A Multilayered Defense vs. Iran's Challenge And the Attendant Dilemmas

This week the revolutionary regime in Iran celebrates twenty-eight years since the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini returned in glory from his exile in Paris and signaled the beginning of a new era in Iranian history. The promises he made were marked by a unique reading of the Shi'a faith: the creation of an Islamic republic, led by a "supreme guide"—an echo of a very specific model of European totalitarianism—yet with a certain scope for the play of political forces, as long as they all adhere to the concept of Velayet Faqih (obedience to the lawgiver or "guide").

Today, under the guidance of Ali Khamene'i, the successor to this office, it can be said with some certainty that the revolution has failed to deliver on its promises of change and of social and economic progress. The one flag still flying in the Tehran winter breeze is the flag of hate: The Iranian revolution's last claim to validity is that it is still the main force in the region committed to Israel's destruction. President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has given this hate a public face, but it was very much at the core of policy, as the "line of the imam," long before he was elected to his present position (which, despite its name, is effectively a secondary function in the revolutionary power structure).

It is in the name of this exterminatory agenda that Iran flaunts its role as Israel's "archenemy." This, in turn, gave a troubling significance to the hints and expectations that this anniversary would be marked by a dramatic announcement, defying the world, about the activation of a large cascade of centrifuges for uranium enrichment in the Iranian facility in Natanz. It did not happen: The reasons being offered by outside analysts range from technical failure to the effect of international pressure (which this week proved to be at least partly effective vis-à-vis Iran's friends, and missile vendors, in North Korea). It will be a while before we know for sure.

Meanwhile, Israel felt the need to send a message of its own—to the world, to Iran, and above all to its own worried people—as to our own ability to cope with the challenge. Even if Iran does cross the threshold of military nuclear capability, it would still be in need of an effective way to deliver a weapon, and indeed, has been investing for years in the acquisition of a broad array of ballistic missiles (quite specifically, capable of reaching Israel, and today, of doing so from the shelter of launching sites deep inside Iran). This gives additional significance to the Israeli Arrow program, and especially, to the decision to hold—this week—a nighttime test of the new technologies aimed at shooting down the warheads of long-range missiles (even if Iran does come to possess multiple-warhead technologies). The remarkable success of the test was quickly trumpeted not only as a milestone in Israeli scientific achievement, but also as an indication of our ability to defeat an Iranian attack, if one ever comes.

Not that any one form of defense, as such, is enough: The role of the Arrow in this context (like the role of the security barrier in the counterterrorist effort) is that of one "sliding door" among many. Deterrence (i.e., the ability to exact a terrible price from the attacker); counterforce capabilities (the targeting of missile sites and strategic facilities, even before an attack); active defense, such as the Arrow; and to some limited extent—very limited, when it comes to nuclear weapons—passive (civil) defense, and certainly the arrangements for the survivability of government and of military command (and thus, of the presumed second-strike capability)—all of these are needed, side by side, so as to persuade any would-be attacker that the prospects of success are slim and the costs of trying would be prohibitive.

Having said all this, it is still better to ensure that Iran does not get there. The bomb in the hands of the present regime would be meaningful not simply in terms of its direct (but unlikely) use, but also, or even mainly, as a powerful political symbol of the emerging hegemony of Iran in regional affairs. This is why the Gulf states, led by Saudi Arabia, along with Egypt, Jordan, and other proponents of the existing order, are as keen as Israel, if not more so, to ensure that the international community, and specifically the United States, take the necessary measures. They want the world to persuade the Iranian regime that the costs of its present policies would soon begin to mount, even before Teheran crosses the red line of possessing weapons-grade fissile material.

This new coalition of regional players is welcome, but it does present the Israeli leadership with significant dilemmas:

  • Should Israel, to help the Saudis pursue their new strategic orientation (and their quest to consolidate a "Sunni front"), swallow the troubling deal cut in Mecca between Fatah and Hamas, which to a large extent gives the latter the legitimacy it craves—while offering little by way of recognition of Israel, or an end to violence? The analytical community in Israel was almost unanimous in its verdict that the Mecca Accords were disappointing (and fragile). And yet the prime minister chose to offer a cryptic line—Israel "neither endorses nor rejects" the accords—and to await the implementation on the ground, and in particular, the new impetus in the talks about the release of Gil'ad Shalit.

  • How best to respond to the feverish Islamic campaign over the construction work on the ramp leading up to the Temple Mount, which is clearly outside the compound itself, and equally clearly, poses no threat to any Arab or Muslim interest or heritage? A good number of Israelis felt aggrieved, and to some extent exasperated, by this fresh outbreak of unjustified Muslim hysterics—but, nevertheless, it was equally clear that this was the wrong time to provide the Islamists with a propaganda tool of the first order.

In the latter case, it was the mayor of Jerusalem who offered an elegant way out by proposing new procedures for approval of the plans for the new bridge (and thus resolved, at least for now, an impasse between the key figures involved). But sadly, in this story as in many others in recent weeks, the ability of the Israeli government to make rational decisions was hampered by an increasingly blunt, bitter, and overt rift between Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Defense Minister Amir Peretz, who are barely on speaking terms. Amid the ever-increasing challenges, it is fast becoming obvious to all in the public domain that the crisis of leadership needs to be resolved as soon as possible.
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