da "Strategic Comments", dell’ International Institute for Strategic Studies
Iran’s apparent interest in a nuclear-weapons capability, which it denies, has sparked concerns in Israel mirroring those of the United States, the Gulf Cooperation Council, France, Germany and the United Kingdom. Yet there is a unique edge to Israel’s worries: the concentration of three-quarters of its population on a narrow strip of coastline from Ashkelon to Haifa makes it extremely vulnerable to nuclear strikes. Israel’s presumed second-strike capability might severely damage its attacker, but there would be no Israeli state left to take satisfaction. Israelis are not the first to notice this asymmetry. Former Iranian president Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani remarked five years ago that ‘the use of even one nuclear bomb inside Israel will destroy everything. However, it will only harm the Islamic world. It is not irrational to contemplate such an eventuality.’
Several developments have reignited Israeli concerns about the prospect of an undeterrable adversary in its vicinity. The first was alleged Iranian progress in mastering uranium enrichment against a background of deception in Tehran’s dealings with the International Atomic Energy Agency. Israel is said to have told the US that Iran has not only been working on centrifuge cascades, but has also made progress toward fabricating the explosive shell essential to compressing the fissile core of a nuclear device to produce a yield. The source is a secret agent whose reporting has not been confirmed by US analysts. Given the trouble previously caused by ‘Curveball’, a German intelligence asset whose inaccurate reporting on Saddam Hussein’s supposed WMD efforts buttressed the case for war against Iraq, Israel’s claims have been met with scepticism by the CIA, which is reported to have concluded that Iran does not, at this point, have a weapons programme.
Secondly, Israel, like other concerned Western countries, relates Iran’s putative efforts to develop a nuclear weapons capability with advances Tehran claims to have made towards an intermediate ballistic missile capability in the form of the Shahab III. Given the range arcs connecting hypothetical launch sites in eastern Iran to the Mediterranean coast, Israel would have no more than two or three minutes’ warning of impact. Such short lead-time would inevitably limit Israel’s response options and strain its command-and-control arrangements.
Thirdly, Israel perceives Iran to be on the offensive. Tehran’s interventions in Israel’s dispute with Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza strike Israelis as gratuitously provocative. Iran’s ideological and rhetorical commitment to the Palestinian cause is taken for granted by most Israelis, but the extension of this commitment to financing, training and equipping Hamas and Palestine Islamic Jihad is not. To Israeli minds it suggests a willingness to take risks for a purpose that does not contribute directly to the security of the Iranian state; it seems expressive, not rational and evokes a mindset unsuited to a strategic relationship involving nuclear weapons and underpinned by deterrence. The level of Iranian support for Hizbullah before, during and after recent hostilities in Lebanon has strengthened suspicions that Iran’s posture toward Israel has taken a harder, more aggressive and somewhat risk-prone turn.
The context for the current tensions was set by a sequence of carefully crafted and intentionally outrageous statements by Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. He denied the Holocaust, threatened to wipe Israel off the map, characterised the Jewish state as ‘artificial’ and predicted that Israel would disappear shortly.
These verbal attacks serve several purposes perhaps only tangentially related to the Iranian–Israeli bilateral relationship. They are popular in the Arab world, which makes it awkward for regional regimes to side openly with the US in its efforts to win support for sanctions against Iran. They also serve Ahmadinejad’s determination to breathe new life into the Islamic Revolution, which had not been launched as a Shia revolt but was originally envisaged as a pan-Islamic movement. By openly challenging Israel’s legitimacy, let alone viability, as a state, the Iranian president enhances the primacy of Iran even as he papers over Sunni–Shia tensions that, in Iraq, are tearing at the fabric of society. Not coincidentally, he deflects attention from the continuing poor performance of Iran’s economy under his leadership. There is thus little likelihood that Ahmadinejad will temper his rhetoric, and just as little incentive for Supreme Leader Ali Khamene’i to push him towards a more tempered presentational approach. Meanwhile, Israelis are not focusing on the collateral objectives of Ahmadinejad’s words, but rather on their face value.
The government of Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert would like this problem to go away. The nearly universal disappointment – and, in some quarters, anger – over Olmert’s handling of the confrontation with Hizbullah has put the government under pressure to be resolute. This pressure has been compounded by the continued firing of Qassam rockets from Gaza, where another Israeli soldier remains captive. It is therefore imperative politically that Olmert more overtly address the issue of Iran’s nuclear ambitions and the interplay between these designs and Ahmadinejad’s periodic outbursts. Accordingly, Olmert has brought Avigdor Lieberman into the cabinet as part of a coalition deal that gives the newcomer the Iran portfolio. Lieberman is a right-wing politician who believes that Israel’s enemies cannot be placated and must be subdued. Effie Eitam, another hardliner and former general who at one time seemed to favour the expulsion of Palestinians from the West Bank, also sits on Olmert’s flank.
But the problem with being more vocal for domestic political purposes is that a prior foreign policy objective – to keep Israel out of the US–UN–Iran diplomatic equation – has necessarily been compromised. The failure of the UN Security Council to agree on and enforce sanctions capable of raising the cost to Iran of pursuing its enrichment programme has reduced Olmert’s room for maneouvre. Nor is there much confidence in the willingness of third parties to deal with the problem militarily. The deputy defence minister, Ephraim Sneh, summed up Israeli sentiment by saying that the countries that would not bomb Auschwitz were not going to bomb Iran’s nuclear production facilities.
