Nerves of Steel

Nerves of Steel


In January 2007, Israeli historian Benny Morris published a vision of Iranian nuclear potential that is every Israeli's nightmare:

One bright morning, in five or ten years ...the orders will go out and the ... missiles will take off for Tel Aviv, Beersheba, Haifa and Jerusalem, and probably some military sites, including Israel's half-dozen air and (reported) nuclear missile bases. Some of the Shihabs will be nuclear-tipped, perhaps even with multiple warheads. Others will be dupes, packed merely with biological or chemical agents, or old newspapers, to draw off or confuse Israel's anti-missile batteries and Home Front Command units ... With a country the size and shape of Israel (an elongated 20,000 square kilometers), probably four or five hits will suffice: No more Israel ....

Morris was convinced the threat was so imminent that Israel was about to bomb Iran to avert it. But that didn't happen, because Israeli leaders overwhelmingly agree that the best result-one that requires nerves of steel, but is worth sweating lengthy and tactically costly negotiations-is keeping Iran from going nuclear without launching a military strike to deter it.

Today, as negotiations continue in one form or another, the Iranian nuclear threat continues to develop. The news coverage is understandably obsessed with Iran's capacity for enriching uranium, but it is that country's missile-development program that makes clear its strategic intentions.

Iran currently possesses two strategically significant operational missiles, both versions of the Shihab 3. The first (and earlier) design has a range of 1,300 kilometers, allowing it to hit Israel, Jordan, the Gulf States, the entire Caspian Sea region, much of the Indian subcontinent and Saudi Arabia. The improved version carries multiple warheads, can be launched more quickly, and has a vastly superior range estimated at 2,000 kilometers, meaning it can reach targets as far afield as Egypt, Ukraine, Kazakhstan and the outskirts of Moscow.

Potentially more lethal still are missiles still under development. The Ashura missile will possibly reach 2,500 kilometers in range, threatening Warsaw, Moscow, and Benghazi in Libya. The Iranians are also reportedly working on a 3,500-kilometer missile-based on a North Korean model-that will be able to hit Norway. And all of this for a country that claims its ambitions are defensive and peaceful!

Morris's prediction of an Israeli preemptive attack has not yet come true because Israel trusts the Americans to provide the resources and firepower to give Israel strategic depth against annihilationist attack. This assures Israelis that they will not be sacrificed, will not be the next Czechoslovakia. And in turn, Israel's patience despite its fears, based on confidence in America, gives the U.S. time to carry out its engagement policy with Iran.

Many of the details of the American support are classified, but what is public is impressive. U.S. forces openly train with the IDF. As seen in the current "Juniper Cobra" joint missile-defense exercise. (Incidentally, the Israeli commander of "Juniper Cobra" is Brig.-Gen. Doron Gavish, a graduate of the AJC-Israel National Defense College seminar.) The American armed forces also conduct regular joint naval and air exercises with the IDF, and supply Israel's defenses with critical materiel.

Senior Israeli officials assure AJC-and not for the first time-that they deeply appreciate and are frankly impressed at the scale of U.S. efforts. These are taking place away from the media, outside the perennial circuses of political positioning and accusation in Washington and Jerusalem, indicating the underlying strength of the U.S.-Israel alliance. In the test of real-world action, this cooperation among friends is considered too fundamental to be affected by seasonal political winds.

While negotiations with Iran continue over its nuclear ambitions and Israelis prepare for their possible failure, Israel is doing its part for its American friends-staying out of the spotlight and away from the negotiations. Israeli self-control does not mean that Iran is viewed as less of a threat. In fact, Israeli generals are fond of saying that, unlike many other authoritarian regimes that talk about Israel's destruction, the Iranian leadership actually plans to do something about it. But Israeli trust in the United States is so fundamental, so deeply ingrained in the relationship, that it cannot be easily dislodged from the minds of Israeli or American strategic planners. No other country has this level of trust with the Israelis. For the United States, this is certainly a compliment, undeniably an asset, and also a profound responsibility.

Benny Morris's dystopic prediction of an early Israeli attack-neither unreasonable nor improbable in its own terms-did not allow for the special Israeli bond with the U.S. The fact that trust between the two countries has allowed the Administration the time to try engagement signifies that the long-term health of the American-Israeli alliance is as strong as ever.