By Sajjad Safaei , a postdoc fellow at Germany’s Max Planck Institute for Social Anthropology.
Not for the first time in recent memory, Israel wants the world to know it is ready and willing to militarily strike Iran—alone if it has to.
In recent weeks, Israeli Defense Minister Benny Gantz has twice spoken of Israel’s readiness to strike Iran militarily to prevent it from advancing is nuclear program. “I do not rule out the possibility that Israel will have to take action in the future in order to prevent a nuclear Iran,” he said at a briefing of foreign ambassadors and envoys. And as though to add to the alarmist mood, Israel Defense Forces (IDF) Chief of General Staff Aviv Kochavi claimed that the “progress in the Iranian nuclear program has led the IDF to speed up its operational plans” for an attack on the country and that a recently-approved “defense budget … is meant to address this.” A dedicated team, he boasted, had been assembled to boost preparation for a strike on Iranian nuclear facilities should such a strike be ordered by Israel’s political leadership. For his part, Israeli Prime Minister Neftali Bennett has said his country is ready to “act alone” against Iran if it ever feels the need to do so. He made the remarks after an attack on an Israeli-managed tanker off the coast of Oman, for which Tel Aviv and its allies blamed Iran.
To be sure, Israel has in the past carried out relatively limited operations against Iran—such as raids on Iranian allies in Syria and nuclear sabotage —and may continue to do so in the future. But to what extent should we believe Tel Aviv is truly ready and willing to launch a strike on Iran because of advances in the Iranian nuclear program, knowing full well that this is likely to push the two countries and their allies into war? The political and military constraints on Israeli decision-makers suggests such a military showdown is highly unlikely.
To speak of an imminent and undisguised IDF strike deep inside Iranian territory is to overlook a long-established norm that has for decades governed U.S.-Israel relations: Israel cannot simply ignore the wishes and concerns of its chief patron, especially when core U.S. foreign policy priorities are at stake.
This norm was expressed in clear terms by no less a figure than Israel’s former premier and Defense Minister Ehud Barak in his autobiography My Country, My Life. Here, Barak spelled out the paradigm that has shaped—and will likely continue to shape—the contours of Israeli action against Iran. “There were only two ways,” he explained, that Israel could stop the Iranians from getting a nuclear weapon (read: “nuclear program,” for Barak willfully ignores U.S. intelligence assessments that Iran had halted pursuits for nuclear weapons in 2003). One way was “for the Americans to act.” The only other option was “for [the United States] not to hinder Israel from doing so.”
But according to Barak, “hinder” is precisely what consecutive U.S. administrations have done—and are still likely to do.
Even during the military interventionism of the George W. Bush presidency, Israel did not have a blank check to do as it pleased. As Barak notes in his memoirs, when Bush learned in 2008 of Israeli efforts to purchase heavy munitions from the United States, he confronted Barak and then-premier Ehud Olmert. “I want to tell both of you now, as president,” Bush warned, “We are totally against any action by you to mount an attack on the [Iranian] nuclear plants.”
“I repeat,” Bush further clarified, “in order to avoid any misunderstanding. We expect you not to do it. And we’re not going to do it, either, as long as I am president. I wanted it to be clear.” It deserves mention that according to Barak, Bush issued this warning despite knowing that Israel did not even possess the military capacity to assault Iran at the time.
According to Barak, this staunch opposition to a strike on Iran had a “dramatic” effect on him and Olmert since the Bush administration had supported Israel’s 2007 bombing of Syria’s nascent nuclear program just a year before. In both cases, Washington’s approval, or lack thereof, was demonstrably consequential.
Barak’s memoirs show that the same dynamic continued to govern U.S.-Israel relations during Obama’s presidency. He recalls how then-U.S. Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta “made no secret of the fact he didn’t want us to launch a military strike” at a time when the Obama administration was focused on putting international political and economic pressure on Iran. Panetta “urged me to ‘think twice, three times,’ before going down that road,” Barak wrote, and saw it as a given that Tel Aviv would keep Washington abreast of its decisions. “If you do decide to attack the Iranian facilities, when will we know?” he allegedly asked Barak.
