Security and Defense: To attack or not to attack...?

Security and Defense To

In 1991, during the First Gulf War, Iraq fired 39 Scud missiles into Israel, causing extensive damage, wounding dozens and directly killing one person. A year later, in 1992, a car bomb went off at the Israeli Embassy in Buenos Aires, killing 29 people. In 1994, another car bomb smashed into the AMIA Jewish Community Center in Buenos Aires, killing 85. Both attacks were attributed to Hizbullah terror cells, directed and financed by Iran. In the summer of 2006, during the Second Lebanon War, Hizbullah fired over 4,000 short-to-medium-range rockets into Israel, causing extensive damage in the North and killing 44 civilians. Now take all of this, multiply it by three, and you get a prediction for the fallout that can be expected from a military strike against Iran's nuclear facilities. As the talks with Iran opened on Thursday, one of the main questions on all of the participants' minds was what the one key country not at the talks - Israel - would do. Would it accept a deal struck between the United States, Russia, the European Union and Iran allowing the Islamic Republic to advance with a supervised civilian nuclear program, or would it decide to strike? An attack on Iran's nuclear facilities is not a simple operation and cannot be compared to the two previous strikes Israel carried out against the Syrian reactor in 2007 and the Iraqi reactor in 1981. In those two cases, the reactors consisted of one main facility, above ground and without advanced air defenses. The same cannot be said of Iran's nuclear program. As discovered last week, the second uranium enrichment facility near Qom was dug inside a mountain with two tunnels for access. According to intelligence revelations, the facility contains 3,000 centrifuges - allegedly to enrich uranium to military levels - that would become operational by the middle of next year. THIS NEW facility could be just the beginning. According to an article in Foreign Policy this week, the Qom facility is likely not the only nuclear installation that Iran has been hiding. A centrifuge plant, the article said, requires uranium hexafluoride - a material derived from refined uranium ore and produced at a conversion plant. Iran, it continued, would probably not risk diverting the UH from the known conversion plant in Esfahan, which is under International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) supervision. Therefore, the article argued, Iran has likely set up an accompanying clandestine conversion facility. An analysis of an Israeli attack plan, published by the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington earlier this year, claimed that a strike would focus on four main facilities - the Natanz enrichment facility, the Bushehr light-water nuclear power reactor, the Arak heavy water facility and the conversion plant in Esfahan. According to the report, Israel would likely have to use close to 100 fighter jets, as well as its entire fleet of aerial fuel tankers. According to the research, the shortest route for Israel would be via the North, while straddling the Syrian-Turkish border and then the Turkish-Iraqi border all the way to Iran. An alternative could be what is called the central route - flying directly over Jordan and Iraq into Iran. Each route has its political and operational risks. NEEDLESS TO say, Israel is very skeptical of the possibility that the talks in Geneva that began on Thursday will produce a positive outcome. The discovery of the facility near Qom is the third time Iran has been caught red-handed deceiving the world about the extent of its project. The first time was in 2002, when an Iranian opposition group revealed in a press conference that Iran was building a massive uranium enrichment facility - filled with thousands of centrifuges - in an underground, heavily-fortified bunker in a place called Natanz. At the time, media reports speculated that the information revealed by the National Council of Resistance of Iran had come from a foreign intelligence agency, possibly the Mossad. Several years later, in the second case of deception, the CIA uncovered evidence that Iran had secretly tried designing a nuclear weapon and warhead. This history of deceit - including buying equipment on the nuclear black market - has Israeli defense officials concerned that the facility at Qom is not the last secret Iranian nuclear installation. "They have deceived the world numerous times until now and will continue to do so," one defense official said this week. Despite the Israeli skepticism about Thursday's talks, there is not a clear consensus in the West regarding a military strike. Some claim it won't work. Others say it will only set the Iranians back by several years. A delay, however, may be enough. Before the 1981 strike on the Osirak reactor outside Baghdad, the assessment in the IDF was that the operation would only succeed in delaying Saddam Hussein's nuclear program by a few years. In reality, it was never rebuilt. One question that remains is what effect a strike would have on the Iranian public, much of which showed clearly after the June elections that it was opposed to the regime and wanted to fight for its freedom. Would a strike unite the public with the regime of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, or would it be met by cheers on the streets of Teheran? There is no clear answer. Contrary to public thinking in Israel, Western intelligence agencies are also still split on the question of whether Iran is in fact currently working on its nuclear "weaponization" program. A nuclear weapon requires three main components. The first is fissionable material - such as uranium - which Iran is known to be processing at Natanz, Qom and Arak. The second component is the delivery system, such as the Sajil-2, the long-range ballistic missile that Iran test-fired on Yom Kippur. The third component is the weapons program, essentially the nuclear warhead that puts the first two components together and makes the nuclear weapon. In 2007, the US published a National Intelligence Estimate that claimed Iran had suspended its weapons program in 2003. This still seems to be the assessment in the US, where intelligence agencies claim that there is still no clear-cut evidence that Iran has renewed that part of its nuclear program. Israel does not agree and has claimed for years that while Iran suspended the weapons program in 2003 on the eve of the American invasion of Iraq, out of fear that it was next in line, it renewed the program two years later. The Germans and French appear to accept Israel's assessment. While publicly American officials claim that Iran is ultimately seeking a nuclear weapon - as Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, a longstanding opponent of military action, declared on Sunday - the difference in intelligence could be used by the Obama administration to pressure Israel into holding back on a military operation. The Geneva talks are also aimed at doing just that. Although Israel is not optimistic about the outcome of the discussions, it is likely that Jerusalem will need to wait for the dialogue to finish before making any decisions on the matter. Even if the dialogue fails, Israel will still need to wait to give the EU, Russia, the US and China the chance to impose tough sanctions on Iran, particularly in the energy sector and the supply of refined fuel, a measure believed to be capable of having a real effect on the regime. If the talks do fail, though, and the sanctions imposed are not tough, Israel will be left to decide what to do. Alternatively the talks may succeed, and if the US reaches a deal under which the Islamic Republic is allowed to continue enriching uranium at low levels for energy purposes, Israel's hands will be tied again.