The Day After Victory

Almost anything could happen were Israel to take the enormous gamble of launching an unprovoked war against Iran. Even assuming Israel were to win the instant military victory of Likudniks’ dreams, the day after that victory Israel would face a new situation replete with instability. How the new dynamics provoking that instability might interact would spell the difference between survival and destruction.

One fundamental shift that is easily predictable is that the mostly disinterested attitude toward Israel of Iranians would be transformed into long-term hatred and fear. Although Iranian politicians currently find it useful to run a propaganda war against Israel to enable them to prance the regional political stage, Iranians have, even under the Islamic Republic, mostly viewed Israel as rather removed from their core concerns: Saddam’s Iraq, the Sunni fundamentalism of the Taliban, regional Kurdish political activism, Baluchi instability along the Iranian-Pakistani border, and of course the expanding ring of U.S. military bases surrounding them. Beyond attracting desired attention to Iran’s pretensions (logical pretensions over the long run, considering its size) to regional preeminence, tension with Israel is most accurately viewed as a leadership tool for regime consolidation (a temptation hardly unknown to Netanyahu, who has played this card throughout his career). It is the extreme nature of Iranian rhetoric (in other words, the eagerness with which Tehran politicians played the game) plus the equally extreme nature of the super-sensitive Israeli response that has transformed this convenient little self-serving political game into what increasingly appears to be a deadly serious game of chicken: the testosterone is flowing.

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Long War
Israeli Defense Ministry Analyst’s View
He [Dr. Moshe Vered] rules out ideas that a quick missile war would put an end to a conflict because neither side would score a “knock-out,” and Iran does not have the capability of successfully attacking Israel with hundreds of long-range missiles.
He predicts it is more likely that if Israel initiates a pre-emptive strike, Iran will play the role of the victim and let the international community condemn Israel. At the same time, Tehran would secretly ferry troops into Syria and Lebanon, possibly through Shi’ite communities in Iraq and with the silent approval of Turkey.
The next stage in the war would be massive rocket attacks by Hamas from the south and Hizbullah from the north. Israeli military intelligence officials estimate that both terrorist organizations possess advanced missiles far beyond what were used in the 34-day-old Second Lebanon War in 2006.
With long-range weapons that could be fired from deep in Lebanon, Israel would be forced into capturing most of the country, and face a deadly and costly guerilla war. At the same time, a massive military threat from Syrian territory to the Golan Heights would require large numbers of reservists to defend the region. [Israel National News.]
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However, the testosterone is flowing mostly among members of the elite with careers at stake. The most easily predictable transformation that would result from an Israeli attack is that the Iranian people would become committed enemies of Israel for the first time…and surely remain so for at least a generation. This would fundamentally alter Israel’s long-term strategic calculus, to the point that it is hard to see how Israel could avoid permanent weakening of its security without shifts in domestic policy so revolutionary that they would erase the whole Zionist enterprise and turn Israel into a secular, bi-ethnic “Lesser Israel”.

Looking out over a somewhat shorter time frame, the question is how this highly probable transformation of Iranian society into a genuine opponent of Israel and one searching actively for revenge would interact with other dynamics that an Israeli attack would set in motion. One such dynamic would play out inside of Iraq, where, conveniently for Iran, government is already in the hands of the Shi’a. Shi’a, like every other social group, of course entertain a range of political opinions and tend, all else being equal, to prefer independence to subordination. This range of opinion is likely to shift under the impact of a groundswell of pro-Iranian opinion that can be expected to weaken those Shi’i politicians tempted to cooperate with Big Oil and Washington while strengthening those politicians comfortable working with Iran. Given an Israeli attack on Iran, in other words, everything else will not be equal. Who, in Iraq, is more likely to benefit in career terms from such a shift than the already powerful Moqtada al Sadr, perhaps the most articulate voice in opposition to the U.S.?

