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Israel views Iran's potential to build a nuclear bomb as an existential threat to the nation's survival. Prime Minister Netanyahu has made it clear that Israel retains the right to self-defense, a view supported by President Obama, and has been threatening a military strike on Iran if negotiations and sanctions fail to stop Iran's program before it reaches the point where it can assemble a bomb.

President Obama has focused on non-violent means of encouraging Iran to give up its nuclear project, but he has also stated that "all options are on the table." It is, therefore, possible that the United States alone, with Israel, or with its European allies could take military action to stop Iran's nuclear program. A variety of military officials in the U.S. and Israel, politicians around the world, pundits and analysts have suggested that any military operation against Iran aimed at destroying or, at least, slowing down Iran's nuclear program will end in catastrophe.

The motivations of these critics of military action vary and include those who:

  • Oppose war.
  • Are virulently anti-Israel and either don't care if Iran threatens Israel or claim the Israelis are trying to drag America into a war.
  • Do not believe a military strike can succeed, and that Israel, in particular, lacks the capability to seriously set back Iran's program. Also, they think Iran will become more secretive and bury their program even deeper underground.
  • Fear that any attack will lead to a spike in oil prices that will damage the world economy at a time when it is already in precarious shape. A related concern is that Iran will interfere in the shipment of oil through the Straits of Hormuz by mining the Persian Gulf, harassing or attacking oil tankers or taking other steps that will adversely effect the world's oil supply.
  • Worry that an attack, by Israel or the U.S., will provoke widespread anti-Israel and anti-American sentiment and provoke terrorist attacks against Jews and Americans.
  • Predict that Iran will respond with missile attacks on Israel and possibly American bases in the region. Meanwhile, Israel worries that a U.S. attack will inevitably lead to an Iranian missile attack on Israel.
  • Anticipate that the U.S. will be held responsible if Israel attacks and this would undermine American interests in regional stability, promoting Palestinian-Israeli peace and retaining good relations with its regional allies.
  • Expect Iranian allies – Hamas and Hizballah – to launch rockets at Israel putting virtually the entire population from north to south and in between in danger.
  • Will rally the Iranian people around the regime as a reaction to seeing their country under attack, especially if civilians are killed in the operation. This will reduce the probability that opponents will have the opportunity to overthrow the Islamic leaderships.
  • Insist an Israeli strike will outrage the "Arab street" and protests will force Egypt and Jordan to annul their peace treaties with Israel.
  • Argue that Israel can only set back the Iranian program 3-5 years and that is not worth the suffering Israelis will have to endure if Iran and its allies attack their homeland.
  • Expect a unilateral Israeli action to bring international condemnation that will isolate Israel and could lead the United States and others to take punitive measures against Israel.

Former U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates publicly warned Israel not to take any actions that could harm American interests. He declared that the "results of an American or Israeli military strike on Iran could, in my view, prove catastrophic, haunting us for generations in that part of the world."

Gates also claimed that neither Israel nor the United States has the capabilities to destroy Iran's nuclear program, and that a military operation against the country's nuclear facilities "would make a nuclear-armed Iran inevitable."

Like many others, Gates holds the view that more severe sanctions will lead to "the point where the Iranian leadership concludes that it actually hurts Iranian security and, above all, the security of the regime itself, to continue to pursue nuclear weapons." (Jerusalem Post, May 10, 2012).

Some believe that U.S. officials who oppose an Israeli strike are deliberately trying to make it more difficult by leaking information that reveal what U.S. and Israeli intelligence communities know about Tehran's nuclear program; disclose what Israel and the United States would consider a "nuclear breakthrough" that would trigger military action thereby allowing Iran to conceal its operations; and divulging potential strategies that will permit Iran to develop counterstrategies (Yediot Ahronoth, (March 29, 2012).

Respected Israeli analysts have also been vocal in opposing an Israeli strike. Most notable has been Meir Dagan, the former Mossad chief, who has said an Israeli attack would be "the stupidest thing I have ever heard" and "patently illegal under international law" because Iran is operating within the framework of the International Atomic Energy Agency. Dagan also believes it isn't possible for Israel to launch the type of surgical strike on Iran that it used to destroy Iraq's nuclear reactor because the Iranian facilities are spread around the country. He also fears that an Israeli operation could provoke a regional war and an arms race. Finally, he agrees with those who believe the regime will be strengthened because the Iranian people will rally around it after coming under attack.

Another Israeli, Gabi Ashkenazi, former military chief of staff, has also spoken out against a military strike by Israel and advocates "a combination of strategies: a clandestine campaign; diplomatic, political and economic sanctions, and maintenance of a credible and realistic military option."

Ashkenazi's view is supported by another former Israeli chief of staff, Shaul Mofaz, who is now the leader of the opposition Kadima party. Mofaz has spoken out against an Israeli strike because he believes it will harm relations with the United States and result in "loss of life, grave damage to the home front and deep erosion of Israel's political situation."

Israeli President Shimon Peres does not necessarily oppose military action, but he does not believe Israel should act alone. He and many others prefer that the United States alone, or with its allies, takes out Iran's nuclear program. If Israel were to take action, he also believes it should be in concert with the United States (Christian Science Monitor, September 4, 2012).

Military planners always hope their operations will succeed; however, they must also take into account worst-case scenarios, including many of those suggested by opponents of the use of force. Ultimately, political leaders will have to decide, in consultation with their military advisers, whether the risks of action outweigh the potential benefit. They must also consider the benefits and costs of inaction.