Should Israel Attack Iran?
Sweep every other geopolitical question aside: the biggest issue facing the world right now is Iran’s nuclear weapons program.
Why? Because the repercussions of Iran’s unstopped push toward the development of nuclear weapons and their delivery system may include imminent war, uncountable human casualties, a massive disruption in oil supplies, world economic collapse (that is, another one), —all of which may happen sooner rather than later.
The fact that Israel is taking Iranian nuclear development more seriously than any other country doesn’t mean it’s just an Israeli issue. Israel took Islamic terror more seriously than any other country— until September 11, 2001. In the mineshaft of extremism, Jews in general, and Israel in particular, are often the canary.
Israel knows that it must be prepared to act even if the world is unwilling or unable. The immediate question is: should Israel act now?
Those who care about this issue fall into two camps. The Right Nows, who want to attack, um, right now; and the Not Yets, who while reserving the military option, believe the time is not right, and other more peaceful actions may still work.
Should Israel Do It?
Ironically, people on both sides of the debate over whether and when to attack Iran use the recent unrest there to support their claim. The Right Nows say the unrest proves the regime is in firm control, regime change is off the table, and there is no other option. The Not Yets say the unrest proves that the situation is fluid, and attacking will only galvanize the population and unite it with the regime.
The issues hit the headlines this week when CNN reported that President Barack Obama insisted in an interview that he did not give Israel the “green light” to attack Iran.
U.S. President Barack Obama rebuffed suggestions that Washington had given Israel a green light to attack Iran’s nuclear facilities, in an interview with CNN on Tuesday.
Asked by CNN whether Washington had given Israel approval to strike Iran’s nuclear facilities, Obama answered: “Absolutely not.”
“We have said directly to the Israelis that it is important to try and resolve this in an international setting in a way that does not create major conflict in the Middle East,” Obama said in reference to Iran’s contentious nuclear program.
In the interview broadcast from Russia where he is on an official visit, Obama added, however: “We can’t dictate to other countries what their security interests are.
“What is also true is, it is the policy of the United States to try to resolve the issue of Iran’s nuclear capabilities,” Obama said.
This would be achieved “through diplomatic channels,” he added.
But Obama’s public disapproval leaves many questions unanswered: Must Israel wait for US approval? Is Israel facing an imminent mortal threat? What other options are there to deter Iran?
After all—and here’s what the world needs to understand—Iran’s leadership has stated publicly it wants to see Israel destroyed. With nuclear weapons it will have the capability to carry out that desire. Israel must act, America must act, the world must act—but how.
The Right Nows make a convincing case that the window is closing on Israel’s opportunity to counter a mortal threat.
Former U.N. Ambassador John Bolton made their case in a July 2, 2009 op-ed in The Washington Post:
With Iran’s hard-line mullahs and the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps unmistakably back in control, Israel’s decision of whether to use military force against Tehran’s nuclear weapons program is more urgent than ever.
Iran’s nuclear threat was never in doubt during its presidential campaign, but the post-election resistance raised the possibility of some sort of regime change. That prospect seems lost for the near future or for at least as long as it will take Iran to finalize a deliverable nuclear weapons capability.
Accordingly, with no other timely option, the already compelling logic for an Israeli strike is nearly inexorable. Israel is undoubtedly ratcheting forward its decision-making process.
Bolton castigates Obama for trying diplomacy. The President, he writes, “still wants ‘engagement’… with Iran’s current regime.” He says this would be a huge mistake:
There are two problems with this approach. First, Tehran isn’t going to negotiate in good faith. It hasn’t for the past six years with the European Union as our surrogates, and it won’t start now. As Clinton said on Tuesday, Iran has “a huge credibility gap” because of its electoral fraud. Second, given Iran’s nuclear progress, even if the stronger sanctions Obama has threatened could be agreed upon, they would not prevent Iran from fabricating weapons and delivery systems when it chooses, as it has been striving to do for the past 20 years. Time is too short, and sanctions failed long ago.
