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On the notion of Israel attacking Iran 4, April 2012

Posted by thegulfblog.com in Iran, Israeli-Palestinian Conflict.
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On 24 April an article in Jane’s Defence Weekly based on intelligence sources claimed that Iran is only two years away from producing an atomic bomb. However, there is no need to start building a shelter yet as this article was written on 24 April 1984. Need it be stated that Iran – unlike Israel that obtained its first bomb sometime around the mid 1960s – did not obtain a nuclear weapon in 1986.  This example is highlighted not to mock Jane’s typically erudite analysis but to note that for decades it has been claimed that Iran has been near production of a nuclear weapon.

In the same year, US Senator Alan Cranston said Iran would have nuclear weapons by 1991; in 1992 Benjamin Netanyahu insisted that 1995-1997 was the right time-frame; Shimon Peres in 1992 plumbed for 1999; a 1992 House Republican Research Committee claimed that there was a ‘98 percent certainty that Iran already had all (or virtually all) of the components required for two or three operational nuclear weapons.’; a 1995 report quoting US and Israeli officials goes for the millennium as the date; in 1997 sources noted that the date had been pushed back to 2007-2009; in 2005 Israel’s Defence Minister warned that a ‘point of no return’ would be passed within two years[1]; in 2007 Mossad went for 2009 as the magical date[2]; in 2009 it was predicted that Iran would be “nuclear-equipped” within one year; and Meir Dagan the former head of Mossad recently suggested that 2015 is the nearest viable date.[3]

The more recent predictions often bypass the US National Intelligence Estimate on Iran stating ‘with high confidence’ that Iran had given up on its nuclear weapon programme in 2003; a notion confirmed in 2009 by a US Senate Foreign Relations Committee reports stating that ‘there is no sign that Iran’s leaders have ordered up a bomb.’[4]

While there is most certainly a significant amount of troubling contradictions and concerns regarding Iran’s nuclear programme, many of which found a voice in a damning 2011 IEAE report on the topic, nevertheless, one might expect more scepticism to be shown on this topic that is typically found in the political discourse regarding leaders who have been consistently wrong for decades.

Indeed, there seems to be something of a drum-beat for war building. However, such considerations often ignore the basic concerns of whether Israel could effectively attack Iran; a key piece of information for the debate. If Israel cannot, or if the consequences of an attack would be so dire as to retard Israel’s strategic position, then the questions concerning Iran’s ability to build a nuclear weapon are rendered moot.

Options

While Israel’s gamut of ICBMs launched either from Israel or their Dolphin Class submarines could be useful to destroy Iran’s anti-aircraft capability, without being armed with tactical nuclear warheads, they are unlikely to be able to degrade significantly hardened targets.

Insertion of special force teams is unlikely given the risks involved with deploying them in sufficient number, the fact that they could only carry what they land with, and the fact that many of the nuclear facilities in Iran lie far inland. The only plausible way to attack Iran’s facilities, therefore, is through air strikes.

Tactically

Attacking Iran’s nuclear facilities would be no ‘surgical strike’ such as Israel conducted in 1991 on the Osirak facility in Iraq, or more recently against secret Syrian facilities in 2007. As Israeli threats have increased, Iran has reacted accordingly and dispersed and hardened its facilities. Today there are at least seventeen known Nuclear facilities, perhaps twelve of which ‘would have to be struck to seriously damage Iran’s nuclear program….some of which is buried deep underground…the new plant at Fordow, for example, is believed to be buried 260 feet under granite.’[5]

There are real concerns as to whether Israel has the weapons to seriously damage such facilities. In 2009 America sold Israel 55 GBU-28 bunker-busting bombs weighing over two thousand two hundred kilograms.[6] Since, however, America has designed a far larger Massive Ordinance Penetrator (MOP), weighing in at nearly fourteen thousand kilograms, which can only be delivered by the B-2 stealth aircraft which Israel does not possess.[7] Moreover, US Defence Secretary Leon Panetta does not even think that these MOP weapons will be sufficient to guarantee the destruction of certain Iranian sites, namely the Fordow enrichment plant.

Whatever the ordinance, delivering the bombs would be difficult. Over one hundred aircraft would be needed to attack the multiple targets. Avoiding Iranian air defences, while not state-of-the-art and even if many could be destroyed in advance, would still be a concern and would likely take up yet more fuel. This is a key concern given that such a journey would push the Israeli F-15s and F-16s outwith their capabilities requiring air-to-air refuelling from Israel’s fleet of seven air tankers. This vastly complicates the mission not only in terms of where the tankers would loiter, but they would certainly need their own fleet of fighter aircraft protecting them further complicating the mission.