American mixed messages
The US appears to be giving Israel mixed signals regarding its own intentions to move beyond diplomacy, should this prove unavailing. Olmert met President George W. Bush in Washington on 14 November and emerged from his two-on-two meeting, at which Iran was presumed to be the main agenda item, saying that he was very happy with the discussion. Political analysts generally interpreted this to mean that Bush had given him assurances that, one way or another, Iran would not be allowed to obtain a nuclear-weapons capability. The implication drawn by some will have been that, if all else failed, the US would consider facilitating an Israeli attack. But there is virtually no chance that approval would have been given by the White House at this encounter, or sought by Israel.
A crucial issue in any military calculations is the gap between the ‘red lines’ of Israel and America. For Israel, Iranian mastery of the enrichment process represents a point of no return. For the US, which prudently has not specified a red line, that point would be further down the road, perhaps the moment when Iran was shown to have moved towards weaponisation. The gap between the two countries on this point could complicate diplomatic or military coordination over the next two years.
A conflicting and disconcerting message was also heard by Israelis who perceived that the defeats suffered by Republicans in the mid-term elections, which had taken place the week before Olmert’s visit, ruled out the possibility, of an American attack on Iran. The logic was that the White House, confounded by Iraq and under pressure from Republicans to do nothing more to damage the party’s prospects in the 2008 general election, would abandon whatever plans might have been contemplated regarding military action against Iran. Donald Rumsfeld’s imminent replacement as secretary of defense by Robert Gates, who is on record as endorsing a dialogue with Iran, reinforced this view. Despite the apparently encouraging substance of Bush’s private remarks to Olmert, the Israeli delegation was hearing to them rather discouraging noises from others.
The complexities of an attack against Iran’s nuclear facilities are daunting. The targets within Iran are much further from Israeli bases than was Iraq’s Osirak reactor, destroyed by the Israeli Air Force in 1981. Yet Israel has reshaped its air force for deep strike missions of this kind. Its F-15s and F-16s have conformal fuel tanks that, in addition to drop tanks, increase the ability to fly long distances and reduce the need to refuel. For long-range missions such as this, however, tankers based on the C-130 and B-707 airframes are available to support strike aircraft. The latter are big enough to loiter at refuelling stations for long periods and dispense the fuel needed to allow the raiders back to their bases after striking their targets.
Israel’s air-force is sufficiently large to deploy a strike package of perhaps 50 jets – 25 F-16s and 25 F-15s – which would be just enough to attack three key targets: the Natanz enrichment facility; the Arak research reactor; and the uranium conversion facility at Isfahan. The size of the attacking force would be determined by the number of aircraft needed to deliver a given amount of munitions, assuming a relatively low attrition rate. Israel has many weapons, such as 2,000-pound BLU-109 and 5,000 pound BLU-113 hardened penetration bombs, that could be used for such purposes. These can be released at standoff ranges and programmed to detonate above or below ground for maximum effect. Generating overpressures of about 10 pounds per square inch, these munitions are unlikely to leave much more than rubble. To assist precise targeting, Israel could use its Litening targeting pods in combination with GPS systems. The Israelis would probably expect all but one or two of the aircraft to hit their targets. This is an expectation shaped by historical data on similar strikes conducted against an enemy that was well aware that an attack was coming.
There is the question of how Israeli planes would get to Iran. The attackers would have to traverse Turkish air space if they chose a northern route, which would skirt the Turkish bases at Diyarbakir and Incirlik. Standing against the risk of Turkish interference would be the advantage of refuelling over international Mediterranean waters. A central route would require them to overfly Syria or Jordan and Iraq. The Syrians would certainly shoot at the intruders; the Jordanians would probably not, but King Abdullah, a tacit Israeli friend, would be gravely humiliated. If the US were fully supportive and willing to be identified unambiguously with an Israeli strike, it could facilitate overflight of Iraq and provide a secure orbit in Iraqi airspace for Israeli refuelling aircraft. A southern route would require overflight of Saudi Arabia. Since Iraq has faded as a rival to the Kingdom, and Saudi military alert levels are correspondingly lower, it is extremely improbable that the raiders would be detected, let alone successfully engaged. It seems unlikely at this juncture that the US would be eager to accept the diplomatic and retaliatory costs entailed by any of these options.
Iranian retaliation does not loom large in Israel’s thinking. Israelis are certainly vulnerable to Iranian reprisal in third countries, as Tehran proved when it collaborated in attacks against Jewish targets in Argentina in the early 1990s. But Hizbullah, despite its evident resilience, is no match for the Israeli Defense Force, especially if ground forces were fully unleashed, as many Israelis think they should have been recently in Lebanon. Tehran’s Syrian ally would not be in a position to respond on Iran’s behalf. And from an Israeli viewpoint, Iran is already pressing the Palestinian militant button as hard as it can.
For now, matters stand in delicate balance. The uncertainties regarding access are probably the ones that render the idea of attacking Iranian nuclear-related installations most unappetising to Israel. But Israel has tended to take risks in the past when it has felt most isolated and threatened. Israel’s confidence in its nuclear deterrence will counterbalance the impulse to undertake the hazards of airstrikes against Iran; and it is not yet clear to Israelis whether Iran would be more aggressive as a nuclear power, or more cautious and in fear of escalation. International inaction, an America with no appetite for confrontation, and an Iran whose leaders ruminate publicly on the destruction of Israel are precisely the conditions to upset this delicate balance.