Despite the sabre-rattling, an attack on Iran is now unlikely

World View: If the Israelis wanted to destroy Iranian nuclear facilities, they have probably left it too late

Share

No sooner was Israel's bombardment of Gaza over than Israeli and US officials started to ratchet up the prospects of an Israeli air attack on Iran in the next few months.

This is scarcely surprising. The threat has served Tel Aviv and Washington well in the past because it enabled them to persuade the rest of the world to impose swingeing sanctions on Iran as the only alternative to war. Even so, claims that a final confrontation with Iran is only months away are looking a bit dog-eared, given that this must be one of the most frequently postponed wars in history.

Within hours of the ceasefire being announced, anonymous Israeli and American sources were claiming that the air strikes on Gaza were a dry run for an assault on Iran. Michael Oren, the Israeli ambassador in Washington, compared what happened in Gaza this month to the Cuban missile crisis in 1962. He said that "in the Cuban missile crisis, the US was not confronting Cuba, but rather the Soviet Union. In Operation Pillar of Defence [Israel's name for its Gaza operation] Israel was not confronting Gaza, but Iran."

This flatters the Iranians who, at best, are only a regional power and nowhere near a superpower like the old Soviet Union. And even as a regional power it is in retreat as its main ally in the Arab world, Syria, collapses into civil war. The backers of Hamas in Gaza these days are not Iran and Syria but a powerful array of Sunni states including Egypt, Qatar, Turkey, Tunisia and others.

Gaza itself is a defenceless slum jam-packed with 1.7 million people living in an area 25 miles long and six miles wide that is exactly the same size as Rutland, the smallest English county. For all the talk of its deadly missile arsenal, the ability of Hamas to hit anything with a rocket is very limited as is shown by the disparity between Palestinian and Israeli casualties.

Iran would be very different. It is almost 1,000 miles from Tel Aviv to Tehran. If the Israelis wanted to destroy Iranian nuclear or missile manufacturing facilities they have probably left it too late, even if such an operation was ever feasible. The Iranians have had a long time to hide whatever they want to conceal, or bury it in deep bunkers.

The Israelis could only do serious damage to Iran if the US air force joined it in a prolonged and wide-ranging assault similar to that the Americans carried out in Afghanistan in 2001 and Iraq in 2003. But this is unlikely to happen because the one thing American voters do not want is another war in the Middle East.

This is significant because the support of the US is all important to Israeli security. For all the talk of Israel acting unilaterally against Iran, this is not going to happen. Israel's resources are too small and its dependence on the US too great. Israeli voters do not like prime ministers who are on permanently bad terms with Washington, as Netanyahu found to his cost when he lost the general election in 1999.

In reality, the lessons of the latest Gaza conflict are the opposite of what the US and Israel claim. It was a more than usually cautious re-run of previous Israeli bombardments of Gaza and Lebanon over the last 20 years, usually at four-yearly intervals.

The political difficulties Israel had in carrying out even a quite minor operation like "Operation Pillar of Defence" against a puny enemy underlines the problems the country would face if it confronted Iran. There is another lesson to be learned from what has just happened in Gaza: for all his bellicose and defiant rhetoric, Netanyahu is a cautious political leader. He ended the latest crisis much more quickly than his predecessors as Prime Minister, Ehud Olmert, in 2006 and 2008, or Shimon Peres in 1996. He is not a gambler. This makes it unlikely that he would launch a risky venture such as attacking Iran.

Moreover, by showing that he is prepared to use military force on a small scale in Gaza, Netanyahu has made it easier to back away from his threats against Iran without being accused of weakness.

Another hopeful sign of the latest bombardment of Gaza is that Israel was a little more careful about who and what it blew up. Israeli reporters say that, although the Israeli army claimed publicly that "Cast Lead", the operation in 2008 when 1,400 people were killed, was a success, its generals recognised privately that it was a disaster. Israel was portrayed as a butcher, Hamas emerged the stronger.

Had Netanyahu and Ehud Barak, the Defence Minister, launched a ground offensive inflicting heavier civilian casualties, the bad publicity would have been even worse this time round. One difference between the bombardments of Gaza in 2008 and 2012 was that in the first there were very few foreign journalists there and the Israelis deliberately excluded them. This time round there was scarcely a foreign newspaper or television station that did not have a correspondent present.

