In the past few months, a plethora of studies, reports, and simulations have attempted to furnish us an answer to that ever-elusive “what if” question, imagining how a war between the two countries would play out. One salient example, published last month by two researchers at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, Anthony H. Cordesman and Abdullah Toukan, suggests that Israel may end up deploying tactical nuclear weapons capable of penetrating Iran’s heavily fortified underground bunkers, which are mostly immune to conventional bombs. Another simulation, held last December at the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at The Brookings Institution, envisages a regional war flaring up that could suck in U.S. allies in the region, starting with Saudi Arabia. If that’s not enough, a policy memorandum by Steven Simon at the Council on Foreign Relations predicts that the United States itself “would probably become embroiled militarily” in any future Israel-Iran confrontation.
While each study adds its own twist to the plot, they are mostly all in agreement on the basic narrative that would follow any preemptive Israeli strike on Iranian nuclear facilities: Iran would initially retaliate by lobbing ballistic missiles at Israel, while Tehran’s proxies Hezbollah and Hamas would bear most of the burden by launching corresponding rocket attacks from Gaza and Lebanon. Most predictions also include some Iranian attempt to wage economic warfare by sealing off the Strait of Hormuz to stop the flow of oil. The common denominator that laces the various scenarios together is the belief in a relatively short confrontation. It is in light of this conventionally shared assessment that yet another recent study, which has not been translated into English but is receiving a good deal of attention in Israeli policymaking circles, manages to stand out.
“The Length of a Future War between Iran and Israel and the Conditions for its Conclusion,” is the title of a paper published several months ago by the Israeli Physicist Moshe Vered of the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies at Bar-Ilan University. The study not only challenges the widespread notion of a short war but seeks to overturn it: “The length of the war would have to be measured in years, not weeks or months,” Vered concludes.
Vered opens his paper by quoting from a conversation that took place in the Japanese Imperial Council a short time before the Pearl Harbor attacks, during which the Japanese military brass ensured the emperor that a war with the United States would be over “within three months.” Although Vered’s own primary intention is to alert Israeli policymakers of the need to get the public “mentally prepared” for the challenges of prolonged military confrontation—something Israelis have never really had to experience—the more profound implications of his study have to do with the fact that the consequences of human actions are unknowable and are often much worse than we imagine.
Vered is not alone in making such dire predictions. Ali Larijani, chairman of the Iranian Parliament, and formerly a member of the national security coterie that dictates nuclear policy, recently warned that the Iranian response to an Israeli attack would be “far beyond the imagination of the Zionist enemy and would be a nightmare.” Vered takes Iranian threats seriously and translates them into military terms. He suggests that an Iranian retaliation may include boots on the ground—an Iranian expeditionary force coming through Lebanon or Syria in order to link up with Hezbollah and buttress Syrian forces. This brazen move, he suggests, would aim at impeding a likely Israeli attempt to reconquer southern Lebanon in response to Hezbollah rocket fire. But Vered also raises the possibility that Iranian Revolutionary Guard units stationed in Eritrea might prey on Israeli shipping in the Red Sea while Iranian intelligence instigates a global terror crusade against Israeli and Jewish targets. Add to that, finally, an Iranian cyber-blitz meant to curtail Israel’s electronic advantage. As daunting as it sounds, Vered concludes that such an elaborate response “would not burden Iran in a manner that it cannot handle, while inflicting upon Israel costly and continuous damage.”
Vered’s argument is grounded in what he sees as the uncompromising nature of the fanatically religious Iranian regime, in that regime’s mostly irrational behavior during the Iran-Iraq war, and in a compilation of supporting statistical and theoretical models that analyzed the duration of past wars.
The primary obstacle to ending any military confrontation with Iran, Vered says, is located in the extremist version of Iran’s Shiite Islam. “In Iranian eyes, the mere existence of Israel is a dire wrong that must be put right in order to achieve eternal redemption” he writes. “Such an ideology compels to fight, and if need be to sacrifice, so that the injustices that had befallen upon Islam can be corrected.” It is this uncompromising nature of the Iranian brand of Islam that would enable the regime to disregard realpolitik calculations that would naturally serve to shorten the war and replace them instead with utopian considerations. (Such reasoning has long been a concern for Iranian scholars, among them the famed Islamic historian Bernard Lewis, who has repeatedly sounded warnings against an incipient Iranian brand of Shiite apocalypticism).
Since the Iranians would most likely consider any Israeli strike to be the harbinger of a colossal struggle of biblical proportions between “good” and “evil,” it’s not surprising that in the minds of the Iranian leadership such a confrontation would quickly transform into an all-or-nothing engagement to which there could only be one acceptable outcome: the destruction of Israel.
