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Not So Fast

Everyone thinks an Israel-Iran war would be over quickly. One analyst disagrees.

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(David Silverman/Getty Images)
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War Games

Would Israel launch a preemptive strike—despite U.S. opposition—to prevent an Iranian bomb? Despite its bluster, probably not.

In the past few months, a plethora of studies, reports, and simulations have attempted to furnish us an answer to that ever-elusive “what if” question, imagining how a war between the two countries would play out. One salient example, published last month by two researchers at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, Anthony H. Cordesman and Abdullah Toukan, suggests that Israel may end up deploying tactical nuclear weapons capable of penetrating Iran’s heavily fortified underground bunkers, which are mostly immune to conventional bombs. Another simulation, held last December at the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at The Brookings Institution, envisages a regional war flaring up that could suck in U.S. allies in the region, starting with Saudi Arabia. If that’s not enough, a policy memorandum by Steven Simon at the Council on Foreign Relations predicts that the United States itself “would probably become embroiled militarily” in any future Israel-Iran confrontation.

While each study adds its own twist to the plot, they are mostly all in agreement on the basic narrative that would follow any preemptive Israeli strike on Iranian nuclear facilities: Iran would initially retaliate by lobbing ballistic missiles at Israel, while Tehran’s proxies Hezbollah and Hamas would bear most of the burden by launching corresponding rocket attacks from Gaza and Lebanon. Most predictions also include some Iranian attempt to wage economic warfare by sealing off the Strait of Hormuz to stop the flow of oil. The common denominator that laces the various scenarios together is the belief in a relatively short confrontation. It is in light of this conventionally shared assessment that yet another recent study, which has not been translated into English but is receiving a good deal of attention in Israeli policymaking circles, manages to stand out.

“The Length of a Future War between Iran and Israel and the Conditions for its Conclusion,” is the title of a paper published several months ago by the Israeli Physicist Moshe Vered of the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies at Bar-Ilan University. The study not only challenges the widespread notion of a short war but seeks to overturn it: “The length of the war would have to be measured in years, not weeks or months,” Vered concludes.

Vered opens his paper by quoting from a conversation that took place in the Japanese Imperial Council a short time before the Pearl Harbor attacks, during which the Japanese military brass ensured the emperor that a war with the United States would be over “within three months.” Although Vered’s own primary intention is to alert Israeli policymakers of the need to get the public “mentally prepared” for the challenges of prolonged military confrontation—something Israelis have never really had to experience—the more profound implications of his study have to do with the fact that the consequences of human actions are unknowable and are often much worse than we imagine.

Vered is not alone in making such dire predictions. Ali Larijani, chairman of the Iranian Parliament, and formerly a member of the national security coterie that dictates nuclear policy, recently warned that the Iranian response to an Israeli attack would be “far beyond the imagination of the Zionist enemy and would be a nightmare.” Vered takes Iranian threats seriously and translates them into military terms. He suggests that an Iranian retaliation may include boots on the ground—an Iranian expeditionary force coming through Lebanon or Syria in order to link up with Hezbollah and buttress Syrian forces. This brazen move, he suggests, would aim at impeding a likely Israeli attempt to reconquer southern Lebanon in response to Hezbollah rocket fire. But Vered also raises the possibility that Iranian Revolutionary Guard units stationed in Eritrea might prey on Israeli shipping in the Red Sea while Iranian intelligence instigates a global terror crusade against Israeli and Jewish targets. Add to that, finally, an Iranian cyber-blitz meant to curtail Israel’s electronic advantage. As daunting as it sounds, Vered concludes that such an elaborate response “would not burden Iran in a manner that it cannot handle, while inflicting upon Israel costly and continuous damage.”

***

Vered’s argument is grounded in what he sees as the uncompromising nature of the fanatically religious Iranian regime, in that regime’s mostly irrational behavior during the Iran-Iraq war, and in a compilation of supporting statistical and theoretical models that analyzed the duration of past wars.

The primary obstacle to ending any military confrontation with Iran, Vered says, is located in the extremist version of Iran’s Shiite Islam. “In Iranian eyes, the mere existence of Israel is a dire wrong that must be put right in order to achieve eternal redemption” he writes. “Such an ideology compels to fight, and if need be to sacrifice, so that the injustices that had befallen upon Islam can be corrected.” It is this uncompromising nature of the Iranian brand of Islam that would enable the regime to disregard realpolitik calculations that would naturally serve to shorten the war and replace them instead with utopian considerations. (Such reasoning has long been a concern for Iranian scholars, among them the famed Islamic historian Bernard Lewis, who has repeatedly sounded warnings against an incipient Iranian brand of Shiite apocalypticism).

Since the Iranians would most likely consider any Israeli strike to be the harbinger of a colossal struggle of biblical proportions between “good” and “evil,” it’s not surprising that in the minds of the Iranian leadership such a confrontation would quickly transform into an all-or-nothing engagement to which there could only be one acceptable outcome: the destruction of Israel.

