Israeli officials have repeatedly said that if Iran obtained a nuclear weapon it would pose an existential threat and said they would not allow Iran to build a bomb. They have hoped that this implied threat would motivate the international community to act. The fear of Israel taking unilateral action no doubt played a role in the imposition of sanctions on Iran and the signing of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA)
Some critics accuse Israel of trying to provoke the United States into a war with Iran. The only country, however, that called for the use of military force is Saudi Arabia, which believes it has the most at risk if Iran has the bomb. The Saudis were frustrated by the failure of both the Bush and Obama administrations to act and publicly said they would acquire a bomb if Iran was allowed to develop one.
Iran did not believe Obama would use military force and was willing to accept what it saw as short-term restrictions on its nuclear weapons activity in exchange for a financial windfall and sanctions relief. President Donald Trump’s decision to withdraw from the JCPOA has raised the possibility of Iran resuming its nuclear activities. He warned if Iran resumed its nuclear program, there would be “very severe consequence,” raising the possibility of a military response (Politico, May 9, 2018).
Israel does not want to go to war with Iran if it can be avoided. Given Iran’s threat to the Arab world as well as U.S. and European interests, Israel believes one or more other countries should act against Iran to protect those vital interests. In the past, Israel and the United States disagreed on the point at which it will be too late to act. Israel believes that Iran must be stopped before it reaches the “zone of immunity,” when it will have the capability to assemble a bomb, whereas the United States has suggested it could still act even after Iran built a bomb.
The United States and Israel also disagree on the implications of taking military action. The U.S. and others believe the cost of any attack is likely to exceed the benefit of what many believe will be only a short-term delay in Iran’s ability to build a bomb. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has argued this argument is backward – he believes the cost of not stopping Iran would be higher than the expense of acting. As he said in 2012, “There’s been plenty of talk recently about the costs of stopping Iran. I think it’s time we started talking about the costs of not stopping Iran.” A nuclear-armed Iran, he said:
- Would dramatically increase terrorism by giving terrorists a nuclear umbrella; that is, Iran's terror proxies such as Hezbollah and Hamas will be emboldened to attack the United States, Israel, and other countries because they will be backed by a power that has atomic weapons.
- A nuclear-armed Iran could choke off the world's oil supply and make real its threat to close the Strait of Hormuz.
- If Iran gets nuclear weapons, it will set off a mad dash by Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and others to acquire nuclear weapons of their own. The world's most volatile region would become a nuclear tinderbox waiting to go off.
- And here's the worst nightmare of all, with nuclear weapons, Iran could threaten all of us with nuclear terrorism.
Still, Netanyahu said, Israel prefers a peaceful resolution to the issue (AIPAC Policy Conference, March 5, 2012).
Besides the basic desire to avoid war, several factors mitigate against a military operation. The Europeans are unlikely to act without the United States because they lack the military capability to sufficiently damage the Iranian facilities and, more important, lack the will to use force. It is possible that one (most likely Britain) or more may be willing to act in concert with the United States.
The United States is the one country that has the military capability to destroy or at least seriously set back Iran’s nuclear program. Nevertheless, the United States has its own reasons to hesitate besides the potential consequences of initiating a war. First, before resorting to military force, the president would want to demonstrate to the American people that he has done everything possible to avoid war. Second, the Trump administration wants to focus on the economy and domestic issues. Third, Trump has talked about withdrawing from areas of conflict and is likely to be reluctant to start a new war. Fourth, although he has shown a willingness to act unilaterally, a Trump may not want to launch a major operation without the support of U.S. allies. Fifth, Trump believes his “maximum pressure” campaign will ultimately force Iran to negotiate a new deal that will be more stringent than the JCPOA or the collapse of the regime.
Iran has continued to pursue a nuclear weapon, flouting the terms of the JCPOA, first covertly and now openly. While the Europeans have ignored the violations and sought ways to evade U.S. sanctions, Israel, in some cases with the aid of the United States, has demonstrated it can sabotage Iranian facilities through cyberwarfare and other means to impede the development of a nuclear weapon.
Iran was reportedly using reinforced materials and tunneling deep underground to store nuclear components to protect them in the event of an attack (AP, March 4, 2005; Telegraph, January 25, 2006 ). Public reports suggest Iranian facilities are now so deep underground only the largest “bunker buster” type bombs could damage them and the United States is the only country that has these weapons.
In September 2013, Iran and Oman signed a defense cooperation accord, but that is not likely to have an impact on Iran’s ability to attack or defend itself (Jomhuri Islami, September 20, 2013). More significantly, in 2016, Russia delivered its most advanced air-defense system to Iran (Bloomberg, March 7, 2018).
One of the major concerns of the United States and others is that Iran could interfere with shipping in the Persian Gulf and thereby pose a threat to global oil supplies and has deployed assets to protect vessels from Iranian action. Iran has developed sophisticated naval technologies including limpet mines, coastal defense cruise missiles, speedboats, unmanned explosive boats, and small to medium-size submarines. It also has cruise missiles deployed along its coast and on Abu Musa, the Tunbs, and the Farsi islands (Washington Institute, June 10, 2020).
In November 2012, the Iranian Navy unveiled two new submarines and two missile-launching warships. This capability is viewed as a potential threat to the strategic balance in the Persian Gulf and, therefore, to the United States and the West (DPA, November 28, 2012). Earlier, Iranian officials had said they planned to design nuclear-powered submarines, which could enable the navy to keep the subs on patrol for longer periods and distances. They do not yet have this capability.