Only those most theologically committed to negotiation still believe Iran will fully renounce its nuclear program. Unfortunately, the Obama administration has a “Plan B,” which would allow Iran to have a “peaceful” civil nuclear power program while publicly “renouncing” the objective of nuclear weapons. Obama would define such an outcome as “success,” even though in reality it would hardly be different from what Iran is doing and saying now. A “peaceful” uranium enrichment program, “peaceful” reactors such as Bushehr and “peaceful” heavy-water projects like that under construction at Arak leave Iran with an enormous breakout capability to produce nuclear weapons in very short order. And anyone who believes the Revolutionary Guard Corps will abandon its weaponization and ballistic missile programs probably believes that there was no fraud in Iran’s June 12 election. See “huge credibility gap,” supra.
In short, the stolen election and its tumultuous aftermath have dramatically highlighted the strategic and tactical flaws in Obama’s game plan. With regime change off the table for the coming critical period in Iran’s nuclear program, Israel’s decision on using force is both easier and more urgent. Since there is no likelihood that diplomacy will start or finish in time, or even progress far enough to make any real difference, there is no point waiting for negotiations to play out. In fact, given the near certainty of Obama changing his definition of “success,” negotiations represent an even more dangerous trap for Israel.
The only answer, says Bolton, is military force:
Those who oppose Iran acquiring nuclear weapons are left in the near term with only the option of targeted military force against its weapons facilities. Significantly, the uprising in Iran also makes it more likely that an effective public diplomacy campaign could be waged in the country to explain to Iranians that such an attack is directed against the regime, not against the Iranian people. This was always true, but it has become even more important to make this case emphatically, when the gulf between the Islamic revolution of 1979 and the citizens of Iran has never been clearer or wider. Military action against Iran’s nuclear program and the ultimate goal of regime change can be worked together consistently.
Otherwise, be prepared for an Iran with nuclear weapons, which some, including Obama advisers, believe could be contained and deterred. That is not a hypothesis we should seek to test in the real world. The cost of error could be fatal.
The Not Yets believe that while a military option should remain in force, exercising it now would be a huge mistake.
To them, the unrest in Iran PROVES that the military option would be worse.
As Yair Lapid writes in Yediot, the Israeli newspaper:
It will take weeks, maybe months, before we know where Iran is heading. Revolutions, by their very nature, do not break out – they evolve. The real processes do not occur in front of the cameras, but rather, behind the black hijab. Perhaps this is why the commentators, just like authorities, are always surprised when the point of no return arrives.
The American Revolution started as a minor protest at the Boston port over tea taxes; the famous storming of the Bastille, which became the symbol of the French Revolution, only secured the release of seven prisoners – four conmen, two madmen, and one sexual offender; three long years passed from the day Gorbachev took the stage during the 27th Soviet Party Congress and declared the “Glasnost,” to the day when the masses stormed the Berlin Wall and brought it down with hammers.
Events in Iran are fascinating because they tell us something about the human spirit and the fact that we were born to freedom; however, a long time will pass before we know how it all ends.
Meanwhile, the protestors are redrafting, in Persian, the timeless lines appearing in the US Declaration of Independence: “experience hath shewn that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed. But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government.”
The collapse of the Ayatollah regime is, of course, everything Israel could ever hope for. We are not only talking about the nuclear issue, but also about much more immediate gains: Hizbullah will dry up, Hamas will lose its main source of strength, and Syria’s backdoor will slam shut.
However, everything happening at Tehran’s Azadi Square – the amazing coming together of young people, Internet culture, social ferment, and woman power – would not have happened had we listened to the regular bunch of hysterical screamers around here and attempted to bomb Iran’s nuclear sites.
What would have happened then? Exactly what happens around here during times of war: The Iranian public would have rallied around the leadership, a wave of patriotic fury would have swept through the whole of Iran, and Ahmadinejad would not have needed to resort to any fraud in order to defeat the reformists.
And so, using our very own fighter jets, we would have lost this one-time opportunity to see genuine domestic change in the Islamic empire of evil. The most absurd thing is that we wouldn’t even have known that we missed this opportunity.
This is the lesson; the question is whether there is anyone around here who would learn it. After all, our screamers always speak on behalf of history, but are never willing to learn anything from their own history.
It’s a tough call. And much of what makes it tough is that no one knows how Israel would carry out such an attack, and whether it would work.