“The Iranian animosity towards Israel is ideological and religious, and is deeply rooted in Israel’s sins against Islam,” Vered concludes. “In the Shiite-Khomeini world view, justice could therefore only be achieved by the purgation of these very sins through the annihilation of Israel and the return of its lands and government to Muslim hands, a condition that leaves no room for compromise.”

***

Despite such formidable ideological incentives to fight to the very end, Vered identifies one single circumstance that would justify an Iranian suspension of hostilities: an existential threat to the regime. He has good reasons to think so: The eight deadly years of the Iran-Iraq war, which lasted from 1980 to 1988, supply his argument with some solid empirical foundations.

While the Iraqi aggressors showed a consistent inclination to accept mediation in the hope of arranging a ceasefire, Vered points out that the Iranians time and again obstinately refused such efforts. Having quickly turned the tide of war and taken the offensive, Tehran repeatedly conditioned any cessation of fighting upon the removal of Saddam Hussein from power and other unrealistic demands. Needless to say, the pursuit of such unattainable goals did not deter the regime from sacrificing hundreds of thousands of its own soldiers on the battlefield. But in 1988, after the pendulum on the battlefield had swung once more in Baghdad’s favor, an increasingly nervous Iranian regime, sensing the imminent collapse of its army and its withering public support, finally “succumbed to pragmatism,” in Vered’s words, and accepted mediation efforts to end the war. “Half a million deaths, an additional million injured, two million refugees and trillions of dollars in estimated economic loss were not enough to convince Iran to halt what was perceived as a just though useless war in her own eyes,” Vered explains. “Only the palpable fear from the revolutionary regime’s collapse forced her to accept a cease fire.”

If eight years of debilitating conflict with Iraq could not induce the ayatollahs to put down their arms, asks Vered, what could Israel do to Iran (short of annihilation) that would elicit a different result? Not much. With the exception of introducing nuclear weapons into the confrontation—something that Israeli leaders have historically vowed never to do—Vered posits that even targeted assassinations of its leadership, the infliction of considerable structural damage to oil facilities, and international diplomatic pressure would probably not succeed in convincing Iran to cease hostilities.

***

Vered’s conclusions are as compelling as they are disturbing, though they also remain questionable for a number of reasons. First, the verdict is still out regarding the place of ideology in Iran’s foreign policy. Given that many still consider President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s fiery anti-Israel rhetoric as an instrument with which to score internal political points, it’s unclear whether the ayatollahs who actually frame Iran’s national security policy share his views. The U.S. Administration has continued to hold steadfast to its view that Tehran is indeed a rational actor, which may explain why the White House continues to invest so much diplomatic currency in pushing for rapprochement.

Noticeably absent from Vered’s otherwise meticulous study is a consideration of the potential influence of Iranian opposition forces during a future war. Although an Israeli strike would most likely spark an initial rally around the Iranian government, any prolonged conflict could quickly erode that primarily superficial layer of solidarity and reignite the animosities that remain latent in Iranian society since last June’s contentious elections, which were followed by months of protest that shook the regime.

Vered may also be misreading the nature of the Iran-Syria connection. If Iran were to attempt to transfer forces through Syria into Lebanon, the move would most certainly justify a harsh Israeli retaliatory strike on those troops. Any sizable Iranian infantry force the type of which Vered envisions would therefore very likely be neutralized by Israeli firepower while still in Syrian territory and before ever having the chance to reach the front (as was the case with the Iraqi expeditionary force in the 1973 war). Furthermore, the assumption that the Syrians would allow such a force to enter their borders in the first place remains highly tenuous. If the Iranian leadership is indeed irrational, as Vered suggests, then Bashar Assad’s regime in Damascus is its perfect binary opposite. Having long ago succeeded in translating Machiavelli’s political utilitarianism into an everyday routine, it is highly unlikely that the fervently secular (and mainly Sunni) Assad regime would put its life on the line for a fundamentalist Shiite agenda.

Just as the Japanese could not contemplate the four deadly years of war awaiting them, it would serve Israeli policymakers to remember that once you pull the trigger, there is no telling if, how, or when you will ever be able to let it go. “Every war is ironic, because every war is worse than expected,” observed Paul Fussell in his masterpiece The Great War and Modern Memory.

One lesson we can therefore draw from this latest run of war games is that the continuously evolving nature of modern warfare guarantees that we cannot and will not be able to really imagine the devastating consequences of a future Israel-Iran war. In an age of preemptive warfare, it may very well be that man’s inability to know the future is the most important lesson of them all.

Yoav Fromer is a New York-based journalist and a former columnist for Maariv.

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One problem with this “expert” analysis. Every expert that I read was sure that Hizbollah would send waves of missiles into northern Israel during the Cast Lead. In reality they fired 2 missiles during the whole war. Apparently they learned their lesson from the drubbing they took in 2006. The fact is that both Hizbollah and Hamas enjoy getting support from Iran, but when push comes to shove they worry about themselves first and foremost.

