emerged in April 2020 when Iran deployed anti-ship missiles and rockets overlooking the Strait of Hormuz. The systems include the Fajr-3 and Fajr-5 multiple launch rocket systems, which can launch 12 missiles with ranges of 27 and 45 miles in under two minutes. A variant of an anti-ship missile similar to the U.S. Navy’s Harpoon has also been deployed (Forbes, April 7, 2020).

An Iranian commander said in September 2021 that Iran has “six armies outside its borders that work for it” (Al Arabiya, September 27, 2021). He referred to Hezbollah in LebanonHamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad movements in Gaza, the regime forces in Syria, the Iraqi Popular Mobilization Forces, and the Houthi militia in Yemen. A significant concern is that these proxies could be ordered to fire rockets or launch drones at Israel. The threat of doing so is meant to deter Israel.

In 2018, Iranian-backed forces launched an attack drone and rocket at Israel from Syria bases. Israel has repeatedly launched strikes on Iranian targets in Syria. Israel has also made clear that any attacks from Lebanon would be met with a severe response, and the Lebanese government is not anxious to be dragged into another war by Hezbollah. Similarly, Hamas and PIJ may be reluctant to provoke Israel to mount a largescale operation in Gaza that would further weaken their position.

Iran also has developed ballistic missiles capable of hitting targets throughout the Middle East, including Israel and U.S. military bases. The commander of U.S. Central Command, General Frank McKenzie, has said the 2,500-3,000 ballistic missiles are the primary threat to the United States and its allies. Since May 2019, Iran-backed militias have launched dozens of short-range rockets targetting American bases in Iraq (Newsweek, December 28, 2020).

The Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps said on April 22, 2020, that it had put a military satellite into orbit for the first time. The announcement raised concerns that the technology used to launch the satellite could be used to develop intercontinental ballistic missiles (New York Times, April 22, 2020). In June 2021, it was reported that Russia had agreed “to deliver to the Iranians a Russian-made Kanopus-V satellite equipped with a high-resolution camera that would greatly enhance Iran’s spying capabilities, allowing continuous monitoring of facilities ranging from Persian Gulf oil refineries and Israeli military bases to Iraqi barracks that house U.S. troops” (Washington Post, June 10, 2021).

In July 2020, Iran’s Revolutionary Guards Navy chief said, “Iran has established underground onshore and offshore missile cities all along the coasts of the Persian Gulf and the Gulf of Oman that would be a nightmare for Iran’s enemies” (Haaretz, July 5, 2020).

Marine Corps Gen. Kenneth McKenzie, the commander of CENTCOM, which oversees the Middle East, Central Asia, and parts of South Asia, told the House Armed Services Committee on April 20, 2021, that small and medium-sized armed Iranian drones endanger U.S. forces and American allies in the Middle East. “For the first time since the Korean War,” he testified, “we are operating without complete air superiority.”

“Sometimes, it is very difficult for us to detect them until it is too late,” McKenzie added. “We have a variety of systems that we’re testing now in a free market competition to find the best and most integrated capabilities. We are not there yet, and it remains a very concerning priority of mine.”

On the positive side, McKenzie said, America’s MQ9 Reaper drones have helped deter Iranian attacks. “In the summer of 2019, we believe we stopped several imminent attack strains from ships at sea simply by positioning MQ9s overhead so that they could hear them operating.”

Agreeing with McKenzie’s analysis, Jonathan Ruhe, the Jewish Institute for National Security of America’s director of foreign policy, observed, “The development and proliferation of these UAVs [unmanned aerial vehicles] is a key element of Iran’s larger effort to counter and overwhelm advanced defenses around the region, including ultimately Israel’s, with swarms of precision munitions like drones and missiles.” Ruhe added, “The United States needs to work with its regional allies to develop a theater air defense network that can counter Tehran’s growing ability to hold the Middle East hostage with these weapons” (JewishInsider, April 21, 2021).

Israel has also expressed concern about Iranian military vessels patrolling the Red Sea. “The presence of Iran’s military forces in the Red Sea in recent months is the most significant in a decade,” Defense Minister Benny Gantz said. “It is a direct threat to trade, energy and the global economy” (Jerusalem Post, July 5, 2022).

See also Military Threats to Israel: Iran

Iranian Threats

Iran has repeatedly made bellicose threats regarding the consequences of an attack, especially one initiated by Israel. For example, Masud Yazaiari, spokesperson of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards, said an Israeli attack would not succeed. “They are aware that Tehran’s response would be overwhelming and would wipe Israel off the face of the earth” (Maariv, July 27, 2004).

In April 2007, Mohammad Baqer Zolghadr, Iran’s deputy interior minister in security affairs, said Iran would strike U.S. interests worldwide and Israel if attacked. “Nowhere would be safe for America with [Iran’s] long-range missiles … we can fire tens of thousands of missiles every day,” Zolghadr said (Haaretz, April 26, 2007).