A new threat emerged in April 2020 when Iran deployed anti-ship missiles and rockets overlooking Strait of Hormuz. The systems include the Fajr-3 and Fajr-5 multiple launch rocket systems, which can launch 12 rockets with ranges of 27 and 45 miles in under two minutes. A variant of an anti-ship missile similar to the U.S. Navy’s Harpoon has also been deployed (Forbes, April 7, 2020).
Iran also can order its proxies in Lebanon, Hezbollah, and allies in Gaza, Hamas, to fire rockets at Israel from the north and south to punish Israel. The threat of doing so is also meant to deter Israel. Israel, however, has already made clear that any attacks from Lebanon would be met with a severe response and the Lebanese government is not anxious to be dragged into another war by Hezbollah. Similarly, Hamas may be reluctant to provoke Israel to mount a largescale operation in Gaza that would further weaken its position.
As the world’s leading sponsor of terror, Iran could also order terrorist attacks against American and Israeli targets to deter or avenge attacks on its territory or forces. In 2018, it launched an attack drone and rockets at Israel from bases in Syria.
Iran also has developed ballistic missiles capable of hitting targets throughout the Middle East, including Israel and U.S. military bases. The Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps said on April 22, 2020, that it had put a military satellite into orbit for the first time. The announcement raised concerns that the technology used to launch the satellite could be used to develop intercontinental ballistic missiles (New York Times, April 22, 2020).
In July 2020, Iran’s Revolutionary Guards Navy chief said, “Iran has established underground onshore and offshore missile cities all along the coasts of the Persian Gulf and the Gulf of Oman that would be a nightmare for Iran’s enemies” (Haaretz, July 5, 2020).
See also Military Threats to Israel: Iran
Iran has repeatedly made bellicose threats regarding the consequences of any attack, especially one initiated by Israel. For example, Masud Yazaiari, spokesperson of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards, said an Israeli attack would not succeed. “They are aware that Tehran’s response would be overwhelming and would wipe Israel off the face of the earth” (Maariv, July 27, 2004).
In April 2007, Mohammad Baqer Zolghadr, Iran’s deputy interior minister in security affairs, said Iran will strike U.S. interests around the world and Israel if attacked. “Nowhere would be safe for America with [Iran’s] long-range missiles ... we can fire tens of thousands of missiles every day,” Zolghadr said (Haaretz, April 26, 2007).
More recently, Ali Shirazi, liaison for Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei to the elite Quds Force, said after a reported Israeli airstrike on an Iranian base in Syria, “Iran has the capability to destroy Israel and given the excuse, Tel Aviv and Haifa will be razed to the ground” (Times of Israel, April 12, 2018).
Prior to the U.S. withdrawal from the JCPOA, deputy Quds commander, Brigadier-General Esmail Ghaani, warned against an American attack. “We are not a war-mongering country,” he said. “But any military action against Iran will be regretted ... Trump’s threats against Iran will damage America ... We have buried many ... like Trump and know how to fight against America” (Independent, October 13, 2017).
In May 2019, tensions grew as the United States tightened sanctions on Iran, ending exemptions to several countries that were allowed to continue importing oil from Iran as part of the effort to reduce their oil exports to zero. American intelligence reported a heightened threat of an attack of some kind on U.S. interests. “If Iran wants to fight, that will be the official end of Iran. Never threaten the United States again,” President Trump said in a tweet (Reuters, May 19, 2019).
He later said, “I just don’t want them to have nuclear weapons, and they can’t be threatening us. And with all of everything that’s going on, and I’m not one that believes – you know, I’m not somebody that wants to go into war, because war hurts economies, war kills people most importantly – by far most importantly,” he said. “I don’t want to fight,” he added, “but you do have situations like Iran, you can’t let them have nuclear weapons – you just can’t let that happen.”
The commander of Iran’s Islamic Revolution Guard Corps, Major-General Hossein Salami, said the same day that “Iran is not looking for any type of war, but it is fully prepared to defend itself” (CNN, May 19, 2019).
Most discussions of the military option have focused on worst-case scenarios – Iran’s program can only be delayed, not stopped; a wave of terror will be unleashed by Tehran; Iranian allies, Hamas and Hezbollah, will rain missiles down on Israel; the Muslim world will be inflamed; the price of oil will skyrocket and damage the world economy and other potential catastrophes discussed here.
One other concern is collateral damage. The potential for civilian casualties, property damage or radiation exposure is an important consideration in military planning. One reason why a military option may be pursued sooner than later is that the danger of the release of radiation will be small or non-existent if an attack is launched before nuclear fuel is loaded into any reactors. According to one 2013 study, the most likely targets of any attack are facilities that are built underground or store their hazardous materials in underground bunkers, which would reduce the expected risk to the environment and population (TheTower.org, August 14, 2013).
Any military planner must take into account such worst-case scenarios, but if all decisions were based on these predictions, no wars would ever be fought. Strategists must also consider best-case scenarios as well as those in between the optimistic and the apocalyptic. Here we examine some of the steps already taken to stop Iran and some of the publicly discussed military options.
A number of analysts have questioned Israel's ability to conduct a military operation; however, Israel’s then chief of staff, Lieutenant General Benny Gantz, said the country’s military was capable of attacking Iran on its own without foreign support. If necessary, he said Israel could fight alone without the help of the United States or other countries. “We have our plans and forecasts ... If the time comes we'll decide” on whether to take military action, he said. This echoed earlier comments by Prime Minister Netanyahu who reiterated that Israel would not “abandon our fate into the hands of other countries, even our best friends.”
