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.
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
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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
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.
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
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
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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