|You are here: HOME > Publications > Story Archives > Story|
CNS Feature Story
International Reactions: What if Israel Attacks Iran?
An Israeli military strike on Iran's nuclear facilities would divide the international community, despite any potential consensus against Tehran's suspected nuclear program.
by Tariq Khaitous, Postdoctoral Fellow
May 22, 2008
Despite the 2007 National Intelligence Estimate stating that Iran had given up its nuclear weapons program in 2003, it appears that Israel may launch a pre-emptive attack against Iran. Such an attack has historical precedence; Israel had previously attacked the Iraqi nuclear reactor Osirak, in 1981 and launched an air strike against a presumed nuclear facility in Syria in September 2007. Israeli military officials believe that Iran is on the verge of producing enough enriched uranium to make nuclear weapons. In a parliamentary meeting on January 18, 2008, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Ulmert said, "Israel clearly will not reconcile itself to a nuclear Iran... All options that prevent Iran from gaining nuclear capabilities are legitimate within the context of how to grapple with this matter." Prior to this declaration, it has been reported that the Mossad, Israel's intelligence agency, has drawn up secret plans to destroy Iran's uranium enrichment facilities with tactical nuclear weapons. The Israeli air force squadrons have trained to destroy an Iranian facility using low-yield nuclear "bunker-busters."
Iran's officials denied the credibility of Ulmert's declaration. In an interview with the Qatar-based Arab TV channel, Al Jazeera, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmedinajad said, "Israel does not have the courage to attack Iran." However, the possibility that Israel resort to a pre-emptive military action on Iranian nuclear facilities remains conceivable.
If Iran refuses to halt its enrichment activities and Israel resorts to striking Iranian facilities, the reaction of the international community will be divided between proponents and opponents of Tel Aviv's actions. Some countries would support the military action against Iran's nuclear facilities while others will vigorously denounce it. This report focuses on the reaction of the major players in the on-going Iranian nuclear crisis: the United States, Russia, China, the European Union (particularly United Kingdom, France and Germany), and Iran's Arab neighbors.
The question of how to deal with the current Iranian nuclear crisis continues to haunt Israeli policy-makers. Since 2002, this issue has been one of the biggest challenges to Israel's national security. The nuclearization of Iran would be dangerous and destabilizing, and could lead to further proliferation of nuclear weapons in the Middle East. It would also provide the means for Tehran to establish its power and pursue a more aggressive policy towards Israel.
To resolve this problem, many efforts have been undertaken without success. The EU-3 (France, Germany and the UK) diplomatic efforts with Iran appear to have come to a dead-end. Since the election of President Mahmoud Ahmadi-Nejad in June, 2005, negotiations with Iran on its nuclear program became even more complex. Diplomats have proven incapable of resolving the problem while Iran is still pursuing its sensitive enrichment activities.
Moreover, International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) reports have clearly and repeatedly demonstrated Iran's persistent lack of transparency and cooperation with the agency, and its attempts to hide its secret nuclear fuel cycle program. The latest report, published in February 2008, showed that the IAEA was still not in a position to assert that Iran's nuclear program is entirely peaceful.
While the United States, European countries and the IAEA have engaged in critical dialogue and negotiations with Iran, Israel has repeatedly threatened Tehran with use of force. So far, Israel has not taken any military measure against Iran. However, it has already engaged military action against two major Iranian allies in the region. These actions appear to be a consequence of the tension between Iran and Israel and the inability of the international community to resolve the nuclear crisis. In July 2006, Israel launched a war against the Shi'ite movement Hezbollah, in the south of Lebanon after the kidnapping of two Israeli soldiers. Israel did have the right to recover its two kidnapped soldiers; however, the Israeli retaliation against Hezbollah was seen as disproportionate. The Israeli army fought Hezbollah militants for more than 30 days, causing the death of hundreds of civilians. Israel wanted also to take advantage of this event to send a message to Iran by destroying Hezbollah bases from the south of Lebanon, which in Tel Aviv's view, constitute an "Iranian-backed" extremist group aimed to serve Iran's interest in the region by deterring Israel.