Several options are available for potentially attacking Iran. Some of those suggested in the media have included facilities assassinating the country's leaders or nuclear scientists; bombing the entrances to prevent scientists and others from reaching them; destroying Iran’s main oil terminals and crippling the economy; and bombing the enrichment sites. Press reports have also disclosed covert operations to disrupt the nuclear program. For example, Israel reportedly “used front companies to infiltrate the Iranian purchasing network ... to deliver faulty or defective items that ‘poison’ the country’s atomic activities” (Telegraph, February 16, 2009). The world also learned of joint U.S.-Israeli efforts to sabotage Iranian centrifuges through the use of computer viruses such as Stuxnet.
Some analysts argue that Israel lacks the military capability to stop the Iranian nuclear program for more than a few years. This is the conventional wisdom, but it is just that, conventional, and Israel has repeatedly proved that it has the daring and creativity to disprove the skeptics.
Consider Israel’s history. American officials have been consistently wrong about Israel's capabilities. They did not expect Israel to survive the Arab invasion of 1948. In the early 1950s, the Arabs were seen as strategic allies, but, by the end of the decade, Israel was acknowledged as the only pro-Western power in the region. In 1967, no one anticipated that Israel would surprise their neighbors and destroy their air forces on the ground. In 1976, Israel shocked the world when it rescued 102 hostages in Entebbe. In 1981, Israel flew through Arab air space and destroyed Iraq’s nuclear reactor. In 2007, an Israeli raid destroyed a suspected Syrian nuclear facility.
Only a handful of Israelis are privy to plans that could be far more audacious and innovative than critics imagine. As Eitan Ben-Eliyahu, who flew a fighter escort on the raid on Iraq told the Jerusalem Report, “you can introduce dozens of improvisations and creative ideas and get much more out of the basic conditions than would seem possible at face value.”
The most commonly assumed Israeli option would involve an aerial bombardment of Iranian nuclear facilities. The problem analysts frequently mention with regard to Israel bombing Iran is that the Iranian facilities are hidden deep underground. The Obama Administration sold Israel bunker buster bombs; however, only a handful of Israeli planes can carry them and the munitions are not believed to be powerful enough to penetrate deep enough to destroy the plants.
In addition to aircraft dropping bombs, Israel could also launch its Jericho missiles and possibly submarine-based cruise missiles. This last possibility, a submarine-based attack, became more realistic following reports that Israel launched an attack with precision guided missiles that destroyed a shipment of Russian anti-ship missiles in the Syrian port of Latakia (Tom Gross, “Was Israel's Latest ‘Air’ Attack on Syria from a Submarine?” Weekly Standard, July 20, 2013). Gross also raised the possibility that Israel could use another tactic – an EMP (electromagnetic pulses) that could “be emitted from installations the size of a suitcase smuggled into Iran by land and used to disable specific buildings or target specific offices – for example, the office of the Iranian defense minister, to make it impossible for him to communicate by phone or computer with the outside world for a period of time.”
Unlike the United States, which could carry out sustained strikes, Israel is expected to have only a brief window – perhaps only a single raid – to do whatever damage it can. The likely targets would be the heavy-water production plant at Arak, the uranium-conversion facility at Isfahan, and the uranium enrichment centers at Natanz and Fordow. The length of an attack may be constrained, but it could still be potentially devastating if Israel uses its full range of resources, including strikes from the air, land and sea, EMPs and cyberattacks and special forces operations.
One other scenario is referred to as the “Entebbe Option.” The idea would be for Israeli commandos to storm the enrichment facility housing Iran’s centrifuges, remove the enriched uranium and then destroy the facility (Foreign Policy, September 27, 2012).
Any attack on nuclear facilities would most likely be conducted before Iran introduced dangerous levels of uranium to preclude the possibility of radiation fallout (Washington Post, August 5, 2013). A similar concern prompted Menachem Begin to destroy the Iraqi reactor at Osirak in 1981.
Assuming Israel can launch an effective strike, what about the argument that it will only set Iran back a few years?
Maybe the strike will succeed in destroying more of the program than the naysayers believe. But assume that it does not. This does not mean the Iranians can rebuild the program quickly, if at all. They will still have the technical knowledge, but it took them more than 20 years to get to where they are today. They will also face much greater international scrutiny. The world kept its head in the sand for years, and the IAEA failed to detect the illicit activities, but that will not happen in the future. Furthermore, sanctions can remain in place, inspections could become more rigorous and other measures taken to ensure the nuclear program is not rebuilt.
Some argue the Iranians will become more united as a result of their nation being attacked. They may also become more determined to get a bomb to ensure that no one can attack them in the future and become even more secretive. This is indeed one scenario, but others are also conceivable. It is possible, for example, given the widespread disaffection within Iran that another revolution could occur there and that new leaders will abandon the nuclear option. The Iranian people may conclude that their fanatical leaders brought a catastrophe upon them and that it is time to restore Iran to the community of nations. Senior leaders may die in the attack, which might facilitate regime change.
Public discussions of the military option have all assumed that Iran will respond to any attack as their leaders have threatened. In weighing the use of military force, Israel also must consider, for example, the possibility that Iran and Hezbollah will try to target its nuclear facilities. The Israel Atomic Energy Commission has already taken precautions to protect the nuclear reactors in Dimona and Nahal Sorek and believes that a missile strike that hits a nuclear reactor “would be a major propaganda achievement,” but “would not endanger Israelis” (Haaretz, June 28, 2018).
Other scenarios are also possible. Israel attacked both Iraqi and Syrian facilities and neither country counterattacked Israel. The Iranians know that if they strike back, Israel can respond in devastating fashion. Israel would overwhelm Lebanon and Gaza if Hezbollah and Hamas entered the fray. An Iranian attack on American targets or interference with oil supplies would provoke an overwhelming U.S. response and might bring other Western powers into the fight.