A year or two after an attack on Iran, Israel should anticipate the strong possibility that al Sadr would be ruling Iraq with an Iraqi-Iranian alliance in place that would dwarf the Iranian relationship with Syria. Saudis would be troubled by the rise of a militantly destabilizing Shi’i entente but at the same time have trouble opposing the unambiguous victims of Israeli aggression, thus weakening their efforts to oppose such a rise in Iranian influence.

A reenforcing loop of mutual encouragement toward increasingly extreme behavior between Iraqis and Iranians should come as no surprise. This development would shove Israel’s security predicament to a new level. Israel began with domestic Palestinians as the enemy, then added Iraq in the middle distance, and after the removal of Iraq as an enemy as the (surely intended) result of the U.S. invasion now considers distant Iran its main enemy. Each selection of a new prime adversary entailed not only greater distance but tackling a vastly stronger opponent, but an Israeli attack would do something unique: it would very possibly unify Iran and Iraq in an anti-Israeli posture.

If that were not enough, this would occur in the context of four other developments that are likely to interact significantly with the rise of a united Shi’i opposition:

  • the domestic preeminence in Lebanon of Hezbollah;
  • Arab Spring;
  • the Islamic bomb sitting in a Pakistan estranged from the U.S. by Washington’s hardline posture;
  • and a good supply of Sunni radicals looking desperately for a way to regain prominence.

While one may smirk that it would be impossible to predict anything, that is really not true. For starters, one can safely predict the occurrence of an unholy mess filled with violence. Many, many chickens would return to Israel to roost. It is not easy to imagine scenarios leading to electoral victory in an Arab country after an Israeli attack by Arab politicians counseling friendship toward Israel. Of course, Iran might make the mistake of striking out against Saudi Arabia, but baring a major Iranian error, Iran seems likely to enjoy sympathy that will lead to the regional rise of politicians who either are genuinely militant or feel they must adopt a militant position to win elections.

Add to this situation the likely situation in Israel, where an aggressive garrison state with a highly influential illegal settler faction eager to retain its ill-gotten gains now genuinely sees that “everyone is against us.” Settler terrorism to further cleanse the native population from desired areas will provoke desperate Palestinian self-defense, open the door to unemployed regional al-Qua’ida types, and push Tel Aviv further down the slippery slope of mindless reliance on force. Post-war hubris can be expected to make Israel a provocative, not conciliatory neighbor, further exacerbating whatever militant tendencies arise in Muslim societies as a direct consequence of an Israeli attack.

Thus, an Israeli attack on Iran that works can be expected to provoke rather than eliminate security concerns, in a political if not military firestorm of mutually reinforcing feedback loops in Iran, in Shi’i areas, and region-wide. Each dynamic would not only individually intensify the strategic threat to Israel but inhibit the resolution of the other threats. In other words, the reality would be far worse for Israel than a laundry list of threats would indicate. Iranian regime militancy will intensify Iranian popular militancy while both intensify Iraqi militancy. All three will intensify Palestinian militancy (compromise now probably utterly discredited). Israeli hubris will further exacerbate all the rest. Even an overwhelming Israeli military success will leave Israel facing a strategic situation both severely impaired and engulfed in a vicious cycle of rising threat.
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Analytic Rigor

Several more analytically rigorous approaches to thinking about the above-addressed question of how the situation after a militarily successful Israeli attack on Iran might play out exist, including conducting a scenario analysis, drawing causal loop diagrams, building a system dynamics model, thinking through the implications from the perspective of complexity theory, and game theory. A game theoretic analysis could start with the simple question, “Was Israel’s attack successful?” Here, we are assuming it was. Then, things get complicated fast, e.g., who makes the next move? Is it realistic to imagine that at the moment of victory Tel Aviv would immediately take the initiative by implementing some new policy? If so, options could be categorized into aggressive or conciliatory policies. If aggressive, a selected array of other actors have a turn, etc. Drawn in a tree structure, this approach organizes thinking about the exponential rise in possible outcomes, with the critical deficiency that it obscures interactions among the various underlying dynamics. Whatever the next step, it should now be clear that the article represents only the tip of the analytical iceberg facing Israeli national security strategists trying to assess the utility of going to war.

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