Ali Shirazi, liaison for Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei to the elite Quds Force, said after a reported Israeli airstrike on an Iranian base in Syria, “Iran has the capability to destroy Israel and given the excuse, Tel Aviv and Haifa will be razed to the ground” (Times of Israel, April 12, 2018).

Before the U.S. withdrawal from the JCPOA, deputy Quds commander Brigadier-General Esmail Ghaani warned against an American attack. “We are not a war-mongering country,” he said. “But any military action against Iran will be regretted … Trump’s threats against Iran will damage America … We have buried many … like Trump and know how to fight against America” (Independent, October 13, 2017).

In May 2019, tensions grew as the United States tightened sanctions on Iran, ending exemptions to several countries that were allowed to continue importing oil from Iran as part of the effort to reduce their oil exports to zero. American intelligence reported a heightened threat of an attack on U.S. interests. “If Iran wants to fight, that will be the official end of Iran. Never threaten the United States again,” President Trump said in a tweet (Reuters, May 19, 2019).

He later said, “I just don’t want them to have nuclear weapons, and they can’t be threatening us. And with all of everything that’s going on, and I’m not one that believes – you know, I’m not somebody that wants to go into war, because war hurts economies, war kills people most importantly – by far most importantly,” he said. “I don’t want to fight,” he added, “but you do have situations like Iran, you can’t let them have nuclear weapons – you just can’t let that happen.”

The commander of Iran’s Islamic Revolution Guard Corps, Major-General Hossein Salami, said the same day that “Iran is not looking for any type of war, but it is fully prepared to defend itself” (CNN, May 19, 2019).

Still, January 3, 2021, was the one-year anniversary of the United States assassinating Qassem Soleimani, head of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards’ Quds Force. Iran vowed retaliation, and the United States and its regional allies have remained alert for a possible attack by Iran or its proxies.

On May 22, 2022, Col. Hassan Sayyad Khodaei was assassinated in Tehran. Israel was immediately suspected of being responsible, a suspicion seemingly confirmed by a leak from the Biden administration (Times of Israel, May 26, 2022).

Khodaei was reportedly in charge of terrorist attacks against Israeli and Jewish targets worldwide. Ben Caspit asserts that Israel has adopted a new policy whereby it “will no longer ignore attempted attacks by proxies of the Iranian regime, and intends to exact a price from those who dispatch them, even in the heart of their capital.” Caspit added, “The shift in Israeli strategy and its apparently increased daring, according to foreign publications, appears to stem from Israel’s commitment, under pressure from the United States, to freeze all activity against Iran’s nuclear program as long as negotiations are ongoing between Iran and world powers” (Al-Monitor, May 24, 2022).

War Options

Most discussions of the military option have focused on worst-case scenarios – Iran’s program can only be delayed, not stopped; Tehran will unleash a wave of terror; Iranian allies, Hamas and Hezbollah, will rain missiles down on Israel; the Muslim world will be inflamed; the price of oil will skyrocket and damage the world economy and other potential catastrophes discussed here.

One other concern is collateral damage. The potential for civilian casualties, property damage, or radiation exposure is an essential consideration in military planning. One reason a military option may be pursued sooner than later is that the danger of releasing radiation will be small or non-existent if an attack is launched before nuclear fuel is loaded into any reactors. According to one 2013 study, the most likely targets of any attack are facilities built underground or storing their hazardous materials in underground bunkers, which would reduce the expected risk to the environment and population (, August 14, 2013).

Any military planner must consider such worst-case scenarios, but if all decisions were based on these predictions, no wars would ever be fought. Strategists must also consider best-case scenarios and those between the optimistic and the apocalyptic. 

An Israeli Attack

Some analysts have questioned Israel’s ability to conduct a military operation; however, Israel’s then chief of staff, Lieutenant General Benny Gantz, said the country’s military was capable of attacking Iran on its own without foreign support. If necessary, he said Israel could fight alone without the help of the United States or other countries. “We have our plans and forecasts … If the time comes we’ll decide” on whether to take military action, he said. Similarly, Intelligence Minister Eli Cohen said: “Iran has no immunity anywhere. Our planes can reach everywhere in the Middle East – and certainly Iran” (Reuters, April 29, 2021).

This echoed comments by Prime Minister Netanyahu, who reiterated that Israel would not “abandon our fate into the hands of other countries, even our best friends.”

Israel’s likely objective would be to destroy Iran’s main enrichment sites, research and testing facilities for nuclear warhead development, and factories for manufacturing missiles, centrifuges, and other nuclear weapons-related equipment. Israel would not have to attack Iran’s nuclear reactors.

Several options are available for potentially attacking Iran. Some of those suggested in the media have included facilities assassinating the country’s leaders or nuclear scientists; bombing the entrances to prevent scientists and others from reaching them; destroying Iran’s main oil terminals and crippling the economy, and bombing the enrichment sites. Press reports have also disclosed covert operations to disrupt the nuclear program. For example, Israel reportedly “used front companies to infiltrate the Iranian purchasing network … to deliver faulty or defective items that ‘poison’ the country’s atomic activities” (Telegraph, February 16, 2009). The world also learned of joint U.S.-Israeli efforts to sabotage Iranian centrifuges through computer viruses such as Stuxnet.

