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Friday, July 03, 2009

Israel's Iran options

Stanford University's Peter Berkowitz has a lengthy article in the Weekly Standard in which he discusses Israel's options for attacking Iran's nuclear facilities. Not surprisingly, it's been discussed and analyzed as a realistic option by Israel's decision makers (Hat Tip: Memeorandum).
Conversations over the last few weeks with more than a dozen members of Israel's larger national security community--right and left, scholars and military men and women, some coming out of the army and others the air force, some with decades of experience in military intelligence and others in clandestine operations, some former Knesset members and others former, current, and soon-to-be advisers to prime ministers--suggest it is fair to conclude that the professionals agree with the public that Iran's acquisition of nuclear weapons is a game changer. Among them, there is a consensus that Israel has the technological capacity to undertake a military strike that would inflict heavy damage on Iran's nuclear program. Such a strike, they also believe, would involve unprecedented challenges and risks, including the likelihood of a significant military response by Iran and its allies. Accordingly, an urgent internal debate is well underway in Israel concerning the circumstances in which the country should strike, alternative options, and, in the event that Iran does acquire nuclear weapons, the structure of an effective containment regime.


Most countries are reluctant to discuss the details of their offensive capabilities because they don't want to provide useful information to their enemies. Israel is no different. Nonetheless, the experts with whom I spoke were willing to discuss in broad outline Israel's capacity to destroy or substantially degrade Iran's nuclear facilities. All would be delighted to see engagement, diplomacy, or sanctions succeed. All emphasized that a military strike must be the last resort, chosen only after every other option has been fully exploited. All believe that a green light from the United States, or at least a yellow light, would be indispensable. And they seem convinced that Israel has good intelligence about vital Iranian targets and could, if necessary, with a combination of aircraft and ballistic missiles, bring enough firepower to bear to set the Iranian program back far enough to justify the substantial risks.
Unfortunately, the odds of Israel getting a 'green or yellow light' from the United States with the Obama administration in power are somewhere between slim and none. The real question is what Israel can do without a green or yellow light. Berkowitz claims that an attack would
involve about 80 F-15s and F-16s (almost a fifth of their fighter aircraft); all 9 Israeli aerial tankers to refuel the fighters on their way to and from Iran; a likely flight route north over the Mediterranean, then east along the Syria-Turkey border, crossing briefly over Iraq, before heading into Iran. The strike would probably concentrate on three "critical nodes in Iran's nuclear infrastructure": the Natanz uranium enrichment facility, the Esfahan nuclear research center and uranium conversion facility, and the Arak heavy water plant and future plutonium production reactors. The authors [Abdullah Toukan and Anthony H. Cordesman's "Study on a Possible Israeli Strike on Iran's Nuclear Development Facilities" published in March CiJ] stress that the mission would be complex, high-risk, and without solid assurance of success.
Would the Obama administration order our planes shot down if we fly over Iraq as contemplated above? If not, then most of the damage Israel would suffer as a result of the failure to get clearance from the US would be political damage. The Obama administration would not defend us in the UN. They wouldn't defend us against international sanctions. It hurts to even contemplate that kind of fallout with our principal ally. But contemplating a nuclear Iran hurts even more, because as Berkowitz shows, there really is no workable containment strategy.

Are there other alternatives? The IAF may be able to use a different route to get to Iran (which Berkowitz does not discuss); the IDF may be able to Jericho III surface-to-surface missiles (which he does discuss, but which appears less likely), or some combination of fighter jets and missiles may be used.

Berkowitz dismisses retaliation because the IAF believes that the Arrow anti-missile system will shoot down any missiles shot at us. I agree with him. But if we do attack Iran, I don't believe that retaliation will come from Iran. Neither Iraq in 1981 nor Syria in 2007 retaliated. I believe that retaliation will come from Hamas and Hezbullah. If that happens, I would look for a massive aerial bombardment of Lebanese infrastructure (what Olmert, Peretz and Halutz should have done but were afraid to do in 2006) and an invasion and possible reoccupation of Gaza (what Olmert and Barak should have done but did not do last winter), depending on who retaliates. I believe Hezbullah is much more likely to retaliate with missiles than Hamas is ; Hamas is still substantially weakened from Operation Cast Lead. It is more likely that Hamas will retaliate with kidnappings and the like.

And then we will have to deal with sanctions and with attacks on our nuclear ambiguity policy, if not worse.

Given the world's unwillingness to act, at some point there will be no choice. As John McCain said during the campaign, the only thing worse to contemplate than a strike on Iran is a nuclear Iran. Israel cannot take that risk.

Read the whole thing.


At 7:31 PM, Blogger NormanF said...

As I've mentioned, an EMP attack would eliminate Iran's technological capability to either produce nuclear weapons or to mount direct retaliation in response to an Israeli attack. The worst fallout would be Israeli isolation in the world. That is something Israel can live with and is preferable to a nuclear Iran. As it stands, the only question left is not if but when Israel will act.


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