Security and Defense: Rattling the cage

Jerusalem is signaling to the world that it is time to get serious about putting a stop to Iran’s nuclear program.

IDF jet 311 (photo credit: IDF spokesperson)
IDF jet 311
(photo credit: IDF spokesperson)
On Wednesday, Israel test fired a long-range ballistic missile believed, according to foreign reports, to be a version of the Jericho 3 missile capable of carrying nuclear warheads up to ranges of 4,000 kilometers.
That same day, the Israel Air Force announced that it had returned from a week of joint maneuvers with Italy over Sardinia that included long-range flights, midair refueling and complicated bombing runs. On Thursday, the Home Front Command held a large-scale civil defense exercise aimed at preparing the public for missile attacks in the center of the country.
On their own, these exercises do not seem overly exciting, especially since they were planned months in advance. Israel’s missile tests are not something done randomly; they require immense preparations, particularly since they are launched to the west, over the Mediterranean Sea. Joint exercises with foreign countries cannot be planned at the spur of the moment and also require months of advanced planning.
At the same time, these events are also part of Israel’s saber-rattling and are Jerusalem’s way of signaling to the world that it is serious about the need for Iran’s nuclear program to be put to a stop. This message is being conveyed in the run-up to the report set to be published next week by the International Atomic Energy Agency, which is expected to cast some new light on Iran’s weapons program.
The IAEA is under pressure to release the report in response to the recently uncovered Iranian plot to assassinate the Saudi ambassador to Washington.
The report is expected to say that Iran is moving forward with its weapons program, something the US National Intelligence Estimate was unable to ascertain in late 2007.
If the report is damning to Iran, it could serve as the basis for a major crackdown would likely focus on economic sanctions, for example against the Iranian Central Bank, which has yet to be targeted, before any military action would be taken.
On the other hand, the report could also serve as a justification for military action against Iran, either by Israel, by the US or by a coalition of countries. A report by the IAEA, which is considered to be an objective UN agency, is not the same as having a country's own intelligence agencies claim that the country is developing weapons of mass destruction, as in the case with Iraq in 2003.
Either way, there is no question that something is afoot. Defense Minister Ehud Barak flew to the US in September and two weeks later US Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta came to Israel for another round of talks, during which he urged Israel to “work together” with the international community to stop Iran.
New CIA chief David Petraeus recently visited Israel as well, as did head of the European Command Adm. James Stavridis and additional US military officials.
British Chief of Defense Staff Gen. David Richards secretly visited Israel this week, after which Barak flew to London for talks with the defense and foreign secretaries. The Guardian reported that the British military was drafting plans for the part it will play in a potential US-led attack against Iran’s nuclear facilities.
While this all seems dramatic and as though Israel is on the verge of launching a war, it is something that has happened in the past.
In early 2010, for example, US Vice President Joe Biden, then-CIA director Leon Panetta, National Security Adviser Jim Jones, National Security Council strategist Dennis Ross, Deputy Secretaries of State Jim Steinberg and Jack Lew, head of the Senate’s Foreign Relations Committee Sen. John Kerry and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. Michael Mullen all passed through the gates of Ben-Gurion Airport in the span of just six weeks.
This time appears to be different though – not necessarily because of a change in Israel but because of developments in Iran, where sanctions are not believed to have had a major impact on the progress of the nuclear program.
On the contrary. Israeli intelligence believes that the moment Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei decides to make the bomb (he is not believed to have made the decision yet), it would take about a year to make a crude device and around two to three years to make a weapon that could be installed on the wing of an aircraft or on a ballistic missile.
Iran is also continuing to disperse its capabilities and has announced intentions to move some of its advanced centrifuges to the Fordo facility near the city of Qom, which Barak has said before is immune to conventional military strikes. As reported last month in The Jerusalem Post, this has led to an assessment among analysts that the window of opportunity for a strike against Iran is quickly closing.
The debate among the inner cabinet members regarding the Iranian issue are not new. Likud party cabinet members Dan Meridor and Moshe “Bogie” Ya'alon are known opponents of such a strike and believe that Israel should not be placing itself at the forefront of efforts to stop it. On the other side are Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and Barak, the latter having been accused of sparking the recent media focus on the issue.
In a country like Israel where the censor often imposes restrictions on issues that are far less sensitive for national security than the Iranian problem, it is telling that there has been no censorship in this case.
The past two times that Israel bombed a nuclear reactor – in Syria in 2007 and in Iraq in 1981 – there was not nearly as extensive a debate as there is today. In the Syrian case, for example, the public did not even know that President Bashar Assad had built a nuclear reactor to begin with.
That is why on the one hand the government might actually want this debate, which began with Nahum Barnea’s sensational headline in last Friday’s Yediot Aharonot, to be held in the media. This way the message will get out to the world, which will then hopefully take action.
On the other hand, maybe the news was not originally intended for publication. If that is the case, then there is actually something comforting in the ongoing debate in the media and the public regarding military action against Iran.
Unlike the operation in Syria, which was hidden from the public, Iran’s nuclear program has been a threat to Israel for over a decade and the public, which could face unprecedented rocket and missile fire following a strike, has the right to know where their government is leading them, what the risks are and what they potentially stand to gain.
Barak and Netanyahu could in fact gain from this ongoing discourse. On the one hand, it takes the attention away from the doctors’ strike and the social protests and allows them to focus on the really important issues that they believe they were elected in order to deal with. It also could potentially lead the US and Europe to take more decisive action against Iran – starting with economic sanctions – that have not been taken before.
The problem is that it’s possible that the increased tension between Israel and Iran will cause one of the sides to make a mistake that could lead to a war that neither side currently wants.
Iran’s response to an Israeli attack could vary. Israel's greatest concern stems from the Hizbullah’s missile arsenal, which is estimated at 50,000 with the ability to cover the entire State of Israel. For that reason, there are some estimates that when and if it attacks Iran, Israel will also simultaneously attack some of the known Hizbullah targets with an emphasis on the group's long-range missile.
But one of the main questions we are left with is how long such a war would last. Judging by the Iran-Iraq War in the 1980s, which lasted eight years, when Iran is determined and driven by radical ideology and religion almost nothing can stop it. It is therefore possible that Iran will continue fighting for as long as it feels like it is achieving its goal of hurting Israel.