In September 2007, the Israeli army attacked Syria, Iran's second ally in the region. The site attacked was alleged to hold a North Korean nuclear reactor delivered for military purposes. For now, Syria may not be considered to be a nuclear threat by Israel. However, experts have expressed that while the air incursion directly targeted Syria, a more pressing message was sent to Iran. Given Israel's deep concern over Iran's nuclear intentions, the strike relayed that if Israel could attack Syria's nuclear site, Iran's nuclear facilities could also be targeted. Israel, thus, wanted also to send a signal to Tehran that it is prepared to take unilateral action to strike any other suspicious nuclear installations. However, Iranian officials refused to consider the raid as an indicator of Israeli capacity and willingness to strike Iran. During the annual meeting of the Inter-parliamentary Union (IPU) in Geneva, Iranian Parliamentary Speaker Hadad Alel said, "The violation of the airspace of Syria by Israeli planes was not meant to be a signal for Iran, because Israel is not in a position to have the illusion of attacking Iran."
If Iran refuses to yield its nuclear program, and Israel resorts to attacking its facilities, it is likely that the reactions of the major players in and outside would vary because of a constellation of elements.
1. The United States would side with Israel.
Prior to the 2007 NIE regarding Iran's nuclear activities, the Bush administration was considering the use force against Iran to prevent it from further developing its nuclear weapon program. When asked by a journalist if the United States was considering military action against Iran's nuclear facilities, President Bush responded on April 18, 2006: "All the options are on the table." However, after the release of the NIE, it seemed that, in the short term, it would be difficult for the Bush administration or his successor to launch a pre-emptive attack against Iran's nuclear facilities. The situation in Iraq is still critical; the fight against Taliban and Al Qaida in Afghanistan is not finished yet. Moreover, the rise of violence in Lebanon and Palestine and uncertainties about political stability have raised concerns about security in the region.
However, if all international diplomatic efforts fail to convince Iran to halt its nuclear program and a pre-emptive strike seems to be the solution of last resort, it is likely that the United States would side with Israel. Israel is the primary U.S. ally in the region and both countries are extremely concerned about Iran's nuclear ambition. In such a scenario, the U.S. government would take advantage of the attack to justify it as Israel protecting itself against Iran. Moreover, the United States would protect Israel at the UN Security Council by using its veto to block the adoption of any eventual resolutions against Israel. On July 2007, Israeli Minister of Strategic Affairs Avigdor Lieberman reported that Israel already has the blessing of the EU and the United States to strike Iran. Following a meeting with NATO and European Union officials, Lieberman said, "If we start military operations against Iran alone, then Europe and the U.S. will support us." He added that NATO and EU officials conveyed to him that Israel should prevent the threat.
The United States and Israel believe that economic sanctions against Iran will not be effective. The Iranian regime is accustomed to the U.S. pressure and Security Council resolutions. Tehran has always been able to challenge U.S. sanctions. It has the capability to live with the U.S. sanctions because it is a major player in the oil market and many countries have economic interest in Tehran.
Washington and Tel Aviv also believe that, even if the EU suspends its economic relations with Iran, other states such as Russia, China and India would always be interested in investing in Iran. In this regard, the Israeli Foreign Minister, Tzipi Livni called on Chinese officials to support the economic sanctions against Iran as soon as possible because in her view, "time is not in Israel's interest." China refused the Israeli request, citing the need to resolve the issue diplomatically.
2. Russia and China would denounce the aggression.
Russia and China have developed strong economic ties between each other and also with Iran. Any military attack against Iran's nuclear facilities would be strongly denounced by both Moscow and Beijing.
Iran is a major customer of Russian weapons exporters and is a strong ally of Russia in the Caucuses and Central Asia. Tehran is also the only Russian ally in the Gulf region. Russia has opposed U.S. proposals to impose more sanctions against Iran and has refused to give up the construction of Bushehr nuclear power plant, a reactor that Washington has consistently denounced. It is reported that hundreds of Russian scientists and technicians currently work in Bushehr. A pre-emptive attack on Bushehr may kill a large number of Iranian and Russian personnel. Sergi Lavrov, Russia's Foreign Minister, expressed his concerns over war against Iran in saying: "We are convinced that no modern problem has a military solution, and that applies to the Iranian nuclear program as well."  However, Russia's economic interest with the United States remains much more important than its relations with Tehran. The nuclearization of Iran could also be a threat to Russia's national security. Iran is only 250 miles from Russia's southern border. Concern over Tehran's nuclear program was one of the reasons Russia offered nuclear fuel to Iran. Iran refused the Russian offer because, in its view, Russia would have the power to negotiate with Washington which might be an obstacle for Iran's nuclear ambitions.
