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Reader riposte: Iran's response to an Israeli strike

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COMMENTS

21 July 2008 13:22

Hans van Leeuwen writes:

If Israel does bomb Iran, as you suggest it might in your post on Friday, what next? Iran can't let the strike go unanswered. Yet surely the Iranians will be equally wary of overplaying their hand and suffering the same fate as the Arab nations did in the 1960s and 1970s? At the same time, Israel surely isn't discounting the possibility that any Iranian retaliation could be very costly indeed to Israel?

I think there's a good case that Iran's response to an Israeli strike will be pretty mild, both because Iran lacks the means to hit Israel hard, and because it is not in Iran's interests to do so. Let's consider Tehran's response options one by one:

  • Retaliatory air strikes: Iran's air force is not up to this task. It has very few aircraft able to reach Israel, and these would surely be intercepted by Israel's world class air defence system.
  • Ballistic missile strikes: Iran is thought to have around 25-100 Shahab ballistic missile capable of reaching Israel. Each carries less than a ton of high explosives which would do localised damage only, and are very innacurate. Israel might destroy some of these missiles or their launchers in the initial strike against the nuclear facilities. Others will be intercepted by Israel's very capable missile defence network.
  • Rocket strikes using proxies like Hizballah or Hamas: These could do the most physical damage to Israel, particularly given Hizballah's huge rocket inventory. But neither group is entirely subservient to Iran, and each has a domestic constituency to appease, so they might do no more than conduct some symbolic rocket strikes. It is unlikely Hizballah would risk another Lebanon war by launching big rocket strikes.
  • Terrorist attacks worldwide: Iran could probably use agents or proxies to hit Israeli targets around the world, but given the context of the Global War on Terror, this would invite disproportionate action (military, diplomatic, economic) from the US.
  • Attacking the US and its allies in Iraq and Afghanistan: Even if Iran has the capability to turn violence on and off in those two countries via their proxies (and it is not clear Iran has such control), it would not be in Iran's interests to escalate the violence. In Iraq in particular, it would merely destabilise a political situation that is quite favourable to Iran, and could delay US withdrawal.
  • Blocking the Straits of Hormuz: Yes, it would send oil prices sky rocketing, but it would play merry hell with the Iranian economy too, and severely annoy China, which has been Iran's best friend in the UN Security Council.

So if an Iran nuclear capability is unacceptable to Israel and bombing is the last, best hope of stopping it, these look like acceptable risks. It doesn't even matter that a strike might not completely stop Iran's program. A delay would still be a good result.

That said, history is replete with examples of military actions having unintended consequences. I worry particularly about the possibility that Israel might have to conduct follow up strikes, and the risks of escalation that flow from it. I don't worry so much about the 'Arab Street', which has proved pretty impotent, or the reaction of Arab governments, who would be quietly pleased to see Iran's nuclear ambitions checked.

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