NY Times Magazine cover, Jan. 29, 2012

The New York Times Magazine’s Jan. 29 cover story, “Will Israel Attack Iran?” frighteningly argues that Israel is nearing a decision to make an all-out military effort against Iran’s nuclear program. What may prompt an imminent go-ahead is the calculation that Iran’s facilities will soon be hardened and dispersed beyond Israel’s capacity to cripple its program.

I’m very much against an Israeli attack on Iran and I agree with Prof. Shibley Telhami that moving toward regional nuclear disarmament may facilitate a solution. But I take Iran’s nuclear program seriously as a security threat to the region.

The crisis would likely end once Iran reverses course: quickly opening its facilities to international inspection and stopping its constant “death to Israel” rhetoric and other overt expressions of hostility toward Jews (Holocaust denial being one); Iranian officials usually do not even mention Israel by name, referring instead to the “Zionist regime” or some such. When coupled with its ongoing support for Hezbollah and Hamas, it’s no wonder that many Israelis and Jews believe they face an existential threat from Iran. (It would not be enough for Iran to invite renewed negotiations, such as Pres. Ahmadinejad claims to have just done in a rather belligerent way; negotiations can be used as a delaying tactic, and Iran has backed away from solutions proposed in previous discussions.)

Yet, aside from inviting a catastrophic war, an Israeli attack would not deter Iran’s nuclear ambitions (quite the opposite). Part of the problem is the already hardened and dispersed nature of Iran’s nuclear facilities; another is Israel’s limited military capability. Over five years ago, I blogged about the widespread myth that Israel is a military superpower (with the supposed implication that it’s invulnerable) beginning as follows:

An ongoing tragedy of Israel is that so small a country… must remain a major military power in order to survive. It pays a high price to do so, with most Israeli men spending three years of their youth as regular conscripts and then one month of each year until the age of 50 in active reserve units and subject to unlimited emergency call-up.

Anti-Israel critics like to minimize Israel’s urgent security needs by referring to it, rather abstractly and without real analysis, as the ‘fourth’ greatest military power in the world. …

According to Wikipedia, Israel’s armed forces rank 34th in the world in relative size. Still, Israel is surely more powerful than many countries with larger forces; this is especially true because its air force is strong–less due to its (modest) size than its quality. It’s hard to say how to rank Israel as a military power over all; rather than either 4th or 34th, it is probably somewhere in the range of 10th to 15th. But its very small area and population are tremendous disadvantages against potential enemies in the Middle East, which are far larger, and could (as in the past) attack Israel in a coalition. There’s no question that Israel is vulnerable to attack, and unlike Iranians, Israeli Jews have a living memory of being subject to genocide.

Also according to Wikipedia, Israel is 97th in population in the world (about 7.8 million) and 151st in area; as compared with Iran, which is 17th in population and 18th in area. In other words, Israel has about 1/10 the population of Iran and a little over one percent of Iran’s land mass.

Ten years ago, Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, a former president of Iran and still a leading figure now associated with reformist elements in the Islamic Republic, chillingly speculated that since “the Islamic World” is so much larger than Israel, it could destroy the Jewish state in a nuclear war and survive (“the use of even one nuclear bomb inside Israel will destroy everything“). This reinforced Israeli concerns that some Shi’ite religious fanatics in the Iranian leadership may believe in a theological doomsday scenario, which would invite a horribly destructive war with “infidels.” The threat that Israelis sense from Iran is logical–augmented further by Iranian allies inhabiting three of Israel’s borders (Hezbollah in Lebanon, Hamas in Gaza and Assad in Syria), together concentrating over 50,000 rockets and missiles on Israel’s cities and towns.

This is what I’ve gleaned from Wikipedia on the size of the Israel Defense Force (IDF): “Active personnel 187,000 (ranked 34th); Reserve personnel 565,000.” By comparison, this is an estimate of Iran’s armed forces: Active Military: 545,000 [2011]; Active Reserve: 650,000 [2011].”


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