How Israel Would Do It
As Haaretz reported earlier this summer, military expert Anthony Cordesman issued a detail report on how Israel would strike Iran. It painted a very dark picture of the chances for success, and the possible ramifications:
Never before has such an open, detailed and thorough study of Israel’s offensive options been published. The authors of the 114-page study meticulously gathered all available data on Israel’s military capabilities and its nuclear program, and on Iran’s nuclear developments and aerial defenses, as well as both countries’ missile inventory.
After analyzing all the possibilities for an attack on Iran, Toukan and Cordesman conclude: “A military strike by Israel against Iranian nuclear facilities is possible … [but] would be complex and high-risk and would lack any assurances that the overall mission will have a high success rate.”
The first problem the authors point to is intelligence, or more precisely, the lack of it. “It is not known whether Iran has some secret facilities where it is conducting uranium enrichment,” they write. If facilities unknown to Western intelligence agencies do exist, Iran’s uranium-enrichment program could continue to develop in secret there, while Israel attacks the known sites – and the strike’s gains would thus be lost. In general, the authors state, attacking Iran is justified only if it will put an end to Iran’s nuclear program or halt it for several years. That objective is very difficult to attain.
Intelligence agencies are also divided on the critical question of when Iran will deliver a nuclear weapon. Whereas Israeli intelligence maintains it will have the bomb between 2009 and 2012, the U.S. intelligence community estimates it will not happen before 2013. If the Israeli intelligence assessment is accurate, the window for a military strike is rapidly closing. It is clear to everyone that no one will dare attack Iran once it possesses nuclear weapons.
Since Iran has dozens of nuclear facilities dispersed throughout its large territory, and since it is impossible to attack all of them, Toukan and Cordesman investigated the option of hitting only three, which “constitute the core of the nuclear fuel cycle that Iran needs to produce nuclear weapons grade fissile material.”
Destroying these three sites ought to stall the Iranian nuclear program for several years. The three are: the nuclear research center in Isfahan, the uranium-enrichment facility in Natanz, and the heavy water plant, intended for future plutonium production, in Arak. It is doubtful whether Israel would embark on an offensive with such major ramifications just to strike a small number of facilities, when it is not at all clear that this will stop Iran’s nuclearization for a significant length of time.
The study analyzes three possible flight routes and concludes that the optimal and most likely one is the northern one that passes along the Syria-Turkey border, cuts across the northeastern edge of Iraq and leads into Iran. The central route passes over Jordan and is shorter, but would not be chosen for fear of political trouble with the Jordanians. Using the southern route, which passes over Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Iraq, might likewise lead to political entanglements.
To prevent the aircraft being detected en route to Iran, the IAF would use advanced technology to invade and scramble communication networks and radar devices in the countries over which the F-15s and F-16s fly, so even though dozens of planes would pass through the countries’ airspace, they will not be detected. According to the authors, the IAF used this technology in the raid on the Syrian nuclear reactor in Dayr az-Zawr, in September 2007. A hacker system was installed on two Gulfstream G550 aircraft that the IAF bought in recent years.
A strike mission on the three nuclear facilities would require no fewer than 90 combat aircraft, including all 25 F-15Es in the IAF inventory and another 65 F-16I/Cs. On top of that, all the IAF’s refueling planes will have to be airborne: 5 KC-130Hs and 4 B-707s. The combat aircraft will have to be refueled both en route to and on the way back from Iran. The IAF will have a hard time locating an area above which the tankers can cruise without being detected by the Syrians or the Turks.
One of the toughest operational problems to resolve is the fact that the facility at Natanz is buried deep underground. Part of it, the fuel-enrichment plant, reaches a depth of 8 meters, and is protected by a 2.5-meter-thick concrete wall, which is in turn protected by another concrete wall. By mid-2004 the Iranians had fortified their defense of the other part of the facility, where the centrifuges are housed. They buried it 25 meters underground and built a roof over it made of reinforced concrete several meters thick.
The Iranians use the centrifuges to enrich uranium, which is required in order to produce a nuclear bomb. There are already 6,000 centrifuges at the Natanz facility; the Iranians plan to install a total of 50,000, which could be used to produce 500 kilos of weapons-grade uranium annually. Building a nuclear bomb takes 15-20 kilograms of enriched uranium. That means that the Natanz facility will be able to supply enough fissile material for 25-30 nuclear weapons per year.