The question of over flight is equally vexatious. There are essentially three likely flight plans. The northern path follows the Mediterranean, cutting across five hundred miles of Turkey, then flying hundreds of miles into Iran itself before returning the same way. The central route crosses two hundred miles of Jordan, four hundred miles of Iraq, and several hundred miles within Iran itself. The southern route would cover nearly five hundred miles of Saudi Arabia, three hundred miles of Iraq before getting to the Iranian border.

While Israeli planes took the Turkish route in 2007 when attacking Syria, not only have bilateral relations deteriorated significantly since, but Turkey are believed to have upgraded their radar systems and there is little mood within Turkey to allow this to happen again.

Route two through Jordan and Iraq is technically feasible. While Iraq has no Air Force about which to be concerned and Jordan’s proximity to Israel renders intercepting Israeli aircraft almost impossible, cutting through Jordan in particular could be a diplomatic disaster. Jordan is one of two countries with a peace treaty with Israel and the only Arab bordering country with whom Israel have workable relations. Moreover, such an act, highlighting the impotence of the Jordanian Government and stimulating rumours that the elite consented to the Israeli attack, could potentially ignite the tinder-box that is Jordan today. The last thing that Israel want is for another unpredictable popular-led revote to take place on its borders.

Option three too is far from idea. Saudi Arabia certainly have the capability to intercept Israeli planes with Air Force bases on the north west, north east, and eastern borders with capable F-15s. This means that Saudi Arabia would have to concent to the Israeli action; a deeply difficult decision to make in these revolting times where populism and strong religious trends are wafting around the region, none of which factors would easily forgive such an act, even if it were to weaken Iran. Moreover, acquiescing to Israel’s attack would leave Saudi Arabia itself open to an Iranian retaliatory strike.

Certainly, some combination of, for example, Israeli submarine-launched missiles disabling parts of Iran’s air defences, some agreement could be made with, say, Saudi Arabia for unimpeded air passage, and Israel could indeed destroy numerous facilities in Iran. However, overall, it seems beyond the Israeli capability to launch a sustained campaign against Iran and one that could offer a high degree of certainty that critical facilities could be destroyed entirely.

Legally & Internationally

There is little debate that such an attack, without a resolution from the United Nations Security Council, would be wholly illegal.[8] The retort that it is an option of last resort – a pre-emptive attack – would find no legal favour. Indeed, nor is that surprising given the complete lack of proof that Iran will imminently obtain such weapons and then launch them immediately against Israel.

The notion of Iran attacking Israel with nuclear weapons and thereby assuring the sure destruction of its major cities in an assured nuclear retaliation by Israel is nothing less than preposterous, no matter what offensive and threatening quotes Ahmadinajad comes out with. Indeed, why people seem to distrust most things politicians say in the West but believe wholeheartedly whatever nonsense Ahmadinajad comes out with is baffling.

Consequences

One of the key lessons from the attack on Iraq’s nuclear facilities in 1981 is that such a ‘pre-emptive’ attack may counter intuitively actually speed up a country’s desire to obtain nuclear weapons. Målfrid Braut-Hegghammer of the Norwegian Defence College and formerly of Harvard University, who has studied and written on the Osikark attack extensively, noted that before the attack ‘Iraq’s pursuit of a nuclear weapons capability was both directionless and disorganized.’[9]

Subsequently, the evidence suggests, the regime became convinced of the need to vigorously and single-mindedly pursue such a weapon to the extent that, as the author of a 2005 study on the case notes, ‘the Iraqi nuclear program increased from a program of 400 scientists and $400 million to one of 7,000 scientists and $10 billion’ after the attack.[10]

One certainly needs to be cautious in pursuing policy by analogy, but there is little reason to think that an attack on Iran would not have the same consequences. While there is undoubted ambiguity at the moment as to whether Iran is actually trying to obtain weapons – remembering the 2003 US Intelligence Estimate but also the damning 2011 IAEA report – were Iran to be attacked, pursuance of an Iranian bomb would likely be a fervent, central goal of the Iranian regime for obvious existential security reasons.

Moreover, exactly as occurred in Iraq, the Iranian regime would likely be even more clandestine about their project, burying it further literally and metaphorically underground and away from international inspection. Certainly, it would be false to say that Iran is compliant with international regulations at present, but ceteris paribus they could be much worse.

