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The Day After Iran’s Tomorrow

A pre-emptive Iranian strike to ward off an Israeli or American attack on its nuclear project is a real threat, one that could send the region entirely off-kilter and one we must be ready for.

By Benny Morris

January 08, 2012 "
Haaretz" -- In recent years there has been much discussion in Israel, Iran and the world over of the possibility that Israel will attack Iran’s nuclear installations. I myself estimated – in 2008 and at other opportunities – that it would happen “in the coming months.” There is still a reasonable possibility that Israel and/or the United States will carry out their threat and attack the nuclear facilities this coming spring or summer, if the sanctions can’t halt the Iranian nuclear program.

But there is another, opposite possibility, which few have mentioned. If Iran feels Israel or the United States are about to attack it soon, it could use missiles to attack Israel’s military airfields and perhaps additional strategic installations as well, in a pre-emptive strike.

Those who reject such a possibility claim that the Iranians will refrain from doing so because it will only provide Israel or the United States with a justification for reacting and striking at their nuclear installations, and then who can come to them with complaints?

But from the Iranian point of view, the considerations in favor of a pre-emptive strike may overcome their desire to be seen as a victim. It’s true that an attack would contradict Iran’s tradition of not initiating wars against its neighbors (not including small operations, which are carried out by messengers, like Hezbollah), but Iran’s rulers may think that the threat is too great, and that an initiated attack is preferable to maintaining the tradition. A pre-emptive Iranian attack – with Shahab missiles and perhaps aircraft as well – is likely to interfere with Israel’s attack capability (although not that of America), and the Iranians will undoubtedly claim that they have a justified excuse because their intention was only to prevent a certain attack against them. There is no question that this explanation will find many buyers in Russia, China, Turkey, Europe and the Arab world.

In my opinion, if they do decide to attack, it won’t be restricted only to launching Shahab missiles at airfields. In addition to an international terror campaign, thousands of Hezbollah’s rockets are liable to be launched at northern and central Israel – either as part of the Iranian attack, or in retribution for an Israeli/American attack against Iran, which would come in the wake of the Iranian attack. Despite the rift between Iran and Hamas, there is a possibility that in such a situation clashes will develop all along the Gaza Strip border, for example at the initiative of the various Jihadi organizations there, which operate in tandem with Iran.

There is no question that attacks from Lebanon and the Gaza Strip will interfere with the ability of the Israel Air Force to attack Iranian nuclear installations. In addition to the direct damage done to the air force’s assets by these attacks, they will also force the air force to divert some of its capabilities against Lebanon and the Gaza Strip.

The consequences of a pre-emptive Iranian attack, accompanied by clashes on our borders, are likely to be even broader in scope, and to become more widespread within days or weeks. The Sunni world surrounding us – Egypt, and perhaps also Syria and Jordan to the extent that an Islamist government is established in them – will set aside its accounts with Shi’ite Islam and also join the war in one way or another. Perhaps Saudi Arabia and other countries, concerned about the possible development of an Iranian nuclear program, will push – contrary to the wishes of their rulers – to align themselves with their Sunni brothers. After all, as profound as the disputes are between the two factions of Islam, there is one issue that will unite them: hostility toward Israel and the need to wipe the Jewish state of heretics off the map.

An Israeli and/or American counterattack in Iran (and in Lebanon and perhaps in Gaza too) will prompt Muslims to demand that their governments intervene. An incursion by the Egyptian army into Sinai in order “to save brothers in Gaza”; Syrian fire on the Golan, in order to “save brothers in Lebanon”; and perhaps even fire from Transjordan and the West Bank, as well as an intifada of Arabs within Israel, as seen in October 200, are not imaginary scenarios. They are definitely liable to become part of the full-on breakdown that a pre-emptive Iranian strike could bring about in the region.

The rulers in Iran, predicting how things might unfold and being afraid of an Israeli/American strike, could be tempted to launch a pre-emptive strike to protect their nuclear project from attack. Missile defense systems such as the Iron Dome, the Arrow and the Patriot, which we can assume are protecting Israel’s vital installations, should be placed in readiness during the coming spring and summer, poised and on alert to block a sudden Iranian move. It is not improbable.

© Haaretz Daily Newspaper Ltd

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