China has also warned against military action targeting Iran. It has been securing strategic energy contracts around the world, including in Latin America, Canada and Iran. Chinese imports more than 13 percent of its increasing energy needs from Iran. Iran is their second largest supplier after Saudi Arabia and they have been investing heavily in the development of Iran's energy oilfields. Since the beginning of the nuclear crisis, China has been promoting diplomatic ways to resolve the Iranian issue. Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Liu Jianchao stated that his country does not support any military measures against Iran's nuclear program, noting that China believes "the best option is to peacefully resolve the Iranian nuclear issue through diplomatic negotiations, which is in the common interests of the international community." It can be assumed that China will not sit idly by and watch Iran be attacked by the most reliable U.S. ally in the region. Indeed, although China has significant economic interest with the United States, it would not support a military action against Iran.
However, if Iran's nuclear facilities are attacked, China and Russia would be seen as weak internationally since they were not able to prevent it, especially if it escalated into a protracted conflict. In this regard, Ehud Barak, Israeli Minister of Defence, has called China, Russia, as well as India, "to come together against Iran's policy." Israel believes that China and Russia's support for Iran is allowing time for Tehran to pursue its sensitive nuclear activities without any impunity.
3. The EU-3 would opt for neutrality and diplomacy
Since the beginning of the Iranian nuclear problem, the EU-3 has shown unity and solidarity in dealing with Iran. One reason behind this unity is that France, Germany and the United Kingdom are concerned by the capacity of the on-going Iranian nuclear program and its ballistic missiles. Another reason is that they wanted to show that diplomacy could work to prevent nuclear proliferation. The EU-3 also perceives the Iranian crisis as a way of regaining the European unity that was lost prior to the Iraq War.
This EU-3 alliance helped Paris, Berlin and London work together with Washington while playing a prominent role on this issue. This alliance became even stronger especially after the election of French President Nicolas Sarkozy. Iran has been facing numerous economic and financial pressures. Several companies have been under U.S. and the European pressure. French Foreign Minister, Bernard Kouchner emphasized that his country should pursue rigorous measures towards Iran. According to the French newspaper l'Express, Kouchner urged other European countries to take more actions to deter Iran from pursuing its nuclear ambitions. In this regards, he said "It is important that the European Union shows its determination to increase pressure on Iran, to force it to respond to the UN Security Council demands."
Iran has not succeeded in dividing the European countries from Washington on this issue, however, this alliance does not mean that the EU-3 would support a military attack against Iran's nuclear facilities. The EU-3 has always supported imposing more international sanctions against Iran's atomic ambitions. However, if Israel attacks Iran, then Paris, Berlin and London would fear the consequences that such action would have on their own interests.
The United Kingdom has military forces deployed in Iraq and Afghanistan. Any attack on Iran could lead Tehran to encourage the Shi'a militants in Iraq and the extremists in Afghanistan to cause more violence against the armies of the coalition. The capacity of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards to destabilize countries of the region is one of the important elements of the nuclear crisis. It was reported that Iran has more than 30,000 agents and missionaries serving its interests in Iraq. They have very strong ties with local Iraqi governors, particularly in the regions of the south. Most of these Iraqi governors were sheltered by Iran during Saddam dictatorship—they were considered political refugees and welcomed by the Iranian regime. After the removal of Saddam's regime in 2003, they returned to their home countries like heroes and were easily elected by the local populations. Most of them benefited from financial support and social help from the Iranian regime. Some of them still receive monthly payment from the Iranian leadership even if they are working for the Iraqi government.
Although Paris and Berlin are not militarily engaged in Iraq, their leaders worry about the interests of their nations in the region. During the last four decades, France's policy has traditionally been opposed to the use of force, particularly in the Middle East. France is heading the mission of the United Nations International Forces for Lebanon (UNIFL) to prevent conflict between Hezbollah and Israel in the south of Lebanon. It is also supporting the efforts by Lebanese Prime Minister, Fouad Seniora, to reconcile the political parties in order to compose a unified government. A military action against Iran could undermine French presence in the region, especially in Lebanon, which is one of France's main allies in the Middle East. French public opinion would also not support force against Iran. It has always been skeptical of U.S. and Israel's policy in the region. France's population was the first in Europe that protested against the U.S. decision to invade Iraq. Most pro-Arab and pro-Palestinian non-governmental organizations in Europe are based in France. As such, the popularity of President Sarkozy has taken a tumble in part because of his pro Americanism, but also because of his lack of leadership qualities and his failure to achieve the economic goals that he promised during the presidential campaign.