Indeed, the notion that such an attack would – at best – only set back the programme, should it exist, is powerful. Former Vice-Chairman of the America Joint Chiefs of Staff James Cartwright noted that the intellectual capital would remain even if the facilities were destroyed and
‘they’d just build it back.’[11]

The more direct consequences of an Israeli strike are potentially harrowing. From the potential radioactive fallout wafting across the Gulf to population centres or to the oil fields in eastern Arabia to the thousands of casualties incumbent in any such large-scale attack, the human cost would be high. Internally, the Iranian regime, which has still not recovered from the 2009 election fiasco in which it was widely discredited, would be galvanised in power for the Iranians have their own version of the Israeli mantra of keshe’yorim shotkim (‘silence when shooting’).

Iran would clearly retaliate. Though Hamas has distanced itself from an automatic retaliation, Hezbollah in Lebanon would surely launch a barrage of rockets into Israel. Indeed, the commonly held notion is that there are 200,000 missiles aimed at Israel at any one time.[12] Iranian agents abroad – as incapable as they seem to be at times – may well target Israelis or Western targets; Iran would likely seek to close down the Strait of Hormuz, potentially spiralling the conflict significantly wider; or if Iran feels that America was complicit, it could retaliate against US bases in the Gulf, hitting Qatar, Bahrain, the UAE, and Kuwait.

The key corollary of all of these events and a certainty no matter the Iranian retaliation is a prodigious oil price spike, a profound shock for the teetering global economy, and the spectre of recession or depression as a direct economic consequence. Such scenarios are hardly scaremongering, not even unlikely; indeed, for the afore mentioned consequences, it is but a matter of degree.

Experts

Taking all these issues into consideration have been a raft of high-level military and governmental officials from both America and Israel.

US Defence Secretary Leon Panetta has echoed many of the above conclusions, specifically arguing that attacking Iran would:

‘simply delay it [obtaining a bomb]…Of greater concern…are the unintended consequences, which would be that ultimately it would have a backlash and the regime that is weak now…would suddenly be able to re-establish itself…able to get support in the region, and …instead of being isolated would get the greater support in a region that right now views it as a pariah.”[13]

Michael V. Hayden, a former director of the CIA, bluntly noted that ‘airstrikes capable of seriously setting back Iran’s nuclear program were “beyond the capacity” of Israel’.[14] He continued to note that overall the Israelis ‘only have the ability to make this worse.’[15] Admiral William Fallon, former commander of US Central Command, suggested that ‘No one I am aware of thinks that there is a positive outcome from a military strike’[16] while General Martin Dempsey, the current Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, noted that a strike against Iran was ‘premature’.[17]

Former Mossad Chief of nine years, Meir Dagan, has spoken out on several occasions on this topic, offering a logical, educated, and damning case for the attack on Iran,[18] but more recently plainly summed up the notion as ‘a stupid idea’. [19] Another former Mossad Chief Ephraim Halevy cautioned that a strike could be devastating for the Middle East for a century and that Iran is ‘far from posing an existential threat to Israel’, refuting one of Netanyahu’s fundamental arguments.[20] Former Chief of Staff of the Israeli Defence Forces (IDF) Lt-Gen Amnon Lipkin-Shahak repudiated what may seem to be received wisdom noting that ‘it is quite clear that much if not all of the IDF…leadership do not support military action at this point.’[21]

A plurality of opinions

Certainly, there are several other high-level officials who argue the opposite. But at the very least the fact that the US Secretary of Defence, several high-ranking intelligence and military officials,  and two former Mossad Directors appear to have serious and rational concerns over the viability and the sense of an Israeli attack on Iran, is a serious cause for concern. These non-political actors, without an obvious political axe to grind [though one may cast aspersions at Meir Dagan] and aware of the intelligence that most are not privy to, pour scorn on many of the key arguments of those proposing or seeking such an action. Also, lest one forget, none are running for elected position in the foreseeable future.

This plurality of opinion and the profoundly concerning history of those adamant that Iran would have a nuclear weapon in two, three or five years time, means that the case for Israel attacking Iran is less than certain, while an examination of the technical possibilities questions whether such an attack is even possible. And surely if one is engaging in such a policy with such profound implications, it would seem to be sensible if not mandatory that a high burden of proof is required. As yet there is – unequivocally – no such consensus.


