Decision time

If diplomacy fails to thwart Teheran's nuclear ambitions, can Israel really stop them militarily?

ahadinejad 298 (photo credit: AP)
ahadinejad 298
(photo credit: AP)
It was exactly a year ago. A small Falcon jet - favored by top Iranian military officers - crashed in northwest Iran near the Turkish border. Among those killed were Brig.-Gen. Ahmad Kazemi, commander of the elite Revolutionary Guard ground forces division, and at least 12 other officers. Rumors quickly spread that the plane had been sabotaged and that Kazemi had been killed in a devious Israeli plot. While Iranian official statements blamed bad weather and dilapidated engines for the crash, there was room for speculation that foul play may have had a hand. Kazemi had been responsible for the production and development of Iran's Shihab ballistic missile series, capable of delivering a nuclear warhead into the heart of Europe, not to mention Israel. He was also a close confidant of Iranian Defense Minister Mostafa Muhammad Najjar, from their days together in the Revolutionary Guard, where Najjar served as the head of the Middle East department, responsible for Israel and Lebanon. Since last January's crash, air travel for Iranian military officials has become increasingly dangerous. On November 27, a military transport plane crashed just after take-off from Teheran. More than 40 people were killed including 30 members of the Revolutionary Guard, some of them reported to be close advisers to President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. A week before, a helicopter crashed into the central town of Najafabad, killing six, including a senior Revolutionary Guard officer. The combined effect of these crashes, some Iranian analysts claim, has effectively gutted the high command of the Revolutionary Guard. But whatever the truth concerning the cause of these mysterious crashes, they show that numerous stumbling blocks confront Iran's efforts to develop nuclear-tipped missiles capable of reaching Israel. International pressure - in the form of UN-approved sanctions such as those imposed last month - as well as internal strife and recent technological challenges all serve as obstacles the Islamic Republic has had to face throughout its 20-year effort to obtain nuclear weapons. Within the Israeli leadership, there is one clear voice - Prime Minister Ehud Olmert - that refuses to come to terms with a nuclear Iran and claims that Teheran must be stopped, even at a heavy price, from obtaining weapons of mass destruction and rocking the balance of power in the Middle East. Currently nine countries are known to have or are suspected of having nuclear weapons: the US, France, the UK, Russia, China, India, Pakistan, North Korea and Israel. Adding Iran to the mix will not only constitute an existential threat to Israel, but will also impair its operational independence. "What if a soldier is kidnapped in Lebanon and we want to go to war?" asks one senior official. "All Iran would need to do is wave its nuke at us and make us reconsider." Israel currently has invested most of its intelligence-gathering resources into the Iranian issue. The Mossad holds the "Iran File" and the Foreign Ministry is spearheading diplomatic efforts. There are additional, top-secret committees, whose members are appointed by the prime minister and include senior officials from the intelligence community and former politicians with a strategic background. These committees, one participant says, meet from time to time and are responsible for amalgamating all of the details gathered by the different security branches and brainstorming on strategy. At the end of the day, however, as one former IAF commander involved in the successful strike on Iraq's Osirak reactor in 1981 points out, it is solely up to the prime minister to decide what course of action Israel will take - military or diplomacy. The way things looks now, D-Day might not be too far away. STATUS REPORT Iran has built at least two dozen suspected nuclear facilities and, according to recent revelations, intends to produce fissile materials on two parallel tracks: the uranium track and the plutonium track. Using the excuse of a plan to produce fuel for nuclear power plants, Iran is building uranium enrichment capabilities with gas centrifuges in Natanz. According to latest assessments by Western intelligence sources, it has encountered "serious" obstacles on its way to crossing the nuclear threshold and obtaining independent research and development capabilities. These obstacles have pushed back predictions regarding the point when Iran would obtain these capabilities, with Western sources now claiming Iran will cross the technological threshold only in late 2007. Despite the setbacks in the enrichment of uranium - a critical step in the development of a nuclear bomb - Ahmadinejad last month announced plans to build 