Columbia International Affairs Online: Working Papers

CIAO DATE: 04/2010

An Israeli Strike on Iran

Steven Simon

November 2009

Council on Foreign Relations


Successive Israeli governments have held that a nuclear weapons capability in the region, other than Israel’s own, would pose an intolerable threat to Israel’s survival as a state and society. Iran’s nuclear program—widely regarded as an effort to obtain a nuclear weapon, or put Tehran a “turn of a screw” away from it—has triggered serious concern in Israel. Within the coming year, the Israeli government could decide, much as it did twenty-eight years ago with respect to Iraq and two years ago with respect to Syria, to attack Iran’s nuclear installations in order to delay its acquisition of a weapons capability. While U.S. officials—including the president––have declared a nuclear armed Iran to be “unacceptable,” the administration has been clear in wanting to prevent such an outcome through peaceful diplomatic means. Without forswearing the eventual use of military force, senior U.S. officials have also indicated that a preventive strike on Iran by Israel would be “ill advised,” “very destabilizing,” and “likely very bad,” and thus not in the U.S. interest. These concerns have evidently been transmitted privately to the Israeli government. This contingency planning memo assesses the likelihood of an Israeli strike against Iran despite U.S. objections, the implications for the United States should it take place, the policy options available to reduce the chances of its occurrence, and the measures that could be taken to mitigate the potentially negative consequences.