Because the Natanz facility is so important, the Iranians have gone to great lengths to protect it. To contend with the serious defensive measures they have taken, the IAF will use two types of U.S.-made smart bombs. According to reports in the foreign media, 600 of these bombs – nicknamed “bunker busters” – have been sold to Israel. One is called GBU-27, it weighs about 900 kilos and it can penetrate a 2.4-meter layer of concrete. The other is called GBU-28 and weighs 2,268 kilos; this monster can penetrate 6 meters of concrete and another layer of earth 30 meters deep. But for these bombs to penetrate ultra-protected Iranian facilities, IAF pilots will have to strike the targets with absolute accuracy and at an optimal angle.
But the challenges facing the IAF do not end there. Iran has built a dense aerial-defense system that will make it hard for Israeli planes to reach their targets unscathed. Among other things, the Iranians have deployed batteries of Hawk, SA-5 and SA-2 surface-to-air missiles, plus they have SA-7, SA-15, Rapier, Crotale and Stinger anti-aircraft missiles. Furthermore, 1,700 anti-aircraft guns protect the nuclear facilities – not to mention the 158 combat aircraft that might take part in defending Iran’s skies. Most of those planes are outdated, but they may be scrambled to intercept the IAF, which will thus have to use part of its strike force to deal with the situation.
However, all these obstacles are nothing compared to the S-300V (SA-12 Giant) anti-aircraft defense system, which various reports say Russia may have secretly supplied to Iran recently. If the Iranians indeed have this defense system, all of the IAF’s calculations, and all of the considerations for and against a strike, will have to be overhauled. The Russian system is so sophisticated and tamper-proof that the aircraft attrition rates could reach 20-30 percent: In other words, out of a strike force of 90 aircraft, 20 to 25 would be downed. This, the authors say, is “a loss Israel would hardly accept in paying.”
If Israel also decides to attack the famous reactor in Bushehr, an ecological disaster and mass deaths will result. The contamination released into the air in the form of radionuclides would spread over a large area, and thousands of Iranians who live nearby would be killed immediately; in addition, possibly hundreds of thousands would subsequently die of cancer. Because northerly winds blow in the area throughout most of the year, the authors conclude that, “most definitely Bahrain, Qatar and the UAE will be heavily affected by the radionuclides.”
The difficulty involved in an IAF strike would become a moot point if ballistic missiles wind up being used instead of combat aircraft. The Iranians cannot defend against ballistic missiles. The study lays bare Israel’s missile program and points to three missile versions it has developed: Jericho I, II and III. The Jericho I has a 500-kilometer range, a 450-kilogram warhead, and can carry a 20-kiloton nuclear weapon. Jericho II has a 1,500-kilometer range, and entered service in 1990. It can carry a 1-megaton nuclear warhead. Jericho III is an intercontinental ballistic missile with a range of 4,800-6,500 kilometers, and can carry a multi-megaton nuclear warhead. The study says the latter was expected to enter service in 2008.
The authors apparently do not insinuate that Israel will launch missiles carrying nuclear warheads, but rather conventional warheads. By their calculation it will take 42 Jericho III missiles to destroy the three Iranian facilities, assuming that they all hit their marks, which is extremely difficult. It is not enough to hit the target area: To destroy the facilities it is necessary to hit certain points of only a few meters in size. It is doubtful the Jerichos’ accuracy can be relied on, and that all of them will hit those critical spots with precision.
The study also analyzes the possible Iranian response to an Israeli strike. In all likelihood the result would be to spur Iranians to continue and even accelerate their nuclear program, to create reliable deterrence in the face of an aggressive Israel. Iran would also withdraw from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, which until now has enabled its nuclear program to be monitored, to a certain degree, through inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency. An Israeli strike would immediately put a stop to the international community’s attempts to pressure Iran into suspending development of nuclear weapons.
No Syrian response
Iran would also, almost certainly, retaliate against Israel directly. It might attack targets here with Shahab-3 ballistic missiles, whose range covers all of Israel. A few might even be equipped with chemical warheads. In addition, the Iranians would use Hezbollah and Hamas to dispatch waves of suicide bombers into Israel. The Second Lebanon War showed us Hezbollah’s rocket capability, and the experience of the past eight years has been instructive regarding Hamas’ ability to fire Qassams from the Gaza Strip.