One unanswered question is what the United States would do in the event of an Israeli military operation. U.S. officials hope and expect that Israel will inform them in advance, but Israel may choose not to do so. One reason for keeping the U.S. in the dark is to avoid the possibility of President Trump opposing the decision taking measures to stop it. If Israel ignored U.S. wishes, it would risk alienating the president and possibly losing political, military and/or economic support in the aftermath of the Israeli strike. Given U.S. assets in the area, it may be difficult if not impossible to surprise the United States and it is more likely Israel will, as it has in some previous instances, alert the president after the operation has begun.
The United States should not be surprised if Israel acts given the repeated statements by Prime Minister Netanyahu and other officials that Israel will not allow Iran to build a nuclear weapon and will act if others do not. In 1981, Israel sent similar messages to the Carter and Reagan administrations, but American assessments of Iraq’s nuclear program were different than Israel’s and the Israeli warnings were not heeded.
In the past, American officials have said they do not want to appear complicit in an Israeli attack, but the Iranians and the Arab/Muslim world will assume that Israel is acting with U.S. help and/or permission and may have a negative reaction. The United States will therefore have an interest in seeing that Israel’s operation is as short as possible and preventing the situation from escalating. To do this, however, the United States may be forced to take a more active role in defending Israel, particularly against missile attacks from Iran, Hamas or Hezbollah. This may necessitate threatening military intervention.
President Obama took steps to minimize one of the principal concerns of the United States and its allies, namely, an Iranian threat to the supply of oil. In 2011, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta suggested that a military attack on Iran would ruin the world economy because of its impact on oil prices (Fox News, November 18, 2011) and that remains a concern. At a minimum, an Israeli strike is likely to cause a spike in oil prices because of fears of what Iran might do and the tendency of prices to rise whenever there is instability in the region.
If Iran were to carry out its threats to attack ships in the Persian Gulf, place mines in the water or otherwise interfere with the shipment of petroleum, oil prices would rise even higher given that roughly 20 percent of the world’s oil passes through the Strait of Hormuz. In the past, the United States has made clear that any Iranian threat to global oil supplies would cross an American red line that would trigger a military response.
Israel has said that if Iran achieves the capability to build a nuclear weapon, it will have crossed a red line requiring a response. The United States, under Obama, refused to discuss a “red line” and maintained that Iran would have to reach a higher threshold – the actual production of a nuclear device – before it would consider going beyond the non-military measures taken to discourage Iran from pursuing a weapon.
President Donald Trump has been less circumspect. On July 21, 2018, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani warned the Trump administration against continuing to oppose Iran and threatened to shut down international oil shipments in the Strait of Hormuz. “Mr. Trump, don’t play with the lion’s tail, this would only lead to regret,” IRNA, the state-run news wire, quoted Rouhani as saying. “America should know that peace with Iran is the mother of all peace, and war with Iran is the mother of all wars” (Reuters, July 22, 2018).
A day later, Trump tweeted:
During a Senate hearing in May 2018, Defense Secretary James Mattis said the U.S. military was ready for a war with Iran. “We maintain military options because of Iran’s bellicose statements and threats,” he said. “And those plans remain operant” (Foreign Policy, June 28, 2018).
Should the United States decide to use military force against Iran, it has a range of options. One would be to bomb the nuclear facilities. The U.S. has the capability of carrying on a sustained attack over an extended period. It also has bombs that are much more powerful than those given to Israel. Defense Secretary Ashton Carter announced on April 13, 2015, that the Pentagon has a bunker-busting bomb capable of destroying Iran’s secretive underground nuclear facilities. The weapon, called the Massive Ordinance Penetrator, is being “continually improved and upgraded” and provides the United States with the capability to “shut down, set back, and destroy” Iran’s nuclear program. (The Hill, April 10, 2015)
The United States is also likely to strike far more targets than Israel. The Israelis will be concerned primarily with the nuclear facilities, but an American strike would probably aim to take out missile bases, launchers and production facilities as well. A U.S. (or Israeli) operation might also target Kharg Island from which Iran exports 90 percent of its oil and gas. Another target could be the port of Bandar Abbas, which is responsible for 90 percent of Iran’s container trade (Jerusalem Post, May 8, 2018). A broader strike might include refineries, natural gas terminals, railways, bridges, roads and power plants. A no-fly zone and/or naval embargo could also be imposed. These measures would damage infrastructure and potentially cripple Iran’s economy.
Gen. James Mattis, then head of U.S. Central Command and now Secretary of Defense, said in 2013 the U.S. military could bring Iran to its knees. “There are number of means to do that,” he said, “perhaps even short of open conflict. But certainly that’s one of the options that I have to have prepared for the president” (Huffington Post, March 5, 2013).
John Allen Gay, the co-author of the 2013 book War with Iran, said, “The initial attack would undoubtedly be conducted with stealth aircraft, while follow-on attacks would feature non-stealth aircraft. At some point, and early on, we would have to attack Iran’s air defense systems. They have sophisticated S-300s [surface-to-air missiles] from Russia, so they would need to be destroyed.” The air campaign would target Iran’s nuclear facilities at Fordow and Natanz as well as “air bases, naval bases, and ballistic missile installations” (Foreign Policy, June 28, 2018).
