A regional war, coupled with a closure of the Strait of Hormuz and a series of terror attacks — the horror scenario commonly depicted by Western powers if Israel were to launch a limited strike against Iran — is highly unlikely, a former head of military intelligence wrote this week in advance of a third round of nuclear talks between Iran and the six world powers. He also said talk of such a scenario was harmful to global diplomacy and, ironically, increased the likelihood of Israeli military action.
“Those who overestimate the threat of regional escalation damage the credibility of the military option and encourage a situation in which this becomes the only available option for preventing Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon,” wrote Maj. Gen. (ret) Amos Yadlin, the director of the INSS think tank, and research assistant Avner Golov in a recent issue of Strategic Assessment (PDF).
The comments come amid stiff Israeli criticism of the emerging deal being hammered out between Iran and the so-called P5+1 — the United States, Russia, China, France, Great Britain and Germany — and against the backdrop of recent comments by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s newly retired national security adviser, Yaakov Amidror, who told the Financial Times on Sunday that there was “no question” that Israel would be willing to strike Iran unilaterally and that such an attack could set back the Iranian nuclear program “for a very long time.”
Yadlin and Golov described five possible Iranian responses to a strike, ranging from total military restraint to full-blown regional war, and asserted that the most likely scenarios were two gradations of a limited response. The first, “the classic reactive strategy,” would be a tit-for-tat strike in which “a significant number of missiles would be launched from Iran and Lebanon in the direction of Dimona or any other target in Israel perceived as ‘nuclear-associated,’” the two wrote.
A more significant reaction, but one Yadlin and Golov also considered to have “a high likelihood” of being chosen, would include one or two missile volleys at Israeli cities, a strike against Saudi and Western interests in the Gulf, and air and sea suicide missions.
A more robust and deadly response, in which Iran launched dozens of missiles a day against Israeli cities — as a declaration of outrage against the violation of its sovereignty or as a means of deterring Israel from any future action — “would lead to a significant Israeli response and could lead to escalation of the conflict… which could threaten the continued survival of the regime.” So long as a Western strike focused solely on the nuclear program and not wider regime assets, the two wrote, the regime would likely refrain from such a response.
The full-blown regional war scenario, most frequently advanced by Western officials and experts — including former White House counter-terror chief Richard Clarke, who told The Times of Israel in June that on the scale of possible Iranian reactions to an attack, “I’m more on the apocalyptic side” — was both “highly questionable,” the two wrote, and “not grounded in rational evaluation.”
Yadlin accurately envisaged Russian involvement in the Syrian chemical weapons crisis several week in advance of that development in September, and served as head of the IDF’s military intelligence in September 2007 when Israel allegedly risked war by obliterating Syria’s heavy water reactor in Dir a-Zur.
He said that a Western or Israeli attack solely targeting Iran’s nuclear facilities should be seen not as a spark to all-out war, but as an integral part of a comprehensive approach to disarming Iran’s nuclear program. “A strike should be seen as a tool to promote the goal of stopping Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons through diplomatic means, to the extent possible,” the paper argued, “and not as a solution in and of itself.”