Israel: Iran is Not Iraq of 1981


Stephen Walt recently authored a post on Foreign Policy pointing out why Amos Yadlin’s New York Times op-ed on bombing Iran was rife with inaccuracy. Walt unfortunately didn’t have the space to point out the many other errors to be found in the argument. Luckily, I do.

Yadlin’s piece received much attention, as it should have seeing as how he is the former chief of Israeli Military Intelligence. He describes that as a former fighter pilot tasked with bombing the Iraqi Osirak nuclear reactor in 1981, his team was faced with the same questions many in the policy community ask today about a bombing campaign against Iran: fuel, retaliation, limited success, and hurting Israel’s relationship with the U.S.

Yadlin goes on to say that the U.S. was amazed at the success of Israel’s strike, that they were pinpoint accurate, maximized fuel, and prepared well in advance. This is all fantastic, but the problem is that Yadlin is comparing Iraq’s nuclear program with that of Iran’s, which simply can’t be done.

What Yadlin leaves out and Walt doesn’t mention is that Iraq’s main nuclear site at the time was Osirak. Iran, by contrast, has Fordow, Natanz, Parchin, Bonab, Ramsar, Isfahan, Bushehr, and many other lesser-known sites, some of which may have not yet been found. Additionally, Yadlin doesn’t acknowledge that many of these sites are nearly twice the distance from Israel that Osirak was, necessitating a refuel and further complications.

Yadlin admits that a successful attack may only postpone Iran’s nuclear program for a few years, but he provides a faulty end game after said strike occurs. In his view, a strike must be reinforced with, “tough sanctions, stricter international inspections and an embargo on the sale of nuclear components to Tehran." 

First, Iran is currently facing the toughest sanctions it ever has, with the full effects not yet realized. It would be hard to imagine a tougher sanctions program than is at work right now. Second, I am at a complete loss as to why Yadlin thinks that Iran would allow inspectors into its nuclear facilities after it had become the victim of an act of war. Third, Iran has a vast black market capability, not under the control of a sanctions regime, run by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard and is likely capable of getting what it needs for its nuclear program. 

One of the favorite arguments amongst pro-strike policy members is that if Iran won’t use a nuclear weapon itself, it may pass one on to its regional affiliate, Hezbollah. Yadlin makes clear that he feels the same way, but just like the rest of those in his camp, he fails to point out that just as the U.S. would be seen as complicit if Israel strikes Iran, Iran will be seen as complicit if Hezbollah detonates a nuclear device. This wouldn’t bode well for a regime that has done everything it can to cling to power.

Although I can respect Yadlin’s military service, I cannot respect his disregard for factual history or his strategic lack of account for basic counterpoints to a beaten-to-death argument for war.

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