Some analysts argue that Israel lacks the military capability to stop the Iranian nuclear program for more than a few years. This is the conventional wisdom, but it is just that, conventional, and Israel has repeatedly proved that it has the daring and creativity to disprove the skeptics.

Consider Israel’s history. American officials have been consistently wrong about Israel’s capabilities. They did not expect Israel to survive the Arab invasion of 1948. In the early 1950s, the Arabs were seen as strategic allies, but Israel was acknowledged as the only pro-Western power in the region by the end of the decade. In 1967, no one anticipated that Israel would surprise their neighbors and destroy their air forces on the ground. In 1976, Israel shocked the world when it rescued 102 hostages in Entebbe. In 1981, Israel flew through Arab air space and destroyed Iraq’s nuclear reactor. In 2007, an Israeli raid destroyed a suspected Syrian nuclear facility.

Only a handful of Israelis are privy to plans that could be far more audacious and innovative than critics imagine. As Eitan Ben-Eliyahu, who flew a fighter escort on the raid on Iraq, told the Jerusalem Report, “you can introduce dozens of improvisations and creative ideas and get much more out of the basic conditions than would seem possible at face value.”

The most commonly assumed Israeli option would involve an aerial bombardment of Iranian nuclear facilities. The problem analysts frequently mention about Israel bombing Iran is that the Iranian facilities are hidden deep underground. The Obama Administration sold Israel bunker buster bombs; however, only a handful of Israeli planes can carry them, and the munitions are not believed to be powerful enough to penetrate deep enough to destroy the plants.

In addition to aircraft dropping bombs, Israel could also launch its Jericho missiles and possibly submarine-based cruise missiles. This last possibility, a submarine-based attack, became more realistic following reports that Israel launched an attack with precision-guided missiles that destroyed a shipment of Russian anti-ship missiles in the Syrian port of Latakia (Tom Gross, “Was Israel’s Latest ‘Air’ Attack on Syria from a Submarine?” Weekly Standard, July 20, 2013). Gross also raised the possibility that Israel could use another tactic – an EMP (electromagnetic pulses) that could “be emitted from installations the size of a suitcase smuggled into Iran by land and used to disable specific buildings or target specific offices – for example, the office of the Iranian defense minister, to make it impossible for him to communicate by phone or computer with the outside world for a period of time.”

Unlike the United States, which could carry out sustained strikes, Israel is expected to have only a brief window – perhaps only a single raid – to do whatever damage it can. The likely targets would be the heavy-water production plant at Arak, the uranium-conversion facility at Isfahan, and the uranium enrichment centers at Natanz and Fordow. The length of an attack may be constrained, but it could still be potentially devastating if Israel uses its full range of resources, including strikes from the air, land, and sea, EMPs and cyberattacks, and special forces operations.

One impediment to an Israeli airstrike was thought to be its inability to refuel its aircraft. During a drill in May 2022 that included simulated airstrikes on Iran and a simulated multi-front war against Iran-backed proxies in Syria, Lebanon, and Gaza, Israel disclosed, and the U.S. Air Force confirmed, that American tankers would refuel the Israeli planes. An American spokesperson later tried to dissociate the USAF participation from the Israeli exercise, calling it an unrelated “dry refueling mission” (Breaking Defense, May 18, 2022; Jerusalem Post, May 19, 2022; JNS, May 22, 2022).

A few weeks later, the Jerusalem Post reported that Israel had developed the capability to fly its F-35 stealth fighter jets from Israel to Iran without mid-air refueling. The report also said the planes could carry a new one-ton bomb (Jerusalem Post, June 8, 2022). 

Another scenario is referred to as the “Entebbe Option.” The idea would be for Israeli commandos to storm the enrichment facility housing Iran’s centrifuges, remove the enriched uranium and then destroy the facility (Foreign Policy, September 27, 2012). Cdr. Jennifer Dyer has argued an Israeli attack would not be as air-heavy as in the past. It is more likely, she argued, that Special Forces and asymmetric means would be used (Jewish Policy Center, Spring 2022).

In the Spring of 2022, Israel intensified preparation for a possible conflict with Iran, conducting drills to defeat Iranian radar systems, simulate long-range combat flights, and defend against cyber weapons. The exercises were no doubt meant to send a message to Iran that Israel could threaten its nuclear facilities. The Israelis might have also wanted to reaffirm their commitment to act against Iran if the United States returned to the JCPOA without addressing its security concerns.

Any attack on nuclear facilities would most likely be conducted before Iran introduced dangerous levels of uranium to preclude the possibility of radiation fallout (Washington Post, August 5, 2013). Similar concern prompted Menachem Begin to destroy the Iraqi reactor at Osirak in 1981.

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