Skip to main content

What if Israel bombs Iran?

By Gary Sick, Special to CNN
March 30, 2012 -- Updated 1247 GMT (2047 HKT)
Israelis demonstrate on Saturday in Tel Aviv against war with Iran.
Israelis demonstrate on Saturday in Tel Aviv against war with Iran. "Bibi" is Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Gary Sick: If Israel bombed Iran nuclear sites, most of the world would believe U.S. was involved
  • Sick: Europe would support a U.N. resolution condemning it and likely end Iran sanctions
  • Iran would be justified in having nukes, he says; U.S. would likely enter another Mideast war
  • Fragile world economies would collapse under skyrocketing oil and gas prices, he writes

Editor's note: Gary Sick served on the National Security Council staff under Presidents Ford, Carter and Reagan, and was the principal White House aide for Iran during the Iranian Revolution and the hostage crisis. Sick is a senior research scholar and adjunct professor of international affairs at Columbia University, a member of the board of Human Rights Watch in New York, and founding chair of its advisory committee on the Middle East and North Africa.

(CNN) -- Imagine that you wake up tomorrow morning and discover that during the night. Israeli planes had conducted a bombing raid on Iran. How would your world have changed?

Apart from the sensational headlines and breathless reports, the initial change might not be very significant. You would probably want to know whether the United States approved or assisted in the attack on Iran's nuclear sites. In fact, it doesn't really matter. Just about everyone in the world will assume that the U.S. was complicit, regardless of what Washington says.

Let's assume that Israel notified the Obama administration about the same time the planes were taking off, if only to ensure that U.S. aircraft and missiles in the Persian Gulf region would not interfere with the bombers and refueling aircraft as they passed over one or more Arab countries. But for Iran and just about everyone else, the fact that most of the Israeli aircraft and bombs were made in the U.S. would be all they needed to know.

On that first morning, the U.N. Security Council would convene in emergency session to consider a resolution denouncing the Israeli raid. If the United States vetoed the resolution, that would remove any lingering doubt of U.S. complicity.

Perhaps more significant, however, would be European support of the resolution. This would signal the beginning of the collapse of the sanctions coalition against Iran that had been so laboriously assembled over the past several years. Both the Europeans and the Americans had operated on the tacit belief that crippling sanctions were an alternative to war. With the outbreak of war, that assumption would no longer be valid.

What would Iran do? Everyone would be poised for a massive military response. They might be surprised.

Iran would almost certainly give the required 90 days notice of its intention to quit the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and terminate inspections by the International Atomic Energy Agency. Iranian officials would not necessarily announce that they intended to proceed with development of a nuclear weapon, but they would certainly make clear that as a nonnuclear state that had been attacked by another state with nuclear weapons, that was a decision that was entirely up to them. All enriched uranium stocks would be removed from IAEA seal, and all monitoring cameras would be removed.

A different twist would be introduced if Iran had succeeded in shooting down one or more of the Israeli planes. One or more Israeli pilots in Iranian hands would sharply increase the risk of further escalation by either the United States or Israel.

Of more general significance, the markets would realize that some two million barrels a day of Iranian oil were now removed from the world market for an indeterminate period of time, and the price of oil would jump. The head of the IMF has suggested that an immediate increase of 20% to 30% could be expected.

But that could be just the beginning. It is not hard to imagine that, in the days following the attack, there would suddenly be unexplained pipeline explosions in Iraq, possibly by pro-Iranian militias, which might remove another million barrels per day from the market.

The Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan (BTC) pipeline from the Caspian Sea to the Mediterranean might also be attacked.

Moreover, one might expect disruptions in oil delivery and loading in Arab ports up and down the Gulf, some because of sabotage but others from cyberattacks on the control systems. Iran would attribute these to "the hand of God," but the more pragmatic effect would be a very substantial portion of the world's oil suddenly removed from world supply.

If sustained over more than a few weeks, the scramble to replace large volumes of Persian Gulf and Caspian oil would drive up the price of oil, and gasoline, to unprecedented heights.

