The idea of preempting Iran typically revolves around proposals to interdict the Iranian nuclear weapons program, and for good reason. Hardly anything would change the dynamics of the Middle East as much as a nuclear-armed Iran. Indeed, a nuclear-armed Iran would bring consequences reaching much farther than the Middle East.
Much has changed in just the last five years, however. The changes shape a new and somewhat different calculus for the preemption option against Iran, and a fresh assessment is in order. The changes include the political in various nations, geopolitical trends of the Middle East, and military developments – the latter not merely in terms of Iran’s capabilities but of the assets and regional security vision of other nations, including Israel and the United States.
One thing that has not changed is the set of consequences that would come with a radical Iran emboldened by nuclear weapons. The arguments for preemption have not lost their punch. As recently as five months ago, according to a Jerusalem Post article on October 2, 2021, Lotfollah Dezhkam, a representative of Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, declared in a Friday sermon that ,“The global arrogance led by America with complicity of Israel seeks to delay the realization of an important issue, which is the destruction of the Zionist regime.”
On November 28, 2021, the Jerusalem Post reported Iran’s armed forces spokesman, Brig. Gen. Abolfazl Shekarchi, doubling down on that call. Speaking to the Iranian Students News Agency, Shekarchi proclaimed, “We will not back off from the annihilation of Israel, even one millimeter. We want to destroy Zionism in the world.”
Radicals Empowered by Weapons
History gives no cause for optimism that radical regimes empowered with weapons and encouraged by victories will moderate their ambitions. Although Iran’s radical regime is unlikely to attack Israel immediately upon getting a working bomb, it is very likely to use a nuclear arsenal as an umbrella for terrorism, proxy wars, arms proliferation, and destabilization.
That was the Soviet Union’s practice during the Cold War. The Soviets’ nuclear-backed radicalism demonstrated that the side with compunction is usually more subject to deterrence.
In a modern face-off with Iran, the U.S. and Israel could well find themselves deterred more often than the reverse – not in the use of nuclear weapons but in our tolerance for Iranian provocation, even at the cost of lives, infrastructure, and (potentially) other nations’ territory. For this problem, preemption itself is the most effective deterrent: don’t let Iran get the bomb.
It is not clear that a meaningful “deal” can be made with Iran to replace the defunct (and, by Iran, much-breached) Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action from 2015. We may hope for the outcome articulated by Benjamin Netanyahu to Congress in March of 2015: a better deal than the version being negotiated seven years ago. But it is essential to prepare for the possibility that an effective deal cannot be concluded.
What does that mean for preemptive action? Such action would presumably have a military component. The priorities and options are somewhat different from what they were 10 or 15 years ago. One thing hasn’t changed, however. There is no need to use nuclear weapons to do sufficient damage to Iran’s network of nuclear-related facilities.
The United States would have the assets to mount the kind of operation the public envisions, with extensive aerial bombardment attacking numerous targets. Although Iran has had the Russian-made S-300 air defense system fielded since 2016, America’s bomber and strike-fighter aircraft, assisted by cruise missile barrages, are well equipped to defeat it if they take sufficient precautions. There would have to be a preliminary phase of taking out Iran’s air defense systems and the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps’ ability to strike back against regional targets with missiles, drones, and attacks at sea.
That phase need not last long. Ideally, it would be on the order of hours, not days, to ensure surprise and prevent Iran from hardening protection for nuclear-program targets. The nuclear program targets would at a minimum include facilities at Natanz, Fordow, and Parchin, along with industrial complexes – some with underground facilities – east of Tehran and clustered around the main Tehran-Esfahan highway north of Esfahan. The objective would be to comprehensively destroy Iran’s main enrichment sites for uranium, as well as the research and testing facilities for nuclear warhead development, and manufacturing for missiles, centrifuges, and specialty equipment.
There is no need to attack Iran’s nuclear reactors. Doing so is actually very difficult, and the benefit is not worth the cost. Even the heavy-water reactor at Arak, which yields fissile material faster than the reactor at Bushehr, does not produce weaponizable plutonium at such a rate that it would pay to attack it. Iran’s bottleneck in the nuclear cycle has shifted from producing fissile material (uranium and plutonium) to validating a warhead and mating it to a delivery platform, and the latter processes require greater emphasis now in designing any interdiction plan.
A Scenario for Israel
It may be, of course, that Israel has to act on its own against the Iranian nuclear weapons program. This is a tougher problem now than it would have been 15 years ago, because Iran has had time to improve tunnels and harden targets. With a much smaller total air force than America’s air force and navy, the Israeli Air Force (IAF) would also be more challenged to cut a safe path through Iran’s air defenses for strike aircraft.
But the outlook is not characterized by unrelieved pessimism. Other things have also changed in those 15 years. One is Israel’s continuing modernization of weapons and tactics, some of which have been proven in Syria in recent years.
An Israeli air attack force would face an unprecedented challenge in the number and type of targets in Iran, which far exceed the limited objectives in Iraq in 1981 and Syria in 2007. But the IAF in 2022 brings even more than the modern slogan repeated by well-armed U.S. strike forces during Afghanistan and Iraq 20 years ago: “We used to talk about how many air sorties per target. Now it’s about how many targets per sortie.”
