‘The US or Israel — who should strike Iran?’

Think tank finds that an American attack would have a better chance of getting the job done, but the diplomatic fallout could be prohibitive

An F-35 Joint Strike Fighter plane (photo credit: Liz Kaszynski/Flash 90)
An F-35 Joint Strike Fighter plane (photo credit: Liz Kaszynski/Flash 90)

A position paper weighing US and Israeli military options against Iran, written by retired US Marine Corps general James Cartwright and Amos Yadlin, former IAF head and military intelligence chief, posits that a US-led strike on the Iranian nuclear facilities would be preferable from a military standpoint, while an Israeli strike might not be able to disable Iran’s nuclear capabilities but would have less international fallout.

The brief paper, “Israeli or US Action Against Iran: Who Will Do It If It Must Be Done?” was released this week (PDF) by the The Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

It was “intended solely to stimulate and inform further discussion on the potential repercussions of different strike options” against the Islamic Republic’s nuclear program, while acknowledging that “military force should only be employed against the program as a last resort.”

In their analysis, Cartwright and Yadlin brought the following points:

  • A US attack would allow a larger window for a non-military solution, since the US strike capacity is greater than that of Israel.
  • A “unilateral Israeli strike amid Western efforts to find a diplomatic solution” would be censured internationally, even though Israel faces an existential threat from the Iranian program, and the US does not. Conversely, a US-led effort, undertaken as a last resort, would enjoy greater international backing.
  • A US strike would have a greater chance of disabling the Iranian nuclear infrastructure, even though Israel has more experience in similar pinpoint attacks on nuclear facilities.
  • An Israeli attack would have to violate the airspace of a third country, creating more potential diplomatic issues, while a US attack could be staged directly from naval vessels stationed in the Persian Gulf.
  • An Israeli attack would be swift and surgical, causing less collateral damage, a “significant advantage” when considering the fallout from such a strike. The US, with its larger bombs, would be more likely to cause civilian casualties or other damage and would have to take pains to ensure that the attack is perceived by the Iranian public and the world as a strike on nuclear capabilities only, not the beginning of another US-led war in a Muslim country.
  • In the aftermath of a strike, Israel would have more moral authority because the Jewish state “could legitimately claim that it was acting in self-defense,” whereas a US strike is more likely to anger countries with ties to Iran, such as Russia and China, and further diminish the already-weakened American standing as an honest broker in the Muslim world.
  • If the Iranian people understood that the strike was targeting nuclear weapons only, they would be less likely to rally behind the Teheran regime. That outcome is more likely in the case of an Israeli surgical strike, but less so for a US attack.
  • A strike by either country is likely to be condemned in public but approved in private by most governments in the Arab world. An Israeli strike would draw greater condemnation, especially on the Arab street, while a US strike “might even help America repair its tarnished image in the Sunni world.”
  • Washington would prefer, due to domestic political concerns, that Israel conduct the strike, since “the outbreak of another war with a Muslim state would not bode well politically for any US administration.” An Israeli leader, however, would find it difficult to outsource Israel’s defense to another country, but would do so if it was believed that a US strike would invite less retaliatory terrorist attacks against Israeli or Jewish targets.
  • If further strikes were determined to be necessary to remove the Iranian nuclear threat, only the US has the capacity for continued military action against the Islamic Republic.

In their final analysis, the authors found that an attack by each country would have pros and cons. A US attack would be preferable in strictly military terms but could have huge diplomatic consequences, while an Israeli strike would have less chance of ultimate success but would also generate limited international repercussions.

The leaders of both countries should therefore focus on “(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,” the authors said.

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