As Iran’s nuclear program continues apace, the debate in Israel and abroad has focused almost exclusively on the likelihood of an Israeli strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities. Little if anything has been said, at least in public, regarding the possibility that Iran might preempt a potential Israeli offensive.
The absence of this scenario in the public discourse is apparently related to a tacit assumption that Iran has no incentive to launch such an attack as long as its nuclear progress remains on track and uninterrupted. Moreover, a preemptive attack would trigger an all-out war and might even bring the U.S. into the mix.
However, an Iranian attack might be closer than it appears. In recent months, Israeli leaders have been issuing increasingly dire warnings of pending action in an apparent effort to convince Iran to curb its nuclear progress. The most recent of these threats came on July 18 when IDF Chief of Staff Aviv Kochavi stated, “The IDF continues to prepare vigorously for an attack on Iran. … Preparing a military option against the Iranian nuclear program is a moral obligation and a national security imperative.” He added that the military option is “at the center of preparations in the IDF and include a variety of operational plans, the allocation of many resources, the acquisition of appropriate weapons, intelligence and training.”
For Iran to ignore such threats would be irrational unless its leaders believe Israel is only posturing and will not dare attack. Tehran might also think that as long as Iran avoids crossing the nuclear threshold, an Israeli attack is unlikely. Finally, the Iranians might dismiss the Israeli warnings if they believe that, due to their elaborate passive and active defenses, their nuclear sites can withstand an Israeli attack.
Tehran could thus opt for a “second-strike posture,” choosing to absorb an Israeli offensive while fully expecting that its nuclear installations—and its sizable if well-hidden missile force—will survive intact. Iran could then justify devastating counter-attacks and even gain international support for them.
Yet if Iran adopts a worst-case scenario, which is common practice in intelligence assessments, Israel’s stern warnings might push it to embrace a first-strike recourse.
Moreover, the belief that Iran will forgo the preemptive option is based on the false belief that an attack on Israel would be launched from Iranian territory. This assumption completely ignores the role Iran’s faithful proxy, the Lebanese terrorist organization Hezbollah, plays in Tehran’s strategy.
Over the years, Iran combined its nuclear progress with building up Hezbollah’s long-range capabilities. Iran armed the terror organization with or financed the acquisition of tens of thousands of rockets and missiles; some with the range, payload and accuracy to hit key Israeli strategic targets, including the Dimona nuclear reactor in the south of the country. It also trained Hezbollah operatives in the use of the weapons systems it supplied.
By keeping these Israeli assets hostage, Iran sought to use Hezbollah as a stopgap strategic deterrent to block a possible Israeli preemptive strike on its nuclear facilities similar to the ones Israel carried out in Iraq in 1981 and Syria in 2007.
Still, it is entirely possible, perhaps even probable, that Tehran will change its deterrent policy and press Hezbollah to switch to preemption once it becomes convinced Israel is about to go on the offensive. Iran would want Hezbollah to degrade the IDF’s ability to launch an effective preemptive attack, so as to make an Israeli strike impractical.
This scenario could unfold even if the Iranians are decidedly wrong in terms of Hezbollah’s actual ability to defang the IDF. Whether or not it will happen rests primarily on Iran’s proven preference for operating through proxies coupled by new alarm over Israel’s recent threats and accelerated military preparations. Perhaps paradoxically, the lower Iran’s estimate of its own vulnerability, the higher its propensity to orchestrate a preemptive attack.
It would be, therefore, highly advisable for Israeli leaders to adopt Teddy Roosevelt’s old mantra of “speak softly and carry a big stick,” instead of their current adherence to its opposite.
Dr. Avigdor Haselkorn is a strategic analyst and the author of books, articles and op-eds on national security issues.