Kobi Richter is an unusual interviewee for this series on the merits of attacking Iran. For decades this successful businessman (Orbotech, Medinol) has not been part of the active security establishment in Israel, or a government employee. He does not serve in the army and is not a scholar at one of the think-tanks that focus on national security.
But Richter is a highly intelligent and articulate person who is skilled at analyzing complex situations. In the past he also made a significant contribution to Israel’s air and strategic power.
The former intercept pilot understands a thing or two about deterrence and the balance of terror, and the way in which Israel has managed to stabilize a tenuous regional system. And in recent months, Richter has been worried. Very worried. Although an optimistic person at heart who believes in Israel’s strength and abilities, he feels that the country is now facing an existential threat.
When I sit across from him in the living room of his home, Richter proceeds to give me a lecture. “Up until a year ago I kept quiet,” he says. “I was sure that [Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu and [Defense Minister Ehud] Barak were playing a clever game designed to get the Western superpowers thinking. I believed that they understood that the only way to deal with Iran trying to go nuclear was through harsh international sanctions. I figured that they were using the threat of an imminent Israeli military action to get these sanctions enhanced. I thought they were playing the game well and achieving decent results.
“But in the past months,” he continues, “I’m hearing worried and worrying voices from people close to the decision-making circle. I see more and more signs indicating that it’s possible the prime minister and defense minister genuinely intend to attack the Iranian nuclear facilities. An Israeli attack on the nuclear compounds in Iran would be an act of madness. An Israeli attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities would elicit an unreasonable threat to Israel’s existence, a threat that the country might not be able to withstand. This is why I agreed to talk with you today. I want to issue a warning here against what I see as an utterly irrational move that could endanger Israel’s very survival.”
The Begin doctrine
Full disclosure: Kobi Richter is a friend. But now I tell him that he’s talking nonsense. The diplomatic and economic sanctions against Iran don’t seem to have worked. America apparently is not going to attack Iran’s nuclear facilities. In a year, it could be too late. Time is running out, we’re backed into a corner. And if the choice is between an Iranian bomb and bombing their nuclear facilities before that bomb exists, then the latter option is preferable.
“The choice is not between their bomb and us bombing them,” Richter replies. “The choice is between an Iranian bomb with no Israeli strike at date X, or an Iranian bomb after an Israeli strike at date X + 3. I’m not certain whether the Begin doctrine [that no “enemy” be allowed to build weapons of mass destruction] was correct to begin with. I also thought in 1981 that the strike on the nuclear reactor in Iraq was a mistake. It was an act that undermined stability. But today it is absolutely clear that the Begin doctrine is no longer applicable. Israel cannot just go and attack any Middle Eastern enemy state that is readying to go nuclear.
“An attack in Iran would also be a lot more complicated than the attack in Iraq was,” he adds. “The distance is much greater, the number of targets is much greater, the targets are much better defended and the element of surprise is gone. So, while the odds of success for the attack on Osirak were high, the odds of success for an attack on the Iranian nuclear facilities are much lower. But even if the strike is successful from an operational standpoint, the best result it might give us is setting back Iran’s nuclear program by three or four years.
“The gain from this delay would be dwarfed by the enormous cost of going ahead with a strike. For what a strike on Iran will do is give the Iranians the determination, as well as the justification, to accelerate their nuclear program. Perhaps we’ll delay by a little the time when they obtain their first bomb, but we apparently won’t delay at all the time when they have their first 50 bombs. But meanwhile, in the wake of our wild action, the risk that the Iranians will make use of one of those 50 bombs against us will increase sharply, and the uncertainty that this risk entails will increase a hundredfold.
“So the end result will be that, precisely because we attack Iran, the danger of an Iranian nuclear bomb falling in Gush Dan sooner or later will have gone up dramatically. And then Netanyahu’s attempt to avert a new Holocaust will cause Israel to suffer an economic and diplomatic catastrophe that will threaten its long-term survival.”
An economic catastrophe?, I ask. “If we attack Iran, and if as a result the danger of an Iranian nuclear attack on Israel goes up significantly,” Richter says, “we will have to produce an extremely expensive defense system. Israel will not be able to cope with such a cost. It will have to choose between living with a threat that cannot be contained and a budget expenditure that will endanger its economic prosperity.”
I’m trying to understand, I say to Richter. So far you’ve given me three different arguments against attacking. You’ve told me that the operational risk is high, that the risk of a nuclear counterattack will increase and that defending the country against a nuclear counterattack will put Israel into an economic tailspin. Interesting, almost convincing, but not quite.
“I haven’t gotten to the fourth argument yet,” says the high-tech entrepreneur seated in his armchair, his voice filling the room. “An Israeli attack on Iran will cause Israel to be perceived as an unexpected provocateur that − once again − attacked another country one day out of the clear blue. No one will understand the Holocaust syndrome that makes us see Iran as a combination of the Greeks, the Romans and the Nazis. This will have a dual impact on the international community. On the one hand, it will stop acting aggressively against Iran’s nuclear efforts. And on the other, it will stop viewing us as a sane and enlightened nation whose survival it is morally committed to forever defend.
“But the attack will have just as serious an effect on the regional situation,” Richter notes. “The three Sunni superpowers − Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Egypt − which today are our covert and undeclared allies in the struggle against Iran, will not be able to ignore the brutal action carried out by the ‘infidels.’ Like it or not, they will be pushed into Islamic solidarity with Iran, against us. This will have especially grave significance when Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Egypt eventually become nuclear powers. Instead of there being in the Middle East an array of regional powers holding back a nuclear Iran, there will be an array of powers that Israel will have to view as a threat to it. Iran alone, we may be capable of deterring. But facing four Muslim nuclear powers whose missiles could all be aimed at us will be very hard to do.”
So then, I say to Richter, basically you’re saying that nuclearization is coming. Iran will go nuclear and the Middle East will go nuclear. What absolutely mustn’t happen is for this nuclearization to occur in wake of an Israeli attack. All the Israeli attack will do is make the nuclear Middle East a lot more dangerous for Israel than it would have been without it?
“That’s exactly what I’m saying,” Richter replies with concern. “Posing the question as bomb versus bombing is misleading. The choice is between nuclearization that can be contained and nuclearization that cannot be contained. Following an Israeli strike, the nuclear Middle East will be unstable. Israel will not be able to handle it. And since it will also become a detested pariah state, it will not enjoy Western support, its economy will be burdened with an impossible defense budget and it will have great trouble sustaining this situation for long. The chances of its surviving the coming decades will be dramatically reduced.”
And Netanyahu and Barak aren’t able to make this simple analysis? They’re not aware of all the terrible potential scenarios that you describe? “The prime minister and defense minister might be motivated by irrational considerations, and that’s what worries me. I do not share this feeling of a looming Holocaust that is implied by some of their statements, and mainly I am convinced that the proposed attack will only increase the risk rather than lessen it.
“I think that the assumption that is implicit in such a plan − that Israel will be able to draw the United States into attacking Iran after Israel goes first − is an extremely dangerous gamble. A gamble on our very survival. What disturbs me in particular about this kind of distorted outlook is its potential connection to operational considerations and operational plans.
“I think that anyone who thinks that he’ll have more than one day to attack Iran is not responsible,” he says. “I think that anyone who assumes that the United States will be obligated to join in an Israeli attack on Iran is wrong and being misleading. There are assumptions that responsible statesmen do not make and there are actions that sane countries do not take. An Israeli strike on Iran would be an untenable gamble. If Netanyahu and Barak do decide to take this dreadful gamble, they will be endangering Israel’s very survival.”
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