James Stavridis, a retired U.S. Navy admiral and former military commander of NATO, observed that U.S. defense planners know that Iran has plans to close the Strait of Hormuz using mines; swarms of patrol boats; shore-based cruise missiles; manned aircraft; and diesel submarines. At a minimum, they would seek to harass merchant ships, oil tankers and allied warships. These illegal actions would likely have a serious impact on oil prices in the short run as ships avoid the waterway and oil exports from the Gulf nations are blocked.
The United States, its allies and coalition partners have planned for this contingency, according to Stavridis, and would likely react by attacking Iranian ships attempting to lay mines; striking land-based air and cruise missile sites; sinking Iranian diesel subs; and launching air strikes against targets inside Iran. The process of reopening the Straits if Iran succeeded in closing them would take time during which the world economy would likely suffer as oil prices rise.
Stavridis suggested a preemptive strategy that would include:
Like an Israeli strike, a U.S. operation would risk angering Arabs and Muslims; however, the reaction to both will also be affected by the success of the operations. Most of the Arab world has made clear it opposes Iran’s nuclear program and would cheer, privately if not publicly, the destruction of the threat. Provoking a regime change would also be viewed positively by most of the people in the region. If an operation results in harming the Iranian people, especially if there are high numbers of civilian casualties, the response could be more negative.
If the United States does take military action against Iran, it will probably act quickly to reassure the Iranian people and others in the region that it acted only as a last resort after Iran failed to heed international calls to give up its nuclear weapons program. If there is a change in the regime, it is likely the U.S. would offer aid to encourage a turn to democracy and to help Iran rebuild the non-military areas that were damaged during the operation. American officials may also want to affirm a willingness to help Iran develop a nuclear energy program with appropriate safeguards to ensure that Iran cannot divert nuclear material for military purposes (Haaretz, March 22, 2013).
Opponents of military force acknowledge the U.S. could destroy Iran’s nuclear and military capabilities, but argue this would not bring about regime change in Iran, and would inevitably lead to a larger conflict. Robert Farley, a national security expert at the University of Kentucky’s Patterson School of Diplomacy and International Commerce, for example, argues “there is very little reason to suppose that anything other than an Iraq-style war would lead to regime change in Iran.” Farley adds: “Even in a very extensive campaign, and absent the use of ground troops in a major invasion, the Iranian regime would survive” (Foreign Policy, June 28, 2018).
Most of the discussion about the possibility of military action has focused on Israel and the United States; however, it is possible that an operation would be mounted by an international coalition. President Trump has generally shown little interest in multilateral action and alienated America’s major allies when he withdrew from the JCPOA over their objections. On the other hand, he did coordinate a strike on Syrian chemical weapons facilities with Britain and France.
During the Obama administration, the countries leading the campaign against Iran were the British, French and Germans. None of those countries is likely to act alone and would probably only join a U.S.-led attack if they were convinced Iran was on the verge of building a bomb and all diplomatic options had been exhausted. All these countries oppose a unilateral Israeli attack. As French President Francois Hollande told Israeli President Shimon Peres in March 2013: “We have no doubt that if Iran continues to develop nuclear weapons, the international community, not Israel, will bear the responsibility to stop it! Iran is not just a danger to Israel but a danger to the Gulf Region, to Europe and to the whole world” (Algemeiner, March 8, 2013).
While negotiations were taking place with Iran, a covert war was waged against Iran’s nuclear program. This involved efforts to sabotage nuclear-related equipment both before and after it arrived in Iran.
In 2010, the world learned that a computer worm referred to as Stuxnet wreaked havoc on Iranian computer systems and led to the destruction or damage of hundreds of centrifuges. In 2012, Iran admitted that another cyber-attack, Flame, infected their computers, this time allowing the attackers to use them for surveillance. Iran’s oil ministry was hit by the Wiper program, which erased its hard drives.
News reports attributed the cyberwarfare to a U.S. and Israeli intelligence operation called “Operation Olympic Games,” started under President George W. Bush and expanded under Obama (New York Times, June 1, 2012). It is believed these covert activities set the Iranian program back months, if not years. It is likely that similar measures will be employed as part of a multipronged strategy to prevent Iran from developing a bomb.
Iran has engaged in cyber warfare against the United States and its allies both before and after the signing of the JCPOA. For example, in 2012, hackers attacked Saudi Aramco after disclosures about American sabotage of Iran’s nuclear infrastructure. More than 30,000 computers were destroyed and Aramco’s information technology infrastructure was damaged so severely that its business operations were compromised.
In 2012-2013, Operation Ababil targeted U.S. financial institutions and temporarily knocked some banks offline, causing tens of millions of dollars in damage. This attack was in apparent retaliation for the tightening of U.S. oil sanctions.
In 2014, the Las Vegas Sands Corporation was attacked after the company’s owner, Republican political donor Sheldon Adelson, advocated a preemptive nuclear attack on Iran.
In 2016, seven Iranians working for the Islamic Revolutionary Guard were indicted for conducting hacking attacks against U.S. banks and targeting a dam located in a New York suburb. The hacking attacks disabled bank websites and cost tens of millions of dollars in remediation costs. Had the attack on the dam been successful, Iran “would have been able to control water levels and flow rates at the dam that could have endangered the health and safety of people in the New York metropolitan area” (Forbes, March 24, 2016).
From approximately 2017 through early 2019, more than 2,200 people at more than 200 companies were targeted by Iranian hackers; another operation during the same period attacked 800 organizations. The Wall Street Journal reported the corporate secrets were stolen and data erased from computers in “oil-and-gas companies, heavy-machinery manufacturers and international conglomerates in more than a half-dozen countries including Saudi Arabia, Germany, the U.K., India and the U.S” (Wall Street Journal, March 6, 2019).