“The Iranian animosity towards Israel is ideological and religious, and is deeply rooted in Israel’s sins against Islam,” Vered concludes. “In the Shiite-Khomeini world view, justice could therefore only be achieved by the purgation of these very sins through the annihilation of Israel and the return of its lands and government to Muslim hands, a condition that leaves no room for compromise.”
Despite such formidable ideological incentives to fight to the very end, Vered identifies one single circumstance that would justify an Iranian suspension of hostilities: an existential threat to the regime. He has good reasons to think so: The eight deadly years of the Iran-Iraq war, which lasted from 1980 to 1988, supply his argument with some solid empirical foundations.
While the Iraqi aggressors showed a consistent inclination to accept mediation in the hope of arranging a ceasefire, Vered points out that the Iranians time and again obstinately refused such efforts. Having quickly turned the tide of war and taken the offensive, Tehran repeatedly conditioned any cessation of fighting upon the removal of Saddam Hussein from power and other unrealistic demands. Needless to say, the pursuit of such unattainable goals did not deter the regime from sacrificing hundreds of thousands of its own soldiers on the battlefield. But in 1988, after the pendulum on the battlefield had swung once more in Baghdad’s favor, an increasingly nervous Iranian regime, sensing the imminent collapse of its army and its withering public support, finally “succumbed to pragmatism,” in Vered’s words, and accepted mediation efforts to end the war. “Half a million deaths, an additional million injured, two million refugees and trillions of dollars in estimated economic loss were not enough to convince Iran to halt what was perceived as a just though useless war in her own eyes,” Vered explains. “Only the palpable fear from the revolutionary regime’s collapse forced her to accept a cease fire.”
If eight years of debilitating conflict with Iraq could not induce the ayatollahs to put down their arms, asks Vered, what could Israel do to Iran (short of annihilation) that would elicit a different result? Not much. With the exception of introducing nuclear weapons into the confrontation—something that Israeli leaders have historically vowed never to do—Vered posits that even targeted assassinations of its leadership, the infliction of considerable structural damage to oil facilities, and international diplomatic pressure would probably not succeed in convincing Iran to cease hostilities.
Vered’s conclusions are as compelling as they are disturbing, though they also remain questionable for a number of reasons. First, the verdict is still out regarding the place of ideology in Iran’s foreign policy. Given that many still consider President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s fiery anti-Israel rhetoric as an instrument with which to score internal political points, it’s unclear whether the ayatollahs who actually frame Iran’s national security policy share his views. The U.S. Administration has continued to hold steadfast to its view that Tehran is indeed a rational actor, which may explain why the White House continues to invest so much diplomatic currency in pushing for rapprochement.
Noticeably absent from Vered’s otherwise meticulous study is a consideration of the potential influence of Iranian opposition forces during a future war. Although an Israeli strike would most likely spark an initial rally around the Iranian government, any prolonged conflict could quickly erode that primarily superficial layer of solidarity and reignite the animosities that remain latent in Iranian society since last June’s contentious elections, which were followed by months of protest that shook the regime.
Vered may also be misreading the nature of the Iran-Syria connection. If Iran were to attempt to transfer forces through Syria into Lebanon, the move would most certainly justify a harsh Israeli retaliatory strike on those troops. Any sizable Iranian infantry force the type of which Vered envisions would therefore very likely be neutralized by Israeli firepower while still in Syrian territory and before ever having the chance to reach the front (as was the case with the Iraqi expeditionary force in the 1973 war). Furthermore, the assumption that the Syrians would allow such a force to enter their borders in the first place remains highly tenuous. If the Iranian leadership is indeed irrational, as Vered suggests, then Bashar Assad’s regime in Damascus is its perfect binary opposite. Having long ago succeeded in translating Machiavelli’s political utilitarianism into an everyday routine, it is highly unlikely that the fervently secular (and mainly Sunni) Assad regime would put its life on the line for a fundamentalist Shiite agenda.
Just as the Japanese could not contemplate the four deadly years of war awaiting them, it would serve Israeli policymakers to remember that once you pull the trigger, there is no telling if, how, or when you will ever be able to let it go. “Every war is ironic, because every war is worse than expected,” observed Paul Fussell in his masterpiece The Great War and Modern Memory.
One lesson we can therefore draw from this latest run of war games is that the continuously evolving nature of modern warfare guarantees that we cannot and will not be able to really imagine the devastating consequences of a future Israel-Iran war. In an age of preemptive warfare, it may very well be that man’s inability to know the future is the most important lesson of them all.
Yoav Fromer is a New York-based journalist and a former columnist for Maariv.
Yoav Fromer teaches politics and history at Tel Aviv University.
Yoav Fromer teaches politics and history at Tel Aviv University.