According to Barak’s account, Israel was dissuaded from going forward with a supposed strike on Iran’s nuclear installations in summer 2012 “because of the damage it would do to our ties with the United States.” Washington’s demands continued to limit Tel Aviv after the finalization of the nuclear deal in 2015. Even then, Barak recalls, the Israelis could not simply act against Iran without a green light from the Obama administration: “We needed to reach agreement with the Americans about what kind of military strike we, or they, might have to take if the Iranians again moved to get nuclear weapons.”
As evinced by Barak’s autobiography, U.S. presidents are not taciturn about making their views and wishes known to Israeli officials, especially when primary U.S. foreign policy objectives are involved. Nor can Tel Aviv afford to ignore Washington’s express demands and concerns on such matters. And today, any flagrant Israeli violation of Iranian sovereignty will instantly clash with two mutually reinforcing goals that have come to define the Biden administration’s foreign policy: curbing Iran’s nuclear program through non-military means (efforts currently focused on reviving the 2015 Iranian nuclear deal) and winding down U.S. military presence in the Middle East.
These political realities make it unlikely Israel will pursue an overt strike on Iran. Just as important, however, are the military constraints that Israel faces.
To be sure, even without its ready-to-launch nuclear warheads, Israel is more than capable of delivering swift and devastating blows to Iran’s armed forces, both in the skies and seas. Its fleet of American fighter jets and bombers alone can irreparably trounce Iran’s air defenses as well as its dilapidated air force. Even Iran’s increasingly powerful, accurate, and far-reaching missile and drone systems don’t radically alter the balance of power in the skies. In short, in terms of military hardware, the IDF’s superiority over Iran’s armed forces is indisputable, not to mention otherworldly.
But this prodigious superiority will be rendered far less consequential in the event of an all-out war that lures the IDF ground forces into the battlefield. Why? Ever since the IDF’s embarrassing defeat during the 2006 war with Hezbollah, Israel’s top military brass have become acutely aware that the country’s land forces are ill-prepared for a full-scale war with a fighting force even moderately capable of packing a punch.
As shown by Israel’s own scathing inquiry into the 2006 war, as well as reports by the Washington Institute for Near East Policy and the U.S. Army , the 33-day war with Hezbollah demonstrated that the IDF ground forces had been woefully ill-prepared to fight a real war with a formidable foe.
Since then, there have been some signs of remedial measures undertaken by the IDF to address its shortcomings. Still, there is little reason to believe its ground forces have undergone a drastic improvement since the 2006 war. Unsurprisingly, when Gadi Eizenkot began his tenure as Chief of General Staff of the IDF a few months after Protective Edge (the 2014 Gaza War), he reportedly “found the ground forces in rather bad shape” and “an army that had gotten fat in … all the wrong places in the decade after the Second Lebanon War.” The picture looked more or less the same in late 2018 when the outgoing ombudsman of the Israeli Defense Ministry Maj. Gen. (res.) Yitzhak Brick warned lawmakers in a “contentious ” meeting that the country’s ground forces were unprepared for a future war.
Mindful of the gaping chink in the IDF’s armor, Israel’s highest military and political echelons are unlikely to order an overt military operation inside Iranian territory, knowing full well that such an assault will most likely lock Israel and Iran in an irreversible spiral of escalation that promises to pit ill-prepared IDF ground troops against Iranian forces and their regional allies such as Hezbollah.
But if Washington’s red light and Tel Aviv’s own military calculus render a flagrant violation of Iranian sovereignty by the IDF unlikely, then what is to account for the public, at times even garish, saber-rattling emanating from Israeli statesmen? Such threats are partly tailored for domestic consumption. In a highly militarized social context that has in recent decades steadily drifted toward the far-right, talk of bombing Iran may be an effort to not appear weak before one’s political rivals.
It may also be read, however, as a bargaining posture to strengthen Israel’s position vis-à-vis the Biden administration on issues far closer to home than the Iranian nuclear program. By continuously breathing life into the specter of striking Iran—a source of great unease in Western capitals due its catastrophic ramifications—Israeli leaders can offer to forgo their non-existent plans to enter an all-out war with Iran in return for other gains: Biden dropping his opposition to illegal settlement expansion in the occupied territories (a secondary issue for the United States) as well as more military and financial aid.
Sajjad Safaei is a postdoc fellow at Germany’s Max Planck Institute for Social Anthropology.