Storm clouds gathering

Iran's nuclear defiance may be forcing Israel towards a showdown.

shihab 298 88 (photo credit: AP)
shihab 298 88
(photo credit: AP)
Two parallel developments from Teheran are making for some sweaty palms in the international community, especially in Jerusalem: Iran's move toward producing a nuclear bomb, and its repeated verbal attacks on the legitimacy of the Jewish state. There are several reasons for alarm. In August, Iran restarted uranium conversion - a precursor to enrichment - at its Isfahan nuclear power plant. And, just this month, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad threatened to end all cooperation with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) should the UN Security Council take action against the Islamic Republic for having done so. The Iranians admit that they received information on casting and machining uranium metal from rogue Pakistani scientist AQ Khan in 1987; in 2004, IAEA inspectors found traces of high-enriched uranium at Natanz. Iran also routinely parades its Shihab-3 ballistic missile, which can carry a nuclear warhead and can reach Israel. Meanwhile, as if to rattle the most complacent head of state into action, Ahmadinejad continually indulges in genocidal threats against Israel and muses about a clash of civilizations between the Muslim and non-Muslim worlds. Iran seems to be enjoying a genuine feeling of invincibility, raising fears in the Middle East of renewed Shi'ite adventurism. For Israel, these fears are visceral. "Israel can't live with the idea that they [Iran] will hold a nuclear bomb," Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom said last week, adding that Teheran's intentions should concern for the entire international community. "If the Iranians have a nuclear bomb, it will be a nightmare for everyone," he said, "not only for Israel." Until now, the Jewish state has left the Iranian problem for the international community to deal with. But that may not be possible for much longer. What is to be done? There are five options on the table for dealing with Iran and its suspected nuclear weapons program: economic sanctions, convention military strikes (and/or some combination of the two), missile defense, seeking safety in nuclear deterrence - or, most radical, nuclear coercion. In the end, say experts, a comprehensive and sustained military, diplomatic and economic approach may be the best bet - because each of these policies has its limitations. Sanctions In recent days, there has been increased discussion by European leaders about applying economic sanctions to Iran - particularly in light of Ahmadinejad's recent comments about the "myth" of the Holocaust and wiping Israel off the map. While sanctions make one look tough without having to go to war, they have a mixed record at dissuading countries from developing nuclear weapons, notes Gary Clyde Hufbauer, a fellow at the Washington-based Institute for International Economics and coauthor of Economic Sanctions Reconsidered. "My guess is that sanctions won't get the Iranians from desisting from something they consider vital to their national interest," says Hufbauer. "There's a lot of prestige involved." He points out that sanctions from the United States failed to convince either India or Pakistan to give up their nuclear arsenals. Similarly, the kind of "positive economic incentives" being suggested now in America for buying off the Iranians flopped when the Clinton Administration tried them with North Korea. "Even if all the Western countries applied sanctions, it would be hard to get Russia and China in on the sanctions, and that leaves a pretty big hole," says Hufbauer. Indeed, both regional giants have maintained lucrative economic ties to Iran and are unlikely to abandon them. For his part, Uzi Arad warns against either-or thinking when dealing with Iran's nuclear program. A former senior Mossad official and currently the head of the Institute for Policy and Strategy at the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya, Arad suggests that Israel operate within the confines of a larger Western coalition and that both military and economic measures be tried. "It's not 'Bang!' and we're done," says Arad. "There's no quick fix for this nuclear problem. Even if the Iranians manage to get a weapon, we should continue pressure on them to give it up. South Africa gave up its nuclear bombs." Conventional military strikes Theoretically, the United States could destroy, or at least severely damage, Iran's nuclear program. However, the fallout could be devastating in neighboring Iraq, where Iranian intelligence already has a foothold, and coalition forces would likely face a renewed Shi'ite insurgency just as they try to bring the Sunnis into the new governing system. Israel is somewhat less vulnerable to such a reaction, but its military capabilities are much more limited than those of the United States. A recently released US Army War College report entitled "Getting Ready for a Nuclear-Ready Iran" expressed doubt that the IAF could destroy Iran's nuclear facilities. Assuming no Muslim country in the region would provide a landing zone, IAF aircraft would have to fly 1,500-1,700 kilometers to the targets in Iran, destroy them, and then fly back the same distance, the report said. The mission would entail at least two mid-air refuelings, which would be problematic, since Israel's few 707s are very vulnerable to attack. The large aerial task force would also need support aircraft for electronic countermeasures, communication and rescue operations. The conclusion of the report is that an Israeli attack would be a one-shot deal against a few Iranian targets. Of course, the question remains as to whether the air force would need to destroy, or even strike, every possible target to knock Iranian nuclear weapons production off-line. Writing in Haaretz, military analyst Ze'ev Schiff says that some experts, such as Maj.-Gens. (ret.) Eitan Ben-Eliahu, former commander of the Israeli air force, and Yitzhak Ben-Israel believe the mission is doable. So does IAF Maj.