Iran: The Lesson of September 6

Israel’s September 6, 2007 air strike on a North Korean-provided nuclear installation in northeastern Syria was a dramatic indication that Israel intends to preserve its well known but unacknowledged monopoly on nuclear weapons in the Middle East as long as it can. The September raid sent signals far beyond Damascus; it has significant implications for Iran’s nuclear program and the potential for future nuclear proliferation in the region. It also has important implications for the United States, especially regarding the possible ramifications of a future Israeli operation against Iran.

The raid was conducted with extreme secrecy. Even some of the pilots flying support missions for the strike were not briefed on the target. Instead of flaunting the results in public, current Israeli government officials have kept their mouths shut (unheard of in recent Israeli history) and avoided pouring salt in the Syrian wound. The Israeli leadership, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Defense Minister Ehud Barak, want to avoid raising the danger of a larger war with Syria. The secrecy has been maintained for two months now and the issue has yet to be widely debated in Israel. Thus its strategic significance has yet to be fully articulated by the usually intense strategic dialogue in Israel.

Some in Israel, especially in the military, remain convinced that, despite the discovery of a Syrian nuclear project, Syria can be a partner for peace with Israel, or at least should be engaged to test if it is a partner. They want to test President Bashar Assad’s public statements that he is open to resuming negotiations broken off in Geneva in 2000 for a deal returning the Golan Heights to Syria along the lines of the pre-June 1967 ceasefire line in return for a peace treaty. Some of those most involved in the raid this fall are also the most interested in testing Assad, notably Barak himself who led the effort to get a deal with Bashar’s father in 2000 before it collapsed at the Geneva summit.

Barak and others note that Syria talks of a negotiated peace treaty with Israel while Iran talks of wiping Israel from the map, suggesting the two can be separated and their axis broken with important implications for Hamas and Hezbollah. A diplomatic process would also reduce the risk that Syria will retaliate for the airstrike using its terror proxies (although some kind of retaliation is all but certain). So the defense establishment is the most eager to engage Syria even after the strike.

This irony only underscores the critical importance of the target hit on September 6. Israel took the risk of war to stop a program that, in retrospect, we now know was underway for several years, probably back to the turn of the century. While the Israeli intelligence community had some hints of a secret program in Syria for years – and took the appropriate collection steps to find out more – it was not until early this year that the magnitude of the threat became apparent. At the same time war jitters were becoming higher with Syria. Some feared Syria might try to grab a small part of the Golan in imitation of Egypt’s 1973 war plan where crossing the Suez Canal was intended (correctly) to prompt a peace process from a reluctant Israel and America. Bashar has moved closer to Hezbollah than his father, the Syrians openly admire its success in the 2006 war and have become the largest source of arms for its fighters although Iran pays the bills for these arms purchases.

There is no indication of any Iranian role in the Syrian-North Korean project (at least so far) despite Tehran’s close partnership with both Damascus and Pyongyang. Tehran has received considerable help in building its surface to surface missile force from North Korea but got the basics of its nuclear capability from Pakistan, not North Korea. The Iranians seem to have been as surprised as everyone else by the September raid and its revelation of Syria’s program. (This may tell us something about the nature of Assad’s true confidence in Tehran.)

But Tehran cannot escape the implications of Israel’s action. As it did with Iraq in 1981, Israel chose to take unilateral military action in 2007 without resort to the IAEA or the UN Security Council to protect its alleged nuclear monopoly. One can be sure that Iran now is seeking to learn all it can about the tactics and methods employed by the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) in September.

Israeli officials insist they still want to give diplomacy and tough sanctions a chance to work with Iran. And they say military force should be a last resort with Tehran. They are also quick to acknowledge the differences between hitting Syria, a neighbor with an apparently small and largely undefended installation, and Iran, which has numerous civilian nuclear sites, a large covert military program and is a far more challenging target due to distances and defenses. Still, senior IDF officers insist Iran is not a “mission impossible” for the IDF.

Indeed Barak has said publicly about Iran that “the things that we do behind the scenes, far from the public eye, are far more important than the slogan charade,” implying that Israeli covert capabilities are already hard at work in trying to cope with the Iranian threat, and preparing to deal with it if they must. Barak, a former Director of Military Intelligence in the IDF and a career commando officer, knows better than anyone the capabilities and limits of such operations. Barak’s comment, deliberately ambiguous, is carefully crafted to signal to Israelis that the IDF is addressing the threat now, not just at some time in the future. Of course, they also serve his own political agenda by reminding Israelis of his security credentials.

Israeli politicians and strategists across the political spectrum see Iran as Israel’s premier strategic threat at the dawn of the 21st century. Some, like former Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu, see Iran as a unique modern threat willing to sacrifice millions of its own people to destroy Israel and thus not a country that can be deterred. Others are more concerned that a nuclear Iran will be a more robust and dangerous supporter of Syria and groups like Hezbollah and Hamas. Others fear that an Iranian program will prompt nuclear weapons development in Egypt, Turkey and Saudi Arabia, and fear that Pakistan will be a partner in proliferation with them given its close ties to all, especially to Saudi Arabia. All agree with former Deputy Defense Minister Ephraim Sneh that Iran is the “main threat” to Israel in our lifetimes.

The Israelis say that Iran is training hundreds of Hamas operatives from Gaza and the West Bank, providing Hezbollah its most sophisticated weapons in Lebanon to strike at Israeli cities beyond Haifa, and is working with Hezbollah and Syria to develop intelligence against the IDF. It is now the dominant power in southern Iraq (home to two thirds of Iraqi oil), and is building it influence in the large Shia communities in Bahrain, eastern Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Kuwait. It is even giving aid to the Taliban in Afghanistan which it almost went to war with a decade ago. If it gets a bomb it will indeed be bolder still especially in the Gulf, in my view, although I believe it will behave like other nuclear weapons states and play by the existing rules of nuclear deterrence.

The implication of September 6 is that, at the end of the day, Israel will use force to prevent the creation of a second nuclear weapons state in the Middle East. It will judge the risks and downsides carefully but it is prepared to fight a war to stop Iran from crossing the nuclear threshold.

An Israeli attack on Iran would have major implications for American interests and influence in the region, far beyond the impact of the raid on Syria. Any IDF attack on Iran will be seen in Tehran as an American approved operation despite any U.S. public denials. Retaliation will come against American as well as Israeli targets. American and perhaps NATO forces in Iraq and Afghanistan will be especially at risk. Hezbollah will use its formidable missile capability to strike northern and central Israel, and might unleash a wave of terrorism on soft targets around the world. The White House now and in 2009 must decide not only how it wishes to deal with a nuclear threat in Iran but also what it says and does with Israel about Iran.