The debate surrounding Iran has been focused solely on incurring physical damage to Tehran's nuclear program and the time it would take to rehabilitate. This reflects a fundamental lack of understanding of the strategic goal. The purpose of exerting force is to influence the diplomatic balance between all the relevant players, not the physical capabilities.
Iran is determined to develop nuclear bombs. An attack on nuclear facilities can only delay their plan by however long it will take them to rehabilitate their program. From this we can conclude that Israel needs to influence Iranian policy rather than focusing on physical capabilities.
Israel may not have the power to influence Iranian policy, but the U.S. does. There is no comparison between the military might of the U.S. and Iran — the U.S. is far superior and would clearly win in the event of a conflict. Why, then, can it not bend Iran to its will?
Iran's big advantage is that they are far more resolved and determined than the U.S. For Iran, achieving nuclear status is a supreme goal, and they are willing to pay nearly any price — or at least that's how Tehran presents it. The U.S. is not as determined. It is taking all the implications into account (price of oil, elections, international allegiances) and hesitating, unwilling to take chances.
In recent years, the U.S. has been seen as shying away from strategic commitments, with Iraq being the prime example. But if the circumstances should force the U.S. to approach the issue with as much determination as Iran, then the U.S. would clearly have the upper hand.
Iran wants to buy time in order to advance its nuclear program. The U.S., in avoiding the tough decisions, is letting the time pass. Israel, in the meantime, is worried about the price it will have to pay if it strikes out on its own and attacks Iran. Thus the basic diplomatic equilibrium takes shape: Iran, the U.S. and Israel are allowing time to pass.
It is possible that Iran and the Obama administration share additional points of equilibrium: Both have an interest in instilling a sense that the nuclearization process is not immediate and that there is plenty of time for diplomacy; Iran and the U.S. may both want to present a military offensive as futile; and worst of all, there is a possibility that Iran and the U.S. have a shared interest in jumping directly from the "there's time for diplomacy" stage to the "too late for a military strike" stage, entirely bypassing the stage in which a military attack becomes necessary to change Iranian policy.
From Israel's perspective, these points of equilibrium are unacceptable. Israel must strive to create a moment of truth, in which all sides will have to commit to their stated policy, with all the urgency and seriousness necessary, including a willingness to take chances and pay costs.
The variable that could potentially challenge the equilibrium is Israel's willingness to pay the necessary price to implement its stated policy, thus influencing the calculations of the other parties. The aim of a military offensive is not to destroy the nuclear facilities. The Israeli army needs to conserve its energy so that it can communicate, in a credible manner, Israel's unwillingness to accept the existing equilibrium, and that it can exert military force for as long as necessary.
As for the option of a secret intelligence operation: The strategic risk and potential cost would be much lower than a military offensive, communicating a message of reticence. Through secret intelligence operations and international sanctions, Iran is able to assess the maximum risk its rivals would potentially be willing to take, realizing that it can freely overstep the bounds of the initial cost–benefit analysis.
The resulting dynamic is one where the winner in each round is determined not by the cards each player is holding, but by the U.S.'s and Israel's very unwillingness to see Iran's bet.
An indeed,the result is that the secret intelligence operations are incapable of upsetting the diplomatic equilibrium. Even when it suffers physical damage, Iran quickly gets back on its strategic track and resumes its nuclear efforts.
The secret intelligence operations are providing Israel with the illusion that something is being done. That is how we justify letting the time pass. In this way, the secret operations are actually preserving the equilibrium instead of challenging it.
Israel must bring all the sides to the point where they see each other's bets and reveal their cards. This will only become possible if Israel raises the stakes, and persists.
The author is a lieutenant colonel (res.) in the Israel Air Force.