In 2018, federal authorities charged nine Iranians with launching cyberattacks that hit 144 American universities, 36 U.S. companies and five American government agencies between 2013 and 2017.
In June 2019, the Homeland Security department released a statement saying it was “aware of a recent rise in malicious cyber activity directed at United States industries and government agencies by Iranian regime actors and proxies.” It said that “Iranian regime actors and proxies are increasingly using destructive ‘wiper’ attacks, looking to do much more than just steal data and money. These efforts are often enabled through common tactics like spear phishing, password spraying, and credential stuffing. What might start as an account compromise, where you think you might just lose data, can quickly become a situation where you’ve lost your whole network” (CISA, June 22, 2019).
According to Micah Loudermilk, “Over the past two years, security firms and the U.S. government have identified Iranian cyber espionage operations targeting U.S. government entities, critical infrastructure, military/commercial aviation, manufacturing, and engineering, among other sectors.” He warns that future attacks could target “the U.S electrical grid (which it has already probed), water networks (which it has infiltrated), telecommunications systems (which it has mined for data), or even city governments” (Washington Institute, July 9, 2019)
The United States reportedly escalatied its use of cyber against Iran in response to Iran downing an American drone and sabotaging oil tankers. In June 2019, for example, the U.S. Cyber Command targeted computer systems that control Iranian missile launches and those used by an Iranian intelligence group believed to be involved in planning attacks against oil tankers (New York Times, June 22, 2019). The United States reportedly carried out a secret cyber operation against Iran in response to the September 14 attacks on Saudi Arabia’s oil facilities (Reuters, October 16, 2019).
According to Prime Minister Netanyahu, Israeli officials are “constantly detecting and foiling Iranian attempts” to penetrate the country’s computer networks. For example, in May 2020, at the height the coronavirus crisis, Iran launched a cyberattack on Israeli water and sewage facilities routed through computer servers in the United States and Europe. Israeli Water Authority officials detected and prevented the intrusion and immediately took measures to prevent further hacks (Washington Post, May 8, 2020). “The Iranian attack could have paralyzed Israel’s sewage systems, disrupting the water supply for farming and aggravating sanitation problems in some areas of the country at the height of the pandemic,” according to Ron Ben-Yishai (Ynet, May 19, 2020).
Israel reportedly responded on May 9, 2020, by hacking Iranian computers that regulate the flow of vessels, trucks, and goods, which brought shipping traffic at Iran’s Shahid Rajaee port terminal to an abrupt and inexplicable halt (Washington Post, May 18, 2020). The attack was said to be consistent with the strategic policy adopted by Israel since the Second Lebanon War whereby it responds disproportionately to attacks but stays below the threshold of a declaration of war.
A series of incidents occurred at Iranian facilities beginning in late spring 2020, which Israel is suspected of causing with cyber weapons or possibly by placing bombs inside them. This may have been another response to Iran’s cyberattack on its water facilities and a warning of its capabilities and ongoing commitment to prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon.
On June 26, 2020, a blast destroyed parts of a secret facility in Parchin associated with nuclear weapons research. One of the damaged areas is part of a missile facility (Breaking Defense, July 02, 2020).
Another explosion occurred on July 2, 2020, which destroyed a building at the Natanz enrichment facility where Iran has been developing advanced centrifuges to significantly speed up the enrichment of uranium. It was reported that the attack would set the program back by two months (Radio Farda, July 5, 2020).
A few days later, the Institute for Science and International Security (ISIS) reported that initial reports had underestimated the destruction. The explosion at the Centrifuge Assembly Center (ICAC) caused “significant, extensive, and likely irreparable, damage to its main assembly hall section.” ISIS said, “This explosion will not likely affect Iran’s near-term research and development of centrifuges,” but still represented “a significant setback to Iran’s plans and ability to mass produce advanced centrifuges.” Rebuilding the plant, the group said, would likely take at least a year (ISIS, July 8, 2020).
Israel is also being blamed for fires at industrial complexes and explosions at two power plants. Iran has said these incidents were accidents and a Middle Eastern intelligence official said Israel had nothing to do with them (New York Times, July 5, 2020).
According to the Jerusalem Post, the raid on the Iranian nuclear archive produced a map of unknown nuclear sites. “The power of this ‘map,’” Yonah Jeremy Bob noted, “became all too clear watching the explosions this summer” (Jerusalem Post, September 21, 2020)
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 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. 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 Hezbollah – to launch rockets at Israel putting virtually the entire population 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 regime.
- 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.
Israelis prefer that the United States alone, or with its allies, takes out Iran’s nuclear program. Several respected Israeli analysts opposed an Israeli strike prior to the signing of the JCPOA. Meir Dagan, the former Mossad chief, for example, 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 IAEA. Dagan also believed it was not 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 feared that an Israeli operation could provoke a regional war and an arms race. Finally, he agreed with those who believe the regime will be strengthened because the Iranian people will rally around it after coming under attack.
Gabi Ashkenazi, a former military chief of staff, also spoke out against a military strike by Israel and advocated “a combination of strategies: a clandestine campaign; diplomatic, political and economic sanctions, and maintenance of a credible and realistic military option.” Another former Israeli chief of staff, Shaul Mofaz, opposed an Israeli strike because he believed it would 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.”
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.
The saying, “predictions of my demise are premature,” certainly applies to the rulers of Iran. Since the revolution in 1979, suggestions have repeatedly been made that a new revolution is in the works. We are told that the young, educated, westernized part of the population seethes under the autocratic and medieval mullahs who hold power. On occasion, parts of the population have protested, but these potential uprisings never received much support from the United States or other Western nations and were quickly put down by the brutal regime. People in the West who have not had to fight for freedom in a totalitarian society often underestimate the difficulty of overthrowing a government that controls all the levers of power and uses a ruthless cadre of secret police to enforce discipline.
