In general, I think that a pre-emptive strike by Israel on Iran would bring little if any substantive benefit, and it is likely to produce disastrous consequences.
1. Israel would have to devote a large number of aircraft to such an operation, but it lacks the resources for a sustained air campaign at such a distance from its territory. Iran's nuclear facilities are distributed around the country, and underground in protected areas. Even with bunker-busting bombs it is not clear how effective such a strike would be.
2. Even if the strike were successful in inflicting significant damage on Iran's nuclear facilities, it would not destroy its programme. The published estimates that I have seen in the press from Israeli and American security analysts suggest that an effective air strike would set back Iran's efforts to achieve weapons-grade technology by 2-3 years.
3. A strike would very likely result in a large-scale Iranian retaliation against Israeli population centres, both directly with its own missles, and through its proxies in the area, Hamas and Hizbollah. Although Barak has attempted to downplay the effect of such a response, it could well cause a large number of casualties. Israel's current anti-missile defence system could not effectively protect against a large-scale attack. The former head of the Mossad, Meir Dagan, has made this point compellingly.
4. A strike would probably unite the Iranian population behind its current regime and effectively silence the opposition. It would also eliminate any remaining constraints on Iranian determination to acquire nuclear weapons and pursue a belligerent policy of projecting military and political power in the region.
5. The destabilizing effects of a strike in the Middle East (and beyond) would be daunting. The current re-alignment in the Arab world which is generating an emerging Sunni coalition that undermines Iran's effort to gain regional hegemony (particularly through Syria and Lebanon) could be upended. Such an attack might well project Iran into the role of the leading 'anti-imperialist' power in the area, displacing the Sunni coalition.
6. Netanyahu and his allies argue that containment of a nuclear-armed Iran is not possible because of the extreme, theologically motivated character of its regime. This regime certainly does pose a serious danger to Israel, and the region in general. But I have never seen a serious argument for the claim that a nuclear Iran could not be effectively restrained. Containment has been successfully applied to other nuclear armed extremist regimes which were/are not less intractable in their hostility to the West. Mao's China and North Korea are obvious examples. Pakistan is unstable and its government riddled with pro-Taliban elements. In none of these cases was a pre-emptive strike against the country's nuclear facilities (when they were under development) adopted, and to date they have all been successfully contained. These governments pose(d) major security threats to their neighbours, as well as to the West. What has deterred them from embarking on military adventures was the threat of effective retaliation which would render any such campaign suicidal. Both Israel and the United States wield an effective threat in the case of Iran. What reason do we have for thinking that the current leadership of Iran is impervious to this obvious fact? In fact, Iran has generally been cautious in its efforts to project power, avoiding direct military confrontations and working through proxies. Its government seems to be in no hurry to provoke a conflict that would endanger its own territory.
7. Netanyahu's use of Holocaust references to highlight the danger that Iran poses to Israel is deeply offensive. Israel has a superb military that is capable of defending its population, as it has demonstrated on numerous occasions. It has nuclear weapons, which provide an effective deterrent to threats from Iran. To compare Israel to the Jewish population of pre-war Europe, exposed and unable to defend itself against the Nazi genocide, is a perverse misrepresentation of the facts. It is also an insult to the entire history of nation-building that created the country, and it amounts to a denial of the success of this project. It is remarkable that Netanyahu is permitted to get away with such a cheap exercise in distortion by members of an electorate with any sense of pride in the accomplishments of their country.
8. All of the above arguments against a strike on Iran are well known to Israeli political and military leaders. Some have publicy voiced them. One wonders, then, why Netanyahu and Barak have been promoting the necessity of such an action. Three possible explanations come to mind. The first is that they are hoping to pressure the Unites States and other countries into imposing effective sanctions on Iran, and, should these fail to halt Iran's nuclear programme, to force the US into military action. This is the most charitable view, and one can only hope that it is correct. The second possibility is that Netanyahu and Barak are using the Iranian threat as a diversion from the social protest movement and widespread disaffection at home. While both politicians consistently demonstrate considerable cynicism, one must hope that they would not stoop to toying with a such a dangerous adventure in order to achieve domestic political gain. In any case, if they have taken this route, it does not seem to be particularly successful. Israeli public opinion polls regularly indicate that a majority of Israelis oppose a unilateral Israeli strike. Moreover, last year's social protest movement shows signs of starting up again. Finally, the third possibility is that Netanyahu and Barak may actually believe their own propaganda. This is the most disturbing option. It suggests that they are not listening to their own military and security experts, and they are prepared to embark on a foolish high-risk venture with little chance of success.
9. While I strongly believe that a pre-emptive strike against Iran is ill advised for the reasons given above, I should emphasize that I do see the Iranian regime as a very serious threat to Israel's security, and the stability of the region. It has clearly demonstrated its ambition for political and military dominance in the Middle East. It actively promotes terrorism abroad in the service of an odious ideology of religious authoritarianism that brutalizes its people at home. Those fools of the British pseudo-left who regularly portray Iran as a relatively benign power that poses no serious danger to anyone, while they hold lucrative positions at Press TV, are continuing the long and dishonourable tradition of apologetics and accommodationism that has stained their ranks for decades. It is imperative to give full weight to the threat that Iran represents. But it seems clear, at least to me, that the only viable way of coping with this threat is through effective containment. (Shalom Lappin, King's College, London.)