Germany would also not accept an Israeli military action against Iran. Berlin has been engaged in a marathon of negotiations with Iran. Germany is the only non-permanent member of the Security Council dealing with the Iranian crisis. Berlin's officials prefer that the Security Council adopt more economic sanctions rather than support a military attack. Berlin is seeking to gather the support of China and Russia to prove to the Iranians that sensitive nuclear activities would never be accepted. During her last visit to Israel on March 16, 2008, German Chancellor Angela Merkel said, "Germany is counting on a diplomatic solution. We're counting on a solution in which as many [countries] as possible are included. Iran must show that it is not working on a nuclear [weapons] program."
Germany also fears the impact a military attack could have on its economic interest with Iran. Many German companies have invested in Iran, especially in the fields of energy and machinery. Germany remains the biggest European trader with Iran. Berlin exports more than $5.7 billion to Iran while France and the UK, together exports not more than $2.8 billion. It was reported that there is an estimate of 1,700 German companies doing business in Iran. They all expressed their concerns regarding the consequences of a military action on their business interests. In this regards, a senior executive at a pharmaceutical German company criticized the attitude of European leaders to put more economic sanctions on Iran. He said "We can't limit our business simply because a politician happens to have made a promise to someone."
The EU-3 would regret any military action. It is unlikely that they would strongly side with either the United States/Israel or with Russia/China since they have interests with both sides of the debate. They would seek to reengage diplomacy to resolve the issue and also, to balance the disputes that the military action could create between Washington, Beijing and Moscow in the Security Council.
4. Arab leaders would side with the United States and, by extension, Israel.
Although the governments in the Arab world are against Iran's nuclear program, the majority of the Arab populations support Tehran's nuclear ambitions. The general public in Arab countries would like to see Iran as a nuclear power because Iran, in their view, is the only country in the Middle East that challenges U.S. hegemony and Israel. They perceive Iran's nuclear program as a weapon that would balance the Israeli nuclear arsenal and force the United States to review its policy in the region. With the exception of Syria, which is the only regime that remains silent on Tehran's nuclear program, all the other leaders of the Arab countries fear the nuclearization of Iran; these leaders have made it clear that they would never support Iran becoming a nuclear weapon state, even though Iran is a Muslim state and a neighbor.
Among the Arab leaders, there is a common belief that the Iranian nuclear program may lead to a military confrontation in the region. During his visit to Germany, Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz Al Saud, King of Saudi Arabia, urged Iran to curb its nuclear ambitions and called on the West to approach it with more caution. On November 7, 2007, the Saudi King said, "Iran has announced its nuclear program is intended for peaceful use. If this is the case, then we don't see any justification for escalation, confrontation and challenge, which only makes issues more complicated." Despite the release of the NIE, Iran's Arab neighbors think that Tehran could keep its nuclear option open with its sensitive enrichment activities. The NIE declared that Iran halted its military nuclear program in 2003; however, it also stated that Iran "would be technically capable of producing enough HEU for a weapon sometime during the 2010-2015 time frame."
Arab leaders are seriously concerned about the threats that the Iranian nuclear program represent to the region. Iran has never had strong relations with the Arab world. The rivalry between the Arabs and the Persians is rooted in both politics and religion. The removal of the Shah by the Islamic revolution in 1979 threatened all the Arab leaders of the region. During the Iraq — Iran War, with the exception of Syria and Libya, all other Arab sided with Saddam Hussein to prevent the Iranians from exporting their revolution to their own nations. Also, Arab leaders fear the impact that a nuclear armed Iran would have on their leadership in the region. After the removal of Saddam Hussein by the U.S. military in 2003, Iran's influence in the region has greatly increased. Tehran is currently involved in three primary Arab conflicts. In Iraq, Iran is accused by Sunni Arab regimes, and by the United States, of supporting the Shi'a militancy to escalate violence against Sunni communities and U.S. troops. In Lebanon, Arab leaders denounce the existing links between Hezbollah and Tehran, which aim to destabilize the country and boost Shi'a influence in Lebanese institutions. With regard to Palestine, Arab States are uncomfortable with Iran's recent support for Hamas. In all these issues, Arab regimes have been focusing all their diplomatic and political efforts to curb the Iranian hegemony in the region.