Besides the difficulty of changing the regime in Iran, another misconception is that this would necessarily alter Iran’s interest in building a nuclear weapon. It is not only the radical Islamic leadership that seeks a nuclear capability; other Iranians insist it is Iran’s sovereign right to use its technological know-how to acquire the same weapons as other nations. By what right, they ask, is the United States, Israel, India or Pakistan entitled to have nuclear weapons while denying the same right to Iran?
Thus, regime change would not necessarily eliminate the nuclear threat from Iran. The issue then, for the international community, would be whether a non-Islamic regime with these weapons would be less of a threat to its neighbors and world stability. The fear that Iran would intimidate its neighbors or attack Israel might be reduced, but Arab countries would still feel the need to get their own bombs to ensure deterrence. Everyone would also have to worry that the Islamists might return to power and then they would have the weapons already in their arsenal.
Tensions between Iran, the West and its Gulf neighbors increased in June 2019 after the Iranian Revolutionary Guard was accused of attacking ships with mines and shooting down an American spy drone.
Trump said that after the downing of the U.S. Navy drone, he was prepared to order a military strike against Iran. He said he called it off at the last minute because it would have inflicted disproportionate Iranian casualties (Washington Post, June 28, 2019).
Britain subsequently deployed elite frogmen to the Persian Gulf to protect British ships from Iranian attack (Daily Mirror, June 22, 2019).
In early July British Royal Marines assisted Gibraltar in the detention of an Iranian oil tanker that was suspected of heading to Syria to deliver oil in violation of EU sanctions. Khamenei threatened to respond to Britain’s “piracy” at “an appropriate time and place.”
Britain subsequently said on July 11 that Iranian ships tried to block a British tanker heading through the Persian Gulf. Britain subsequently said it would send a third warship to the Gulf (Reuters, July 16, 2019) as well as Special Boat Service commandos (Daily Mirror, June 22, 2019). The United States and Britain have been seeking European support to patrol the Persian Gulf around the Strait of Hormuz in response to the Iranian provocations; however, none of the Europeans have agreed to participate. Although it is in their interest to ensure the sea lane remains open, European leaders do not want Iran to think they are cooperating with the Trump administration and are leery of being drawn into a war. They also want to pursue talks with Iran to lower tensions (New York Times, August 1, 2019).
In another sign of escalating tensions, Iran announced in July 2019 that it captured 17 Iranian citizens who were accused of working as spies for the CIA and had sentenced some to death (Jerusalem Post, July 22, 2019). Iran also detained a French-Iranian scholar on unspecified charges, which was particularly surprising given French President Emmanuel Macron’s efforts to salvage the 2015 nuclear deal and defuse tensions in the Middle East (Wall Street Journal, July 16, 2019).
In a move seen as a response to U.S. sanctions cutting off its oil exports, and an effort to demonstrate the capability to threaten U.S. oil supplies, Iran attacked Saudi oil installations on September 14, 2019, shutting down half of the kingdom’s crude production. The attack using drones and cruise missiles sent its adversaries the powerful message that it can hit specific targets with great precision from long distance. The threat to Western energy supplies was obvious, but Israeli analysts also saw the strike as a warning of the vulnerability of its strategic assets, including the Dimona nuclear reactor (Haaretz, October 6, 2019). Israel subsequently disclosed it has a system to protect against cruise missiles like the ones used by Iran to attack the oil installations (Breaking Defense, October 24, 2019).
Iran’s belief that its adversaries are unwilling to risk a war despite such provocations was reinforced by the failure of the United States or the other Western powers to do more than issue perfunctory condemnation. Instead, the attack prompted calls for entering negotiations with Iran, with even the Saudis seeking talks with their enemies (Al Jazeera, October 5, 2019).
In a signal that it would not be cowed by a growing Western military presence to protect shipping in the Persian Gulf, Iran, China and Russia began a four-day joint military exercise in the Indian Ocean and Gulf of Oman on December 27, 2019. “Among the objectives of this exercise are improving the security of international maritime trade, countering maritime piracy and terrorism, exchanging information regarding rescue operations and operational and tactical experience,” said Iranian Second Rear Admiral Gholamreza Tahani. He added this was the first time Iran engaged in a joint exercise with two major world naval powers at this scale (CNN, December 27, 2019).
After being widely criticized for failing to respond to the Iranian attack on Saudi Arabia, the Trump administration decided to take a more aggressive stance after the Iran-backed militia group Kataib Hezbollah fired more than 30 rockets at an Iraqi military base that killed an American civilian contractor and injured four U.S. service members. Two days later, on December 29, 2019, U.S. F-15 fighter jets targeted three Kataib Hezbollah bases in Iraq and two in Syria. At least 25 members of the militia were killed and 55 wounded (CNN, December 30, 2019).
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo had warned after several earlier attacks on Iraqi bases that if Iran or its proxies harmed Americans or its allies, the United States would answer with a “decisive” response. “We will not stand for the Islamic Republic of Iran to take actions that put American men and women in jeopardy,” Pompeo declared after the U.S. strike. Defense Secretary Mark Esper added, “we will take additional actions as necessary to ensure that we act in our own self-defense and we deter further bad behavior from militia groups or from Iran” (Jerusalem Post, December 30, 2019).