We’ll never know until we start. One thing is certain. The longer we wait the more costly will be the war both in blood and money.

I’m pretty sure Iran will destroy Israel if attacked. They have the means and will to do it, no matter what any experts will tell you. If US and Israel could attack Iran as easy as many think, they would have by now.. but I’m afraid is too late and Israel and US must do the smart thing and get off their high horse. No justice, no peace!

Dani Levi says:

Iran is weak. It is all words. Once critical infrastructure is taken out, I wonder how 60 Millions will live without lights and water? It is a dictatorship on the edge, screaming at the world. Where is this ideology going to go? Do they have a future? I sincerely doubt it.

General Armchair

veggieburger says:

There are decided parallels between Iran and its leaders….and those of Germany in the 1930’s. Notice the similarities of civil unrest, rioting in the universities and declining economy. Hitler capitalized upon German’s willingness to accept an ideological scapegoat….namely the Jews….who presented no actual threat…..but successfully galvanized the German people. Iran’s leaders follow this same model…..but the Israeli Jews of today DO present a potent military threat. As Fromer opines….this may not stifle Iran’s military folly against Israel….just as ‘logic’ did not prevail in Iran’s leader’s thinking during the lengthy, costly war with Iraq. Nor did it stop the Germans from ideological illogic.

Unfortunately, this may be an ominous predictor of Israel’s likely pre-emptive strike against Iran. Israel is not much better than the US in waging asymmetrical warfare against irregular combatants. This leads one to the conclusion that nuclear war in the Middle East is a distinct likelihood. We should do everything possible to avert that tragic possibility.

Those in Israel calling for an attack against Iran seem to think that the Iranian opposition as well as Muslims elsewhere who criticize the current regime in Iran and who would like a more democratic Iran will all welcome an Israeli attack on Iran because that would help topple the mullahs. This is based on the fatally flawed logic of “the enemy of my enemy is my friend.” An Israeli attack on Iran is first and foremost an attack on Iran, regardless of any Israeli propaganda that it is “surgically” aimed at Iran’s nuclear capabilities and the Iranian “dictatorship.” Nothing can strengthen the current regime in Iran more than an Israeli attack.

Haim says:

Nuke them. Nuke them now, nuke them first, and keep nuking them until the rabble bounces.

dhwaynh says:

The state of AIPAC dictates an attack. Isreal favors other powers that be to through the first stone.

Christian Zionist says:

“They have the means and will to do it”

Nonsense. Iranian equipment is ancient, poorly maintained, and decrepit. Israel should destroy Iran before Russian weapons arrive.

The “Iranian brand of Shiite apocalypticism” is directly far more against Sunni Islam than Israel, and the Sunnis know it. Saudi Arabia is far more threatened than Israel, which is one reason the Chinese blue water navy just showed up, to protect the much higher volume of Saudi oil now flowing to China.
What will happen will not fit into any of these learned scenarios.
What will happen will not have any Israeli fingerprints.

Dear sirs,

So, Bernard Lewis is Iranian and Islamic: “..a concern for Iranian scholars, among them the famed Islamic historian Bernard Lewis..,” the article states. But that’s big news! It should have been your headline ! Just kidding, of course. Lewis is a scholar and a historian, but definitely not Iranian nor Islamic.

With uneducated writing like this, do you think anyone will take the author serious — in anything? This gaffe damages your magazine. I shall assume that all the talk of Iran here is as factual as the above line, i.e. pure phantasy. That is not what I expect from Tablet when grave matters are at stake. From here on in I shall read Tablet with a very skeptical eye.

Cordially yours,
Dhr. drs. VHJM van Neerven MSW MA
editor-in-chief VNCcommunicationcounsel
Amsterdam, the Netherlands

Rich says:

One scenario of obvious merit here is that Israel will not go after the sites in Iran without first damaging the ability of Iran to respond militarily. The other part of this is that the US will likely take the front. The US has shown that it’s method is to obliterate the facilities for a country to stage a major defense, let alone an offense. That will either happen right from the start, or as a response to just about anything that Iran would try. Any move against a US asset would trigger the onslaught if they don’t move with Israel in the first place. If the US decides to move with Israel, it can, and will, take out air defenses, naval & air assets, and command ability in front of an Israeli strike. There’s also the lightly covered comments about the belief that Bin Laden is in Iran. If it’s true, you can bet even more that the US will act.

Rich says:

What I actually meant was, if the idiots running the US (I’m an American) claim that Bin Laden is in Iran, they will use that as another reason to go along with Israel. It would be a huge bit of luck and chance if they actually could come out with a positively identified body of him though!

Dazillion says:

@van Neerven,

You have misunderstood the English grammar of the sentence you quote. Nobody thinks Bernard Lewis is Islamic or Iranian; he studies both Islam and Iran.

I’m inclined to think that uneducated reading is rather worse than “uneducated writing”, especially from an “editor-in-chief”…

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Not So Fast

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