Hezbollah launched 4,000 rockets from South Lebanon during the Second Lebanon War, and their effect on northern Israel has not been forgotten: Life was nearly paralyzed for a whole month. Since then the Lebanese organization’s stockpile was replenished and enhanced, and it now has some 40,000 rockets. Israel does not have a response to those rockets. The rocket defense systems now being developed (Iron Dome and Magic Wand) are still far from completion, and even after they become operational, it is doubtful they will prove effective against thousands of rockets launched at Israel.
An Israeli strike on Iran would also sow instability in the Middle East. The Iranians would make use of the Shi’ites in Iraq, support Taliban fighters and improve their combat capabilities in Afghanistan. They also might attack American interests in the region, especially in countries that host U.S. military forces, such as Qatar and Bahrain. The Iranians would probably also attempt to disrupt the flow of oil to the West from the Persian Gulf region. Since the United States would be perceived as having given Israel a green light to attack Iran, American relations with allies in the Arab world could suffer greatly. Toukan and Cordesman believe, however, that Iran’s ally Syria would refrain from intervening if Israel strikes Iran’s nuclear facilities.
Regarding a possible time frame for an Israeli strike, the authors cited factors that could speed up the decision in this matter. By 2010 Iran could pose a serious threat to its neighbors and Israel, because it would have enough nuclear weapons to deter the latter and the United States from attacking it. Iran’s inventory of effective ballistic missiles capable of carrying nonconventional warheads could also be an incentive. The fear that the country will procure the Russian S-300V aerial-defense system (if it has not done so already) might also serve as an incentive for a preemptive strike.
So what should Israeli policy makers conclude from this American study? That an IAF strike on Iran would be complicated and problematic, and that the chance of it succeeding is not great. That they must weigh all of the far-reaching ramifications that an Israeli strike on Iranian nuclear facilities would have, and that they must not be fooled by promises, should any be made, by Israel Defense Forces officers who present the attack plan as having good odds for success.
One of the conclusions from Toukan and Cordesman’s study is that it is questionable whether Israel has the military capability to destroy Iran’s nuclear program, or even to delay it for several years. Therefore, if the diplomatic contacts the Obama administration is initiating with Iran prove useless, and if in the wake of their expected failure the American president does not decide to attack Iran, it is likely that Iran will possess nuclear weapons in a relatively short time. It seems, therefore, that policy makers in Jerusalem should begin preparing, mentally and operationally, for a situation in which Iran is a nuclear power with a strike capability against Israel.
This is the place to emphasize Israel’s mistake in hyping the Iranian threat. The regime in Tehran is certainly a bitter and inflexible rival, but from there it’s a long way to presenting it as a truly existential threat to Israel. Iran’s involvement in terror in our region is troubling, but a distinction must be made between a willingness to bankroll terrorists, and an intention to launch nuclear missiles against Israel. Even if Iran gets nuclear weapons, Israel’s power of deterrence will suffice to dissuade any Iranian ruler from even contemplating launching nuclear weapons against it.
It is time to stop waving around the scarecrow of an existential threat and refrain from making belligerent statements, which sometimes create a dangerous dynamic of escalation. And if the statements are superfluous and harmful – then this is doubly true for a strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities.
Of course, none of this contradicts the possibility of taking covert action to hamper the Iranians’ program and supply routes. When the IAF destroyed the Osirak reactor in Baghdad in 1981, the “Begin doctrine” came into being, which holds that Israel will not let any hostile country in the region acquire nuclear weapons. The problem is that what could be accomplished in Iraq more than two decades ago is no longer possible today under the present circumstances in Iran.
The continual harping on the Iranian threat stems from domestic Israeli politics and a desire to increase investment in the security realm, but the ramifications of this are dangerous when you analyze expected developments in Iran’s ballistics: It is impossible for Israel to ignore Iran’s capacity to hit it, and Jerusalem must shape a policy that will neutralize that threat.