Angered by the U.S. airstrike, Iraqi protestors broke into the compound of the United States Embassy in Baghdad on December 31, 2019, where they broke security cameras, covered the walls with anti-American graffiti, set a guardhouse on fire and then broke through another entrance and set more fires. They did not enter the main embassy building and later withdrew and joined demonstrators outside the compound chanting “Death to America,” throwing rocks, covering the walls with graffiti and demanding that the United States withdraw its forces from Iraq. American officials were especially alarmed that Iraqi security forces did not prevent the protestors from breaching the compound, an indication that the demonstrators had support among them (New York Times, December 31, 2019).
Trump warned Iran would be “held fully responsible for lives lost, or damage incurred, at any of our facilities. They will pay a very BIG PRICE! This is not a Warning, it is a Threat” (@realDonaldTrump, December 31, 2019).
The U.S. carried out the threat on January 3, 2020, when a U.S. drone tracked a two-car convoy near Baghdad International Airport before firing missiles that killed Iranian Quds Force commander Qassim Suleimani, and several other men, including Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis and Mohammed Ridha Jabri from the pro-Iranian umbrella group for Iraqi militias – the Popular Mobilization Forces in Iraq. Al-Muhandis, the leader of the group, was blamed for attacks against the United States dating to 1982. Jabri was the organization’s public relations chief.
Defense Secretary Mark T. Esper said the Pentagon had taken “decisive defensive action” against Suleimani, who the United States held responsible for hundreds of American deaths. “Gen. Suleimani was actively developing plans to attack American diplomats and service members in Iraq and throughout the region,” Esper said in a statement. “This strike was aimed at deterring future Iranian attack plans” (Washington Post, January 3, 2020).
“General Suleimani was the architect of nearly every significant operation by Iranian intelligence and military forces over the past two decades, and his death was a staggering blow for Iran at a time of sweeping geopolitical conflict,” according to the New York Times (January 3, 2020).
Ilan Goldenberg, who worked on Middle East issues during the Obama administration, characterized the move as a “massive game changer” in the region. “Iran will seek revenge. It may escalate in Iraq, Lebanon, the gulf or elsewhere. It may attempt to target senior U.S. officials.”
Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi condemned the U.S. “assassination,” and said it violated the terms under which American forces operate in the country. In a nonbinding vote, the Iraqi parliament (missing nearly half its members) subsequently voted unanimously to demand that U.S. forces leave Iraq.
Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said the “cruelest people on earth” assassinated the “honorable” commander who “courageously fought for years against the evils and bandits of the world.” He added, “His departure to God does not end his path or his mission, but a forceful revenge awaits the criminals who have his blood and the blood of the other martyrs last night on their hands” (USA Today, January 3, 2020).
American military officials said they were aware of a potentially violent response from Iran and its proxies and were taking steps to protect American personnel in the Middle East and elsewhere around the world (New York Times, January 3, 2020). The administration also called for all American citizens to leave Iraq.
After Iran threatened retaliation for the killing of Suleimani, Trump tweeted his own warning:
The United States had already increased its military presence in the region, sending 750 troops to Kuwait and an additional 100 Marines to Baghdad to protect the embassy from further attacks. Following the Iranian threats, the Pentagon announced another 3,000 soldiers would be deployed to the region (NBC, January 3, 2020).
On January 7, 2020, Iran fired ballistic missiles from its territory at two military bases in Iraq housing U.S. The U.S. had enough advance warning to move personnel to safety and no casualties were reported. Analysts suggested the Iranians had intentionally avoided harming any Americans to discourage President Trump from escalating the conflict further. The strikes were viewed as a way of satisfying the Iranian public’s desire to see the government retaliate for the killing of Soleimani. Later, however, it was determined the missiles were aimed at harming U.S. forces and that 11 soldiers were injured in the attack (Military.com, January 17, 2019).
The following day Trump addressed the public and indicated the U.S. would not take further military action because Iran appeared to “be standing down.” He did, however, say the U.S. would “impose additional punishing economic sanctions” on Iran. He also reiterated that “Iran will never be allowed to have a nuclear weapon.”
“Peace and stability cannot prevail in the Middle East as long as Iran continues to foment violence, unrest, hatred, and war,” Trump declared. “The civilized world must send a clear and unified message to the Iranian regime: Your campaign of terror, murder, mayhem will not be tolerated any longer. It will not be allowed to go forward” (White House, January 8, 2020).
Tensions remained high after Iran shot down a Ukraine International Airlines Flight after takeoff from Tehran’s airport on January 8, 2020, killing 176 people. The government initially denied intentionally targeting the plane and protests erupted after it admitted shooting the plane down (CNN, January 11, 2020).
In his first such address in eight years, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei gave a public sermon on January 17, 2020, in which he called protesters “stooges of the United States” and said the missile attack on the U.S. base “delivered a slap to U.S.’s image as a superpower” (New York Times, January 17, 2020).
Israel, the United States and other Western powers are engaged in ongoing intelligence operations to monitor and undermine Iran’s military activities. The Iranians are also active in monitoring their adversaries. They have, for example, tried to recruit Israelis to spy for them. In April 2020, for example, an Israeli citizen was arrested on suspicion of having links with Iranian intelligence agencies and providing intelligence on strategic sites in Israel. He is accused of holding meetings with Iranian intelligence officers while abroad where he received funds, training, and encryption tools to stay in contact with his handlers. He was asked to provide information on strategic sites in Israel and ways to deepen rifts in Israeli society in addition to recruiting Israeli-Arabs to help Iran and carry out terror attacks (Jerusalem Post, April 7, 2020).
Map © Seth Frantzman, used by permission.