Former Israeli ambassador to the US Michael Oren has described in chilling detail how a conflict between Israel and Iran could easily be sparked and descend into a massive conflagration, devastating Israel and other countries in the region.
Israel is already girding for a war with the Islamic Republic, and has carried out hundreds of strikes against Iran-linked targets in Lebanon, Syria and Iraq. A single miscalculation during one of those airstrikes could draw retaliation by Iran, Oren wrote in a column published in The Atlantic on Monday.
“The senior ministers of the Israeli government met twice last week to discuss the possibility of open war with Iran,” he began. “Israeli troops, especially in the north, have been placed on war footing. Israel is girding for the worst and acting on the assumption that fighting could break out at any time. And it’s not hard to imagine how it might arrive. The conflagration, like so many in the Middle East, could be ignited by a single spark.”
An Israel Defense Forces bombing run could inadvertently hit a sensitive target, or an Israeli official could step out of line and say something to embarrass Iran following an attack, Oren wrote.
“The result could be a counterstrike by Iran, using cruise missiles that penetrate Israel’s air defenses and smash into targets like the Kiryah, Tel Aviv’s equivalent of the Pentagon. Israel would retaliate massively against Hezbollah’s headquarters in Beirut as well as dozens of its emplacements along the Lebanese border. And then, after a day of large-scale exchanges, the real war would begin,” he continued.
Then, rockets would “rain on Israel” at a rate as high as 4,000 a day. The Iron Dome missile defense system would be overwhelmed as projectiles attacked civilian and military targets throughout the country, said Oren, who served in Washington, DC, from 2009 to 2013.
Iron Dome is 90 percent effective on average, meaning that for every 100 rockets, 10 get through, and the seven operational batteries are incapable of covering the entire country. All of Israel, from Metulla in the north to the southern port city of Eilat, would be in range of enemy fire.
But precision-guided missiles, growing numbers of which are in Iranian arsenals, pose a far deadlier threat. Directed by joysticks, many can change destinations mid-flight.
The David’s Sling system, developed in conjunction with the United States, can stop them—in theory, but it has never been tested in combat. And each of its interceptors costs $1 million.
Even if it is not physically razed, Israel can be bled economically.
Attacks near Ben Gurion International Airport could shut it down, and the country’s ports could be closed, severing Israel from the outside, and Iranian cyberattacks could turn off the power grid.
In Oren’s bleak scenario, terrorists on the ground would attack border communities, the economy would cease functioning, hospitals would be overwhelmed, and damaged factories and refineries would spew toxic chemicals into the environment.
“Millions of Israelis would huddle in bomb shelters. Hundreds of thousands would be evacuated from border areas that terrorists are trying to infiltrate. The restaurants and hotels would empty, along with the offices of the high-tech companies of the start-up nation. The hospitals, many of them resorting to underground facilities, would quickly be overwhelmed, even before the skies darken with the toxic fumes of blazing chemical factories and oil refineries,” he suggested.
The IDF would be confronted with attackers on Israel’s borders in Lebanon and Gaza, while long-range missiles would fly in from Syria, Iraq, Yemen and Iran — some from outside the range of the Israeli Air Force, which would also be forced to contend with Russian anti-aircraft defenses in Syria.
Israel’s infantry would engage in urban combat in Lebanon and Gaza, its special forces would be sent far from its borders in Syria and Iraq, and its missiles would bombard Iran, Oren wrote.
The Israeli response would cause many civilian casualties, drawing charges of war crimes, while West Bank protests would draw a sharp response from Israeli troops there.
“Does all this seem a little far-fetched?” he asked. “Not to the senior Israeli government ministers who have been contemplating precisely these sorts of scenarios.”
The US response would be a crucial factor, in terms of providing munitions, legal support, and backing after the war in negotiating truces, withdrawals, prisoner exchanges and peace agreements.
The US has historically provided these three pillars of support to Israel during its times of need, Oren wrote, and could be counted on again.
Whether the US would help Israel with any direct military intervention is not certain, he said.
Israel has a strong relationship with the Trump administration and would likely receive significant support if needed, Oren said, but current US politics complicates the situation.
“Back in 1973, Egypt and Syria saw a president preoccupied with an impeachment procedure, and concluded that Israel was vulnerable. In the subsequent war, Israel prevailed—but at an excruciating price. The next war could prove even costlier,” he wrote.