In another year, or three years from now, when the Iranians possess nuclear weapons, the rules of the strategic game in the region will be completely altered. Israel must reach that moment with a fully formulated and clear policy in hand, enabling it to successfully confront a potential nuclear threat, even when it is likely that the other side has no intention of carrying it out. The key, of course, is deterrence. Only a clear and credible signal to the Iranians, indicating the terrible price they will pay for attempting a nuclear strike against Israel, will prevent them from using their missiles. The Iranians have no logical reason to bring about the total destruction of their big cities, as could happen if Israel uses the means of deterrence at its disposal. Neither the satisfaction of killing Zionist infidels, nor, certainly, the promotion of Palestinian interests would justify that price. Israeli deterrence in the face of an Iranian nuclear threat has a good chance of succeeding precisely because the Iranians have no incentive to deal a mortal blow to Israel.
Therefore, all the declarations about developing the operational capability of IAF aircraft so they can attack the nuclear facilities in Iran, and the empty promises about the ability of the Arrow missile defense system to contend effectively with the Shahab-3, not only do not help bolster Israel’s power of deterrence, but actually undermine the process of building it and making it credible in Iranian eyes.
The time has come to adopt new ways of thinking. No more fiery declarations and empty threats, but rather a carefully weighed policy grounded in sound strategy. Ultimately, in an era of a multi-nuclear Middle East, all sides will have a clear interest to lower tension and not to increase it.
But other experts have challenged Cordesman’s assesment.
The Weekly Standard interviewed Israeli intelligence experts who see many of the same costs as Cordesman but emerge with a different conclusion (maybe because they live in Israel):
Still, after the costs and benefits are weighed and the enigmas and imponderables are given their due, the Israeli experts come back to where they begin: Only after every other option has been exhausted should a military strike be launched. No one else went as far as former Mossad head Efraim Halevy, who warned that an Israeli attack would “change the whole configuration of the Middle East,” producing “a chasm between Israel and the rest of the region” that would have “effects that would last 100 years.” By far the dominant view in Israel is the view espoused by John McCain: The only thing worse than the consequences of an attack on Iranian nuclear facilities would be the consequences of a nuclear Iran.
Short of a full-scale military strike, Israel also has a clandestine option involving the use of unmanned aerial vehicles, sabotage of Iranian facilities, and targeted killings. Nor would this represent a new policy. As Ben-Israel, choosing his words carefully, pointed out, Israeli national security experts have been warning that Iran was 5 years away from producing a nuclear weapon for the last 20. Why do you suppose, he asked, it has taken Iran so long? After all, he observed, 60 years ago in the middle of World War II, it took the United States only a few years to produce the first atomic bomb, and no country that has set its mind to it has taken more than 5 to 10 years. Leaving me to draw the proper inference, Ben-Israel emphasized that clandestine operations can delay but will not destroy Iran’s nuclear program. And the experts agree that time is running out: Absent dramatic action—by the United States, the international community, Israel, or some combination—Iran is on track to join the nuclear club sometime between 2011 and 2014.
For a variety of reasons—President Obama’s attempt to engage Iran may prove futile, the international community may be unable to maintain effective sanctions, the mullahs may hang on to power, an Israeli attack might fail, Israel might elect not to attack Iran—Israelis are compelled to contemplate the structure of an effective containment regime. The challenges are immense. Realists argue that containment based upon the doctrine of mutual assured destruction worked for the 40-year Cold War and will work in the Middle East. But they overlook that in the Cuban missile crisis in 1962 it almost failed.
The realists also rely on a facile analogy. The distinctive variables that Iran and the Middle East add to the mix cast grave doubts on any easy application of Cold War logic. Iran speaks explicitly about wiping out Israel; the Soviet Union never so spoke about the United States. Iran is inspired by a religious faith that celebrates martyrdom and contemplates apocalypse; the Soviet Union was driven by a secular ideology that sought satisfaction in this world. And Iran has no dialogue with Israel; the Soviet Union maintained constant communication with the United States.
These complicating factors make it all the more imperative for Israel, if it wants to construct a successful containment regime, to convey to Iran that it has a devastating second strike capability and is prepared to use it. In addition, it would be useful from the Israeli point of view if the United States were to make Iran understand that America would treat an attack on Israel as an attack on it. And it would provide greater assurance still if Russia were to deliver a similar message.
So now what?