With air-launched ballistic and cruise missiles as well as smart bombs, the IAF can use weapons of a variety that would make air defense a real problem for Iran, even if all or most of Iran’s point-defense systems have not been neutralized. Israel also has submarine-launched missiles and conventional (non-nuclear) intermediate-range ballistic missiles to use against less-hardened targets.
Perhaps the most important thing to understand about an Israeli strike campaign in today’s conditions is that it would not be as air-heavy as such a campaign would have been circa 2007. Special Forces and asymmetric means are more likely to be used. The lead-time for setting it up, and the ingenious approaches involved, would be invisible to the public. It is not helpful to speculate on the various options that may be used by Special Forces, but Iran has a very long border and extensive access from the sea, and there is more than one way to get a job done – as Mossad [Israel’s external spy agency] demonstrated in its raid on Tehran in 2018.
Indeed, the series of explosions at nuclear-related and missile sites in Iran in 2020 may represent a down payment on the kind of stealthy, extended campaign of attack Israel would be equipped to bring off. At least four of the explosions that summer damaged facilities linked to Iran’s nuclear weapons and missile programs; several involved power plants. Regarding the latter, especially as they relate to Iranian military systems and specialized manufacturing, cyberattacks may achieve some objectives as effectively as kinetic weapons.
In general, Israel could succeed in attacks that would inflict less collateral damage and be less attributable than aerial bombing. The United States could do so as well, but there is a special advantage to this for Israel, in that choosing stealthier means would help blunt blowback from Iran. The cost to Iran of counterattacking a perceived aggressor goes up versus the benefit if the original attack cannot be confidently attributed.
Containing regional blowback from Iran, especially in the case of a concentrated and overt strike campaign, would be Israel’s greatest challenge in acting alone. U.S. power has the sheer depth and scope to do it better.
But there is another factor affecting blowback today, and that is the increasing willingness of other regional nations to shoulder the burden of containing it themselves. In this regard, the Abraham Accords work in conjunction with political reform and growing military confidence in nations like Saudi Arabia, UAE, and Bahrain. Not all of the partner nations’ priorities are fully in sync, to be sure, but there is a strong common interest among Arab nations and Israel in containing both retaliation and expansionist terrorism by Iran.
That shift in conditions, useful for limiting blowback, is a reminder of what is probably the most important change of all in the last 15 years. That change is the very real dissatisfaction of more and more of the Iranian people with their revolutionary regime. February 2022 marked the 43rd anniversary of Ruhollah Khomeini’s return to Iran, but fewer Iranians with each passing year celebrate that with enthusiasm. The eruption of nationwide unrest at the end of 2016 has never really subsided. It is easy to be discouraged by the slow pace, but evidently the Iranians are not discouraged.
That’s what matters, and what keeps this truly transformative prospect in play. As with the Reagan years in the 1980s, Israelis (and Americans) can keep in mind that denying victories to a sclerotic, hated regime is one of the most important items on the statecraft checklist. Reagan turned the 60-year tide of disruptive Soviet “victories” with one small defeat on the island of Grenada in 1983, the first time since 1917 that Soviet proxies had been unable to establish a new fact on the ground. The U.S. didn’t have to win a big victory by force of arms. A little one was enough.
Israel is surrounded by opportunities to avert big victories for Iran and secure small ones for Israel. Israelis have a tough balancing act going, with Iran’s proxies on three frontiers and the constraints of emerging geopolitical conditions in which both Russia and China are looming larger in the landscape of the Middle East. A receding American posture is heightening the relative significance of Russian and Chinese influence, at least for the next few years. That condition will probably shift again, but never return to the American preeminence that characterized it a decade ago. Containing regional blowback – even mounting kinetic attacks on Iran – is more likely than before to necessitate some level of coordination with the Asian giants and respect for their interests.
But it is important to remember the Reagan principle that such fearless engagement, in which political, economic, and moral successes can be racked up, is preempting the opponent. Preemption has an essential military component, yes, and Israel must be prepared for it. But Israel is also preempting Iran by growing in successful nationhood – with diverse peoples under the same flag – as well as selling natural gas, gaining new regional partners, and facing down Hezbollah and Hamas.
In his October 2 article at Jerusalem Post, cited above, author Benjamin Weinthal quoted an Iranian dissident, Sheina Volodi, who fled to Germany to escape persecution:
“The more the mullahs spread hate speech against the Jewish State of Israel, the more Iranian people realize that Israel is our friend, because the regime in Iran is the only enemy that we have.” Ms. Volodi went on to say, “We have a long history with the Jewish people, and we want to be able to revive that 2,700 years of friendship.”
There is no substitute for a military preemption option, and it may have to be used. But the day has come when Iranians themselves recall a rich history of relations with Israel and the Jewish people and want to revive it – and that is preemption too.
Jennifer Dyer is a retired U.S. Navy commander. Her work can be found at Libertyunyielding.com