Security and Defense: Playing the waiting game

After saber-rattling IAEA report came out, Israel is giving the world some time to get tough on Tehran.

By
November 11, 2011 16:52
Iran's Bushehr nuclear reactor

Iran's Bushehr nuclear reactor 311 Reu. (photo credit: Raheb Homavandi / Reuters)

 
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Israel has now entered a waiting period. While just a week ago it seemed like fueled and armed Israel Air Force fighter jets were lining up on runways, ready to bomb Iran, this week they have been stored back in their concrete hangers to fight another day.

The immediate impact of the International Atomic Energy Agency report released on Tuesday is that, for now, an Israeli strike on Iran will move to the back burner and instead Jerusalem will give the world some time to impose tougher sanctions on Iran.

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Whether or not this will happen is another question, but either way Israel will likely want to appear to be playing ball with the world and will therefore give it some time. This way, if sanctions are not imposed or they are not successful, Israel will be able to say to its allies: “We gave you a chance and now we have no choice but to act.”

How long will Israel wait? Likely a few months. On the other hand, the Iranians – angered by the report – could call Israel's bluff and decide to begin enriching uranium to military grade levels and building the bomb. If this happens, then a military strike will return to the forefront as the countdown to Iran becoming a nuclear power moves faster than before.

Iran has mastered the fuel enrichment stage of its nuclear program, having proven its ability to enrich uranium to as high as 20 percent and having already enriched around five tons of low-enriched uranium, which could be enough for two to three nuclear weapons. General assessments are that it would take Iran just a few months to enrich a sufficient quantity of uranium to over the 90% that would be required for one nuclear device.

If the Iranians were working simultaneously on building a weapon, it could take them up to a year to make a crude device, one that could be tested. After that, it could take another year or two to make a weapon that could be installed on the wing of an aircraft or on a long-range ballistic missile.

In general in Israel, there are two primary schools of thought on the IAEA report. There are those who believe that the report will not make a difference and that Israel will ultimately be left on its own to stop Iran if it so desires.



On the other hand, there are those who believe that the world will take the report seriously and will use it to ratchet up sanctions and possibly even take military action.

While US President Barack Obama is believed to be someone who will steer clear of another war in the Middle East, his decision to lead the bombings in Libya could indicate that this might be a misperception.

Some Israelis believe that American military action is a possibility and that even a credible threat of such action could succeed in getting the Iranians to change course.

Vice Premier Moshe Ya’alon, for example, frequently refers to the need to establish a credible military threat against Iran. Ya’alon cites Iran’s decision to suspend all of its nuclear activities in 2003 when the US invaded Iraq and Tehran thought it was next in line. Today, it does not seem to think that there is a real threat.

If Obama issued such a threat or made it clear in other ways – for example by building up a significant US military presence in the Persian Gulf – Israel would likely put its bunker-buster missiles back in storage to wait to see how the American move plays out.

If all of this does not happen though, Israel will need to make a decision: to live with a nuclear Iran or to try and stop it and pay the price of the ensuing war.

Defense Minister Ehud Barak tried to downplay the significance of that future war in his lengthy radio interview with Yaron Dekel on Reshet Bet on Tuesday.

“There is no way to prevent some damage. It will not be pleasant,” Barak said. “There is no scenario for 50,000 dead, or 5,000 killed – and if everyone stays in their homes, maybe not even 500 dead.”

If that is the case Barak seemed to be saying, attacking Iran might not be such a bad idea. This does not necessarily mean that Barak would automatically support an attack plan in a future cabinet vote. It all depends on future developments.

No matter what happens though, if Israel decides to go it alone against Iran, it will probably not ask the US for permission – not for a green light, a red light or a yellow light – like it did in the two previous instances it bombed a nuclear reactor.

The first time, in 1981 in Iraq, drew strong American criticism and a decision by the White House to delay the delivery of fighter jets to Israel. In 2007 when it bombed Syria, Israel had reportedly discussed the option with the US, preferring the US to take action instead. Once then-president George Bush decided not to – as he attested in his recent memoirs – prime minister Ehud Olmert decided to attack anyway.