That would constitute a huge tax on the world's economies, just at the moment when they were showing signs of recovery from the Great Recession. Extremely vulnerable economies, such as the southern European states, could be tipped into bankruptcy, but all states would face significant challenges as a surge in transportation and manufacturing costs rippled through all aspects of their industries. This is Iran's true weapon of mass destruction.

Regardless of whether Iran should choose to retaliate openly against U.S. forces or Israel, it would be extremely difficult for the United States to avoid entering into a third Middle East war. Most of the top security officials in the Pentagon have warned against such a war, so the internal opposition in the administration is likely to be great. The combination of widespread opposition to Iran, however, and the appeal of self-defense would be difficult to resist, particularly in an election year.

Most experts agree that the Iranian nuclear program cannot be eliminated ultimately without an actual military presence on the ground and forcible regime change. The American public, showing real signs of war weariness after two ground wars over more than a decade, is unlikely to be enthusiastic about a military confrontation with Iran that is likely to be far more costly and indeterminate than either Iraq or Afghanistan. That could prompt a public debate about the extent of U.S. and Israeli common interests.

The danger of such an outcome was hinted by Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak when he suggested to the Knesset that "Israel should increase its sensitivity, awareness and attentiveness to requirements based on the reality in the United States and adopt a policy that strengthens the special relationship between the two countries."

The biggest threat, however, would not be the first day or even the first week after an Israeli attack. The greatest threat might well be the first year or more after an attack, particularly if a major economic crisis was accompanied by growing evidence that Iran had proceeded underground and out of sight of the international community to produce a nuclear weapon.

That would make our present situation, before any attack, look wonderfully attractive by comparison.

Follow us on Twitter: @CNNOpinion.

Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Gary Sick.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
July 30, 2014 -- Updated 1941 GMT (0341 HKT)
Stuart Gitlow says pot is addictive and those who smoke it can experience long-term psychiatric disease.
July 30, 2014 -- Updated 1645 GMT (0045 HKT)
Gabby Giffords and Katie Ray-Jones say "Between 2001 and 2012, more women were shot to death by an intimate partner in our country than the total number of American troops killed in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars combined."
July 29, 2014 -- Updated 2357 GMT (0757 HKT)
Alan Elsner says Secretary Kerry's early cease-fire draft was leaked and presented as a final document, which served the interests of hard-liners on both sides who don't want the Gaza war to stop.
July 30, 2014 -- Updated 1158 GMT (1958 HKT)
Vijay Das says Medicare is a success story that could provide health care for everybody, not just seniors
July 30, 2014 -- Updated 1818 GMT (0218 HKT)
Rick Francona says Israel seems determined to render Hamas militarily ineffective.
July 30, 2014 -- Updated 1743 GMT (0143 HKT)
S.E. Cupp says the entrepreneur and Dallas Mavericks owner thinks for himself and refuses to be confined to an ideological box.
July 30, 2014 -- Updated 1311 GMT (2111 HKT)
A Christian group's anger over the trailer for "Black Jesus," an upcoming TV show, seems out of place, Jay Parini says
July 30, 2014 -- Updated 2028 GMT (0428 HKT)
LZ Granderson says the cyber-standing ovation given to Robyn Lawley, an Australian plus-size model who posted unretouched photos, shows how crazy Americans' notions of beauty have become
July 30, 2014 -- Updated 1939 GMT (0339 HKT)
Carol Dweck and Rachel Simmons: Girls tend to have a "fixed mindset" but they should have a "growth mindset."
July 28, 2014 -- Updated 1156 GMT (1956 HKT)
A crisis like the Gaza conflict or the surge of immigrants can be an opportunity for a lame duck president, writes Julian Zelizer
July 26, 2014 -- Updated 1822 GMT (0222 HKT)
Carol Costello says the league's light punishment sent the message that it didn't consider domestic violence a serious offense
July 28, 2014 -- Updated 1251 GMT (2051 HKT)
Danny Cevallos says saggy pants aren't the kind of fashion statement protected by the First Amendment.
July 28, 2014 -- Updated 1852 GMT (0252 HKT)
Margaret Hoover says some GOP legislators support a state's right to allow same-sex marriage and the right of churches, synagogues and mosques not to perform the sacrament
July 28, 2014 -- Updated 1831 GMT (0231 HKT)
Megan McCracken and Jennifer Moreno say it's unacceptable for states to experiment with new execution procedures without full disclosure
July 30, 2014 -- Updated 1744 GMT (0144 HKT)
Priya Satia says today's drones for bombardment and surveillance have their roots in the deadly history of Western aerial control of the Middle East that began in World War One
July 28, 2014 -- Updated 1635 GMT (0035 HKT)
Jeff Yang says it's great to see the comics make an effort at diversifying the halls of justice
July 26, 2014 -- Updated 1555 GMT (2355 HKT)
Rick Francona says the reported artillery firing from Russian territory is a sign Vladimir Putin has escalated the Ukraine battle
July 27, 2014 -- Updated 1822 GMT (0222 HKT)
Paul Callan says the fact that appeals delay the death penalty doesn't make it an unconstitutional punishment, as one judge ruled
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 2225 GMT (0625 HKT)
Pilot Robert Mark says it's been tough for the airline industry after the plane crashes in Ukraine and Taiwan.
July 25, 2014 -- Updated 1510 GMT (2310 HKT)
Jennifer DeVoe laments efforts to end subsidies that allow working Americans to finally afford health insurance.
July 26, 2014 -- Updated 1533 GMT (2333 HKT)
Ruti Teitel says assigning a costly and humiliating "collective guilt" to Germany after WWI would end up teaching the global community hard lessons about who to blame for war crimes
July 25, 2014 -- Updated 1245 GMT (2045 HKT)
John Sutter responds to criticism of his column on the ethics of eating dog.
July 25, 2014 -- Updated 1302 GMT (2102 HKT)
Frida Ghitis says it's tempting to ignore North Korea's antics as bluster but the cruel regime is dangerous.
July 25, 2014 -- Updated 1850 GMT (0250 HKT)
To the question "Is Putin evil?" Alexander Motyl says he is evil enough for condemnation by people of good will.
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1803 GMT (0203 HKT)
Laurie Garrett: Poor governance, ignorance, hysteria worsen the Ebola epidemic in Sierra Leone, Guinea, Liberia.
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1349 GMT (2149 HKT)
Patrick Cronin and Kelley Sayler say the world is seeing nonstate groups such as Ukraine's rebels wielding more power to do harm than ever before
July 23, 2014 -- Updated 2205 GMT (0605 HKT)
Ukraine ambassador Olexander Motsyk places blame for the MH17 tragedy squarely at the door of Russia
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1142 GMT (1942 HKT)
Mark Kramer says Russia and its proxies have a history of shooting down civilian aircraft, often with few repercussions
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1853 GMT (0253 HKT)
Les Abend says, with rockets flying over Tel Aviv and missiles shooting down MH17 over Ukraine, a commercial pilot's pre-flight checklist just got much more complicated
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1317 GMT (2117 HKT)
Mark Kramer says Russia and its proxies have a history of shooting down civilian aircraft, often with few repercussions
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1637 GMT (0037 HKT)
Gerard Jacobs says grieving families and nations need the comfort of traditional rituals to honor the remains of loved ones, particularly in a mass disaster
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1413 GMT (2213 HKT)
The idea is difficult to stomach, but John Sutter writes that eating dog is morally equivalent to eating pig, another intelligent animal. If Americans oppose it, they should question their own eating habits as well.
July 23, 2014 -- Updated 1630 GMT (0030 HKT)
Bill van Esveld says under the laws of war, civilians who do not join in the fight are always to be protected. An International Criminal Court could rule on whether Israeli airstrikes and Hamas rocketing are war crimes.
July 30, 2014 -- Updated 1209 GMT (2009 HKT)
Gordon Brown says the kidnapped Nigerian girls have been in captivity for 100 days, but the world has not forgotten them.
ADVERTISEMENT