The U.S. and Israel have very different answers to a key issue: how Iran would respond to an attack on its nuclear facilities. Jeffrey Goldberg states that Israeli leaders seem positive that an attack by Israel on Iran's nuclear weapons facilities would not spark a regional war, but that Iran would mute its response to avoid a conflict with the U.S., or perhaps even cover up the attack just as Syria covered up a successful attack on a nuclear facility several years ago. He writes:
One conclusion key officials have reached is that a strike on six or eight Iranian facilities will not lead, as is generally assumed, to all-out war. This argument holds that the Iranians might choose to cover up an attack, in the manner of the Syrian government when its nuclear facility was destroyed by the Israeli air force in 2007. An Israeli strike wouldn’t focus on densely populated cities, so the Iranian government might be able to control, to some degree, the flow of information about it.As Goldberg notes, however, the U.S. military has wargamed this scenario and believes that an attack by Israel will cause a regional war.
Some Israeli officials believe that Iran’s leaders might choose to play down the insult of a raid and launch a handful of rockets at Tel Aviv as an angry gesture, rather than declare all-out war. I’m not endorsing this view, but I was struck by its optimism. (A war game held by the U.S. military this month came to the opposite conclusion, according to the New York Times: A strike would likely lead to a wider war that could include the U.S.)
Another theory making the rounds was that Obama has so deeply internalized the argument that Israel has the sovereign right to defend itself against a threat to its existence that an Israeli attack, even one launched against U.S. wishes, wouldn’t anger him. In this scenario, Obama would move immediately to help buttress Israel’s defenses against an Iranian counterstrike.
Some Israeli security officials also believe that Iran won’t target American ships or installations in the Middle East in retaliation for a strike, as many American officials fear, because the leadership in Tehran understands that American retaliation for an Iranian attack could be so severe as to threaten the regime itself.
But the game has raised fears among top American planners that it may be impossible to preclude American involvement in any escalating confrontation with Iran, the officials said. In the debate among policy makers over the consequences of any Israeli attack, that reaction may give stronger voice to those in the White House, Pentagon and intelligence community who have warned that a strike could prove perilous for the United States.
The results of the war game were particularly troubling to Gen. James N. Mattis, who commands all American forces in the Middle East, Persian Gulf and Southwest Asia, according to officials who either participated in the Central Command exercise or who were briefed on the results and spoke on condition of anonymity because of its classified nature. When the exercise had concluded earlier this month, according to the officials, General Mattis told aides that an Israeli first strike would be likely to have dire consequences across the region and for United States forces there.
The two-week war game, called Internal Look, played out a narrative in which the United States found it was pulled into the conflict after Iranian missiles struck a Navy warship in the Persian Gulf, killing about 200 Americans, according to officials with knowledge of the exercise. The United States then retaliated by carrying out its own strikes on Iranian nuclear facilities.