The writer is addressing the question, “If necessary, should the United States give Israel the OK to conduct a pre-emptive strike against Iranian missile sites?”
The ballistic missile test Iran conducted in late January was the first to occur during the presidency of Donald Trump but it certainly wasn’t the first to take place since the landmark nuclear deal of 2015.
And although Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif rebuffed accusations that the launch was a violation of the deal, Israeli leaders have good reason to not take Zarif at his word.
All they have to do is consider the words of other Iranian national figures, such as former President Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, who died earlier this year.
While Western officials eulogized him as a force for moderation, Israeli leaders remember him for his December 2001 boast that Iran could annihilate Israel with a single nuclear bomb.
What he did not say then, but the International Atomic Energy Agency subsequently determined, was that Iran was at the time covertly experimenting with nuclear triggers and warhead design.
And Rafsanjani is far from being the only leader to have acknowledged Iran’s aim of producing nuclear weapons.
Ayatollah Mohammad Bagher Kharrazi, secretary general of the Iranian Hezbollah, said in April 2005, “We are able to produce atomic bombs and we will do that. … The United States is not more than a barking dog.”
A month later, Gholamreza Hassani, Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei’s representative to the West Azerbaijan province, said nuclear weapons were among Iran’s top goals. “An atom bomb … must be produced,” he said. “That is because the Quran has told Muslims to ‘get strong and amass all the forces at your disposal.’”
And while current Iranian President Hassan Rouhani is generally characterized by the press and Western diplomats as a moderate, it should be noted that in a 2005 university speech he outlined a strategy for lulling Americans into complacency with dialogue and then delivering a knockout blow.
Even if Rouhani and other Iranian leaders are today sincere in wanting to abide by the nuclear deal, it’s worth remembering that diplomats don’t control the country’s nuclear program; Iran’s Revolutionary Guard does, and neither the United States nor Israel has good insight into factional divisions among the Guard’s ranks. Consequently, neither the Pentagon nor the Israeli defense ministry knows whether the men controlling Iranian missiles wish death to America and Israel or not.
This brings us to Israel: Israelis do not want war. They know any pre-emptive strike on Iran would result in a severe retaliation. Even if Iran didn’t strike back directly, the Lebanese Hezbollah group could make use of the more than 100,000 missiles it has poised to rain down on Israeli towns and villages.
The nature of existential threats, however, is that they leave no choice. The clock is already counting down on the expiration of the nuclear deal.
The best option is constraining Iran’s programs rather than accepting the fiction that Iran spins its centrifuges and test-fires missiles merely because of pride or fear.
The writer is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute and a former Pentagon official who specializes in the Middle East.