So far, no Arab state has shown its support for military action against Tehran. Any attack on Iran's facilities would have major consequences on the stability of Arab countries. However, if Iran refuses to halt its nuclear ambitions and Israel strikes its facilities, it is likely that Arab leaders would side with the United States, and thus Israel, rather than Tehran. In public, Arab leaders will denounce the military action because the pressure of the public opinion will be considerable. It will increase the anti-American and anti-Israeli sentiment in the region. But privately, Arab leaders would like to see Iran's nuclear program neutralized by the Israeli military. Even if Arab leaders denounce the Israeli nuclear arsenal, they would prefer to live with a nuclear-armed Israel rather than a nuclear-armed Iran.
Arab regimes, regardless of the problems and conflicts that they have with Israel, seem less threatened by the Israeli nuclear program. The Israeli nuclear arsenal will be used against an Arab country only in the event of an existential threat to Israel. Egypt and Jordan have peace agreements with Israel that were signed in 1979 and 1994 respectively. The two nations enjoy good diplomatic and economic relations with Israel. They are the main Arab beneficiaries of U.S. financial aid in the region. The countries of the Gulf Cooperation Council, including Saudi Arabia, Oman, Bahrain, Qatar, Oman, and United Arab Emirates, have deep economic and political ties with the United States. Their territories host U.S. military bases which maintain security in the Persian Gulf and oversee the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan
On the other hand, Iran is a friend neither of Arab countries nor of the United States and Israel. If Iran succeeds in developing a nuclear weapon, Israel would be the only country in the region that could protect Arab regimes from the Iranian weapons. In 1981, when the Iraqi nuclear program was considered to be a threat for the security in the Middle East, Saudi Arabia allowed the Israeli military to use its air space to strike the Iraqi nuclear reactor even though Saddam Hussein was a Sunni Arab leader. During a speech on foreign relations in San Francisco, the former Saudi Ambassador to Washington, Turki al-Faisal, reconfirmed the support that his country expressed for Israel. On April 3, 2006, he said, "the attack was certainly a positive move... A region clear of nuclear weapons would also serve Israel and increase its security."
Usually, Arab regimes do not enjoy good relations with Israel, but because of Iran's nuclear crisis, it is the first time in the history of the region that the security interests of both Israel and the Arab regimes are converging. On February 12, 2008, Sammy Alfaraj, Director of the Kuwaiti Center for Strategic Studies, and advisor to the Kuwaiti government, said, "In the Gulf, we expect Israel to attack Iran, we do not call for that, but Israel will do it." He added that "the countries which are not able to develop nuclear weapons are going to seek a nuclear umbrella" and he "[would] not refuse an Israeli nuclear umbrella."
Recently, it was reported that Israel was seeking an Arab consensus against Iran's nuclear ambitions. On April 15, 2008, the Israeli Foreign Minister, Tzipi Livni, visited Qatar for the first time since President Shimon Peres's visit to Doha in January 2007. The visit came in the framework of the Doha Forum on Democracy, Development and Free Trade in the Middle East, but was also intended to discuss the peace process and build an Arab and Israeli position against the Iranian nuclear program. Prior to her arrival in Qatar, the Israeli Foreign Minister said, "Stopping Iran is in the joint interest of Israel and the Arab world together and generates the understanding that Israel and Islamic countries in the region face a common threat." During the two days of the Doha Forum, it was reported that Livni had lobbied for support against Iran from Arab leaders. In this regard, Livni said, "It's in the mutual interest of the region to join hands against the nuclear ambitions of Iran, which is the example of a rogue state."
No matter what the reactions of the international community could be, it would not be prudent for Israel to take the initiative to launch a military attack against Iran's nuclear facilities. The more acceptable option is to exert more political and economic pressures internationally on the Iranian regime. Such strategy would likely lead to the neutralization of the regime. Iran's allies have strong ties with Tehran; however, their interests with Western countries, particularly the United States, are even more important. The Security Council, based on Chapter VII, article 42 of the UN Charter, remains the only body which could legitimate the use of force against any country. Without its accord, any military action against Iran would have a major impact on the stability of the region.
Although Israel was able to destroy the Iraqi nuclear reactor Ozirak in 1981, Israeli officials should know that the case of Tehran is entirely different. Iran already learned lessons from the Ozirak military strike. Its nuclear facilities are not only in Bushehr, but spread all over the country. Israeli military aircraft would need to transgress the air space of Jordan, Turkey or Iraq to reach Iran which in itself might be an issue. Israel should also consider the risk of failure. An unsuccessful military action would give President Ahmedinajd more power and popularity among the Islamic world, particularly in Iraq, Lebanon, Syria and Palestine.
|Return to Top|