[1] Ewen MacAskill, ‘Iran nears nuclear ‘point of no return’ The Guardian (27 January 2005)  http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2005/jan/27/politics.iran

[2] Angus Hohenboken, Iran will soon post N-threat, says Israel’ The Australian (31 January 2009)  http://www.theaustralian.com.au/news/israel-iran-will-soon-pose-n-threat/story-e6frg6tx-1111118716317

[3] An excellent round of these dates can be found in Christian Science Monitor. Scott Peterson, ‘Imminenet Iran nuclear threat? I timeline of warnings since 1979’ Christian Science Monitor (http://www.csmonitor.com/World/Middle-East/2011/1108/Imminent-Iran-nuclear-threat-A-timeline-of-warnings-since-1979/Earliest-warnings-1979-84

[4] http://www.csmonitor.com/World/Middle-East/2011/1108/Imminent-Iran-nuclear-threat-A-timeline-of-warnings-since-1979/Israel-s-one-year-timeframe-disproved-2010-11

[5] Eric Margolis, ‘A radioactive situation’ The National Interest (24 February 2012)  http://nationalinterest.org/commentary/radioactive-situation-6566

[6] Eli Lake ‘Inside Obama’s Israel bomb sale’ Newsweek (25 September 2011) http://www.thedailybeast.com/newsweek/2011/09/25/obama-arms-israel.html

[7] Tony Capaccio, B-2 bomber gets Boeing’s new 30,000 pound bunker buster bomb’ Bloomberg (15 November 2011) http://www.bloomberg.com/news/2011-11-14/30-000-pound-bunker-buster-bomb-now-ready.html

[8] Bruce Ackerman, ‘The legal case against attacking Iran’ Los Angeles Times  (5 March 2012) (http://www.latimes.com/news/opinion/commentary/la-oe-ackerman-attacking-iran-would-be-illegal-20120305,0,4429323.story

[9] Quoted in Colin Kahl, ‘Before attacking Iran, Israel should learn from its 1981 strike on Iraq’ The Washington Post  (2 March 2012) http://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/an-israeli-attack-against-iran-would-backfire–just-like-israels-1981-strike-on-iraq/2012/02/28/gIQATOMFnR_story.html

[10] http://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/an-israeli-attack-against-iran-would-backfire–just-like-israels-1981-strike-on-iraq/2012/02/28/gIQATOMFnR_story_2.html

[11] Geoff Dyer, ‘Israel faces resistance over Iran strike’ The Financial Times (28 February 2012) http://www.ft.com/intl/cms/s/0/fd386d8e-6161-11e1-8a8e-00144feabdc0.html

[12] Amos Harel, ‘Some 200,000 missiles aimed consistently at Israel, top IDF officer says’ Haaretz (2 February 2012) http://www.haaretz.com/news/diplomacy-defense/some-200-000-missiles-aimed-consistently-at-israel-top-idf-officer-says-1.410584

[13] Remarks by Secretary of Defence Leon E Panetta at the Saban Centre US Department of Defence (News Transcript) 2 December 2011  http://www.defense.gov/transcripts/transcript.aspx?transcriptid=4937

[14] Elizabeth Bulmiller, ‘Iran raid seen as a huge task for Israeli jets’ New York Times (19 February 2012) http://www.nytimes.com/2012/02/20/world/middleeast/iran-raid-seen-as-complex-task-for-israeli-military.html?ref=elisabethbumiller

[15] http://www.ft.com/intl/cms/s/0/fd386d8e-6161-11e1-8a8e-00144feabdc0.html#axzz1oWtKPOHn

[16] Patrick Buchanan ‘Will Bibi break Obama?’ CNS News (2 March 2012) http://cnsnews.com/node/519217

[17] http://www.ft.com/intl/cms/s/0/fd386d8e-6161-11e1-8a8e-00144feabdc0.html#axzz1oWtKPOHn

[18] Amos Harel, ‘Former Mossad chief: Israeli attack on Iran must be stopped to avert catastrophe’ Haaretz(1 December 2011) http://www.haaretz.com/news/diplomacy-defense/former-mossad-chief-israeli-attack-on-iran-must-be-stopped-to-avert-catastrophe-1.399046

[19] Isabel Kershner, ‘Israeli strike on Iran would be ‘stupid’, ex-spy chief says New York Times (8 May 2011) http://www.nytimes.com/2011/05/09/world/middleeast/09israel.html

[20] Yoav Zitun, ‘Iran far from posing existential threat’ Y Net News (11 April 2011)  http://www.ynetnews.com/articles/0,7340,L-4143909,00.html

[21] ‘Israel’s military leaders warm against Iran attack’ The Independent (2 February 2012) http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/middle-east/israels-military-leaders-warn-against-iran-attack-6298102.html?printService=print

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