Netanyahu has always been a master of threat inflation when it comes to frightening the Israeli voter or the rest of the world. Almost any opponent, however weak, can be demonised as a threat to Israel. It might be Iran, but for some of his ministers it might also be desperate and impoverished African immigrants trying to stay in Israel.

It is never been entirely clear to me whether the Israeli leadership takes the Iranian threat as seriously as it claims. Official Israeli hostility to Iran does not date from the time of the Iranian revolution in 1979 but from about 1992. Israel's understandable priority has always been to remain a close ally of the US. For decades this relationship was cemented by Israel being America's ally against Arab states permanently friendly to the Soviet Union. But with the fall of Communism a new foe was needed against which Israel and the US could unite. Suddenly Iran was being denounced by Israelis as an existential threat to themselves and everybody else.

Israel's threat of war against Iran has worked well in isolating Iran and winning support for effective sanctions. Actually going to war would be to abandon this leverage in return for uncertain gains in an open-ended conflict against, unlike Gaza, a serious enemy.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

BI Manager - £50,000

£49000 - £55000 per annum + competitive: Progressive Recruitment: My client is...

BI Project Manager - £48,000 - £54,000 - Midlands

£48000 - £54000 per annum + Benefits package: Progressive Recruitment: My clie...

VB.Net Developer

£35000 - £45000 per annum + competitive: Progressive Recruitment: If you're pa...

SAP Business Consultant (SD, MM and FICO), £55,000, Wakefield

£45000 - £55000 per annum + competitive: Progressive Recruitment: SAP Business...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

The law is too hard on sexting teenagers

Memphis Barker
 

Obama must speak out – Americans are worried no one is listening to them

David Usborne
Screwing your way to the top? Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth

Screwing your way to the top?

Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth, says Grace Dent
Will the young Britons fighting in Syria be allowed to return home and resume their lives?

Will Britons fighting in Syria be able to resume their lives?

Tony Blair's Terrorism Act 2006 has made it an offence to take part in military action abroad with a "political, ideological, religious or racial motive"
Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter, the wartime poster girl who became a feminist pin-up

Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter

The wartime poster girl became the ultimate American symbol of female empowerment
Climate change threatens to make the antarctic fur seal extinct

Take a good look while you can

How climate change could wipe out this seal
Should emergency hospital weddings be made easier for the terminally ill?

Should emergency hospital weddings be made easier?

Some couples are allowed emergency hospital weddings, others are denied the right. Kate Hilpern reports on the growing case for a compassionate cutting of the red tape
Man Booker Prize 2014 longlist: Crowdfunded novel nominated for first time

Crowdfunded novel nominated for Booker Prize

Paul Kingsnorth's 'The Wake' is in contention for the prestigious award
Vladimir Putin employs a full-time food taster to ensure his meals aren't poisoned

Vladimir Putin employs a full-time food taster

John Walsh salutes those brave souls who have, throughout history, put their knives on the line
Tour de France effect brings Hollywood blockbusters to Yorkshire

Tour de France effect brings Hollywood blockbusters to Yorkshire

A $25m thriller starring Sam Worthington to be made in God's Own Country
The 10 best pedicure products

Feet treat: 10 best pedicure products

Bags packed and all prepped for holidays, but feet in a state? Get them flip-flop-ready with our pick of the items for a DIY treatment
Noel Fielding's 'Luxury Comedy': A land of the outright bizarre

Noel Fielding's 'Luxury Comedy'

A land of the outright bizarre
What are the worst 'Word Crimes'?

What are the worst 'Word Crimes'?

‘Weird Al’ Yankovic's latest video is an ode to good grammar. But what do The Independent’s experts think he’s missed out?
Can Secret Cinema sell 80,000 'Back to the Future' tickets?

The worst kept secret in cinema

A cult movie event aims to immerse audiences of 80,000 in ‘Back to the Future’. But has it lost its magic?
Facebook: The new hatched, matched and dispatched

The new hatched, matched and dispatched

Family events used to be marked in the personal columns. But now Facebook has usurped the ‘Births, Deaths and Marriages’ announcements
Why do we have blood types?

Are you my type?

All of us have one but probably never wondered why. Yet even now, a century after blood types were discovered, it’s a matter of debate what they’re for
Honesty box hotels: You decide how much you pay

Honesty box hotels

Five hotels in Paris now allow guests to pay only what they think their stay was worth. It seems fraught with financial risk, but the honesty policy has its benefit