The Iranian case this time is different. Iran has learned the lessons from both 1981 and 2007 and has dispersed its facilities and placed some of its key components – like its centrifuges at Natanz – inside underground and heavily fortified bunkers.

Nevertheless, the prevailing assessment among Israeli defense experts is that a military option is viable for the IDF and could cause Iran damage sufficient to set back its nuclear program. For how long? Estimates range from one to three years.

In general, there are three major challenges to an Israeli strike against Iran.

First is the intelligence question: does Israel know about all of the various nuclear facilities that would need to be destroyed? Second is the location of the facilities, particularly those that are located next to large population centers, attacks on which could cause major collateral damage. Third is the hardening of the facilities, some of which were built in heavily fortified underground bunkers and others which are surrounded by advanced Russian-made air-defense systems.

In 2006, Ya’alon provided some unique insight into a potential Israeli attack plan against Iran. Speaking at the Hudson Institute, Ya’alon, who was then on sabbatical at a US think tank, said that Israel would need to attack a few dozen sites and that the strikes would need to be “precise, like a targeted killing.”

Israel, he added, would also have to “disrupt” Iran’s air-defense systems, which could be done using other capabilities, not just aircraft. Ya’alon could have been referring to Israel’s ballistic missile capability, the use of cruise missiles fired from Israel’s Dolphin-class submarines or electronic warfare systems that could neutralize the ground-based radars.

“Such a strike would be difficult to carry out from a military perspective, as Iran's nuclear facilities are spread out, but it is nonetheless feasible,” he was quoted as saying.

Israel, though, would first have to overcome Iranian combat aircraft, most of which are outdated American and French planes purchased during the days of the Shah and before the Islamic Revolution of 1979. Iran is widely estimated to have around 160 operational combat aircraft and while these could pose a challenge, the outdated planes will not create a direct threat to Israeli or American pilots flying in the most advanced aircraft in the world today.

The second line of Iran’s defense is its surface-to-air missiles (SAMs) which it significantly upgraded throughout the 2000s mostly by purchasing Russian-made air defense systems.

The main problem is simply getting to Iran. Nevertheless, according to most estimates by international think tanks, Israeli F-15 and F-16 aircraft are capable of longrange missions with a combat radius that includes Iran. The combat radius could be increased further by using the IAF's fleet of Boeing 707 air-to-air refueling tankers to nurse attack planes as they make the flight to Iran and back.

But what would the potential targets be? Of known Iranian nuclear sites, there are approximately five key facilities that would likely be targeted in a preemptive strike. The first is Bushehr, the light-water reactor built along the coast of the Persian Gulf in southwestern Iran. The next facility is the heavy-water plant under construction near the town of Arak, which could be used one day to produce plutonium, another track for developing a nuclear weapon. Then there is Iran’s Uranium Conversion Facility, located at the Isfahan Nuclear Technology Center. Based on satellite imagery the facility is aboveground, although some reports have suggested tunneling near the complex.

Another target is the Fordo Facility near the city of Qom, which Iran officially revealed to the IAEA in September 2009 even though the major Western intelligence agencies already knew about it. The facility, which was expected to hold about 3,000 centrifuges, will be difficult to penetrate because it was built into a mountain. Lastly, there is the main Iranian uranium enrichment facility in Natanz. The complex consists of two large halls dug somewhere between eight and 23 feet below ground and covered by several layers of concrete and metal.

If they were to attack, military planners would probably try to destroy Iran’s centrifuge fabrication sites to make it difficult for Iran to rebuild its program, as well as Iranian radar stations, missile bases, silos and launchers to minimize Iran’s ability to strike back with long-range missiles.

Some officials have also called for bombing Iran’s oil fields and energy infrastructure.

The loss of the country’s main source of income could potentially cause the regime to rethink its nuclear stance and make it difficult to finance the rebuilding of the destroyed facilities.

On the other hand, attacking the oil fields would likely lead to an immediate climb in the price of oil worldwide and Israel would lose a lot of sympathy from the international community.

Now, however, it is Israel’s time to sit, wait and see what the world does and whether it will be spared having to deal on its own with one of the greatest challenges it has faced since its establishment 63 years ago.

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