-Gen. (res.) Nechemia Dagan. Dagan is uneasy about discussing operational details, but he says, "I know the capabilities of the Israel Air Force, and I know that, when there is a threat, it prepares to deal with it. [A strike on Iran's nuclear facilities] won't be easy. We will be stretched to critical points, but what choice do we have?" No doubt, there would be a nasty Iranian reaction. In a strategy paper written last year, Col. (res.) Efraim Kam laid out what that might entail. First, Iran may use the attack to reject future inspections of its nuclear facilities and may even pull out of the NPT. Second, it would encourage Hizbullah and other groups to commit attacks against Israel and Jewish targets abroad. Finally, writes Kam, "Some Muslim countries would regard such an attack as an act of aggression against the Muslim world in general, and this may well have a negative influence on what remains of the relations between Israel and Arab and Islamic countries." Missile defense Were Iran to attack, for example, with a Shihab-3, Israel could counter with the Arrow II anti-ballistic missile system, which in December successfully knocked a mock-up of the Shihab-3 out of the sky. Dov Raviv, the proud father of the Arrow system, told The Jerusalem Post that the Arrow "has the capability to simultaneously intercept a salvo of more than five incoming missiles. A salvo means that the missiles arrive within a 30-second period. Such capability exists only with the US and Russia." The Arrow can also discriminate between a warhead and a decoy, insists Raviv. But for all the promises, the Arrow has had its flops too, and it has never been tested in actual war. Relying on such a defensive option is an outgrowth of the approach that Israel could simply sit back and wait for Iran's unpopular theocracy to implode. Yet there is no evidence to suggest that Iranian mullahs are going the way of Lenin. They may not be popular, and students may protest, but the system is holding. "Since 1981, every president has lasted for eight years," says David Menashri, a leading Iran expert at Tel Aviv University. "I hate to say it, but Iran is more stable than the Israeli government." Nuclear deterrence Even if it were attacked first, many experts say, Israel could still deliver nuclear warheads to Iran with its advanced fighter jets or in its 1,500-kilometer range Jericho II missiles. Alternately, the navy could respond with three (soon to be five) Dolphin-class diesel submarines launching nuclear-tipped cruise missiles. Thus, a balance of terror is struck; in theory, there is no advantage to having a nuclear capability. "There are real limits to nuclear weapons," explains Stephen Walt, professor of international affairs at Harvard University. "They can only prevent your country from being eliminated. That's it." Of course, this assumes that both sides are interested in survival. Do the Iranians truly appreciate the lesson of Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD)? In 2001, Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, who now heads the influential Expediency Discernment Council, declared, "If one day, the world of Islam comes to possess the weapons currently in Israel's possession - on that day this method of global arrogance would come to an end. This is because the use of a nuclear bomb in Israel will leave nothing on the ground, whereas [an Israeli response] will only damage the world of Islam." In other words, Iran would be willing to suffer a devastating blow, if it meant that Israel would be destroyed. Perhaps such talk is just bravado - something akin to Mao's boast in 1957 that China could win a nuclear war with the loss of "only" 300 million people. Then again, Iran is a country where, since 2004, 40,000 people have signed up to become suicide bombers. It is a country where you can find murals that declare, "We love our children but we love martyrdom more." Louis Rene Beres, a political scientist at Purdue University, has argued that Israel should end its policy of nuclear ambiguity to better deter such foolhardy enemies. He contends that "before such an enemy is appropriately deterred from launching first-strike attacks against Israel, or before it is deterred from launching retaliatory attacks following an Israeli preemption, it may not be enough that it 'knows' that Israel has nuclear weapons." Rather, the would-be attacker needs to believe that Israel has both the ability and the will to launch them. Nuclear coercion That leads to the most radical option in thwarting Iran's nuclear program: threatening Teheran's leadership, either in public or in private, with a preemptive nuclear strike should it continue down the road it is following. So far, no one has suggested such a terrifying idea, but it exists, nevertheless. There is actually historical precedent for making such a move. During the course of the Cold War, the superpowers have threatened each other, and each other's client states, with nuclear attack should a certain undesirable policy be adopted. For instance, in 1946, US President Harry Truman used nuclear blackmail to prevent the Soviets from carving an Azeri state out of Iran. Seven years later, US President Dwight Eisenhower threatened a non-nuclear China with an unconventional onslaught in order to reach a ceasefire in the Korean War. Israel was itself the victim of nuclear coercion in 1956, when the Soviets forced England, France and Israel to withdraw from Egypt with promises of dire punishment. While it might have been the American threat to collapse the pound sterling that most worried the British, the Israelis were truly concerned about Soviet nuclear action. In fact, that was what prompted the government to develop its own nuclear reactor, with French help. The question now is whether Israel could use the same tactic today. "I think it would not be credible for Israel to threaten to use its own nuclear arsenal merely to halt Iran's nuclear program, especially if this involved threatening to use, or actually using, nuclear weapons against Iranian civilians," says Walt. Stanford University political scientist Scott Sagan adds that the very issuing of a threat might earn it international condemnation and encourage Iran to push ahead with its nuclear program. Furthermore, it might lead to a situation where Jerusalem is forced to follow through on an unthinkable threat, lest it lose all credibility for the future. "Statesmen should never make coercive threats that they would not want to execute if they fail to achieve their goals without the use of force," says Sagan. But what if one threatened to use a nuclear device small enough that it blurred the line between nonconventional and super-powerful conventional bombs, like the 21,000-lbs. GBU-43/B? In such a case, the targeted country might very well believe that an attack is a possibility and will take notice. This is the logic of Thomas Dowler and Joseph Howard, from the Los Alamos National Laboratory. In 1991, they argued for three new classes of nuclear weapons: "micronukes," with an explosive yield of about 10 tons, or 20,000 pounds of high explosives; "mininukes," with a yield of about 100 tons; "tinynukes," with a yield of 1,000 tons. If would be shocking if, 14 years down the road, Israel did not already have such weapons. Whether it would use them, of course, is another matter altogether. "If Iran continues with its program, and Israel sees that Iran is building a weapon," said Gerald Steinberg, a senior research associate at Bar-Ilan University's BESA Center for Strategic Studies, "that might well change everything."