Writing for the Council on Foreign Relation’s Center for Preventive Action, Steven Simon sets out to “assesses the likelihood of an Israeli strike against Iran despite U.S. objections, the implications for the United States should it take place, the policy options available to reduce the chances of its occurrence, and the measures that could be taken to mitigate the potentially negative consequences.”
The likely method of attack and potential complications: Simon finds Israel is capable of unilaterally carrying out accurate, deeply penetrating attacks on up to three of Iran’s nuclear-related sites. Above ground uranium conversion facilities could be heavily damaged or completely destroyed, and underground shelters such as Natanz could be damaged or even collapsed. However, the air attack would entail high risks: all three plausible routes to Iran would require Israeli planes to invade the airspace of hostile or ambivalent regimes, raising sensitive diplomatic and potentially even military complications. Moreover, because the targets lay at the outermost range of Israeli aircraft, refueling would be complicated. Lastly, Israel might worry about the release of uranium into the environment and ensuing public health concerns.
The likelihood of an Israeli attack: Simon judges that the likelihood of an Israeli attack depends on several factors: the progress of the Iranian program, Israeli judgments of the United States’ and the international community’s resolve to block the program, the amount of time it judges the attacks would buy, whether Israeli believes there are further clandestine aspects to the Iranian program, their judgment of the effect of a strike on their relationship with the United States, Iranian rhetoric, developments in Israel’s overflight options, and the availability of more accurate targeting intelligence. Simon thinks that as these factors vary, the likelihood of an Israeli strike will as well. If the Six Day War in 1967 and the 1981 attack on the Osirak reactor are a guide, Israel is more likely to attack if it believes that Washington is disengaged from the negotiation and containment process.
Potential consequences for U.S. interests: Simon thinks an Israeli attack, even if successful, would create immediate risks for U.S. interests: likely embroilment in any Iranian retaliation and potential stretching of U.S. military capabilities in the region, a temporary but violent oil price spike, particularly if Iran attempts to block the Straight of Hormuz, a thaw in U.S. relations with the Muslim world, particularly if America is viewed as complicit in the attacks, a rally around the flag effect in Iran making it easier for hard-line clerics to consolidate power, the guarantee of Iran eventually producing a nuclear weapon, delay of Israel-Palestinian negotiations, and potential security threats to Israel.
U.S. policy options to forestall an attack: Simon thinks that in order to forestall an Israeli attack, the White House must avoid sending mixed signals, and instead evince firm opposition to a strike, make progress towards a verifiable and transparent agreement with Iran to forgo a nuclear weapons program, create a mission to Israel analogous to the “Eagleburger” Mission in 1991, urging Israeli restraint, and extend an unambiguous defense treaty with Israel to help deter Iran.
U.S. policy options to mitigate or manage a crisis: If an attack does occur, Simon believes it essential that the United States create a plan to manage and minimize the crisis. Included in such a plan would be working with basing countries such as Qatar and the United Arab Emirates on potential responses, increasing air defenses and force protection in the region, discussing potential Iranian retaliation with the Iraqi government, requesting increased oil production from nearby countries and ensuring the sufficiency of the U.S. Strategic Petroleum Reserve, increasing readiness in countries containing Hezbollah or Iranian Revolutionary Guard contingents, and providing Israel with additional ballistic missile defense capabilities.