60,000 additional centrifuges, leading Western sources to believe that it is only a matter of time before Iran overcomes the technological obstacles. (Pakistan encountered similar difficulties in its nuclear program but eventually overcame them.) Experts speculate that the enrichment difficulties Iran is encountering at its plant at Natanz could be behind its second track - the construction of a heavy-water production facility near the town of Arak to produce plutonium. Israeli observers note that Iran is also building - in the same location - a "research reactor" which will probably be used for irradiating uranium and later separation of plutonium from the irradiated rods. According to nuclear experts, Iran would need 3,000 working centrifuges to successfully enrich uranium, and Ahmadinejad has announced plans to immediately begin installing these centrifuges in defiance of last month's UN Security Council decision to impose sanctions. At the moment at Natanz, Iran has two working cascades - each consisting of 164 centrifuges - with which it claimed in April to have enriched uranium to 3.5 percent. For a bomb, uranium needs to be enriched to 90 percent or SQ, a nuclear technical term for Significant Quantity. Once Iran completes the construction of the centrifuges and masters the technology, it will still take another year to reach SQ and then another two years to assemble a nuclear device, putting current assessments for when Iran will have a nuclear weapon at 2010. Teheran initially had planned to activate 3,000 centrifuges by late 2006, but failed, and then increase this to 54,000. Iranian officials say that would produce enough enriched uranium to fuel a 1,000-megawatt reactor, such as that being built by Russia and nearing completion at Bushehr. Iran is also working to upgrade the type of centrifuge it has been using at Natanz. The National Council of Resistance revealed at a press conference in August that Iran was secretly producing P2 centrifuges in violation of the Non-Proliferation Treaty. P2 centrifuges are second-generation and, according to nuclear experts, are "better and more effective" in enriching uranium. Diplomacy vs Military In 1992, Israeli Military Intelligence put Iranian nuclear efforts on the nation's agenda as a potential existential threat. A few years later, reports began to surface regarding a covert Iranian missile project aimed at developing a rocket capable of reaching Israel called the Shihab. Israel's course of action at the time was mostly waiting and watching. By 1996, Amos Gilad, then head of the MI Research Division, began pointing to Iran as a growing threat. At the time, he recalls, the Americans were obsessed with Iraq and Israel was following suit. Saddam Hussein was perceived as the region's most immediate threat. As a result, the shift in focus took time, possibly precious time. By the end of the decade, however, MI and the Mossad began to see eye-to-eye, viewing their main task as tracking weapons of mass destruction in Iran. Israel began investing in spy satellites - like the Eros B launched in April 2006 - in addition to making improvements to the Arrow 2 anti-missile system. The IAF purchased sophisticated long-range fighters - the US-made F-15I and F-16I - which IAF officers say can easily reach Iran. Aware that a military strike on Iran would be far more difficult than the 1981 bombing of the Iraqi reactor in Osirak - its nuclear sites are scattered across the country and some are underground - Israel had to create an image that if necessary it has the will and the firepower. At the same time, Israel has been warning from every available podium of the looming threat emanating from Iran. Ahmadinejad's accession to power in August 2005 assisted Israel in grabbing the world's attention. A denier of the Holocaust who calls persistently for Israel's destruction, Ahmadinejad himself made Jerusalem's case. From the beginning, it has been a race against time, and the strategy chosen is to enlist the world against Iran. If not to stop Iran, then to at least slow it down enough so that if and when Teheran does go nuclear, the radical ayatollahs would have been toppled and would not be the ones with their finger on the trigger. The diplomatic work has partially paid off. The UN Security Council decision two weeks ago to impose sanctions was considered a major achievement. Russia had initially objected to sanctions but in the vote aligned itself with the US, possibly the result of a series of high-level recent visits to Moscow by National Security Council head Ilan Mizrahi, Gilad, now head of the Defense Ministry's Diplomatic-Security Bureau, and Foreign Ministry Director-General Aharon Abramovich. But while the decision was greeted as a "positive step," the defense establishment does not believe that sanctions will be effective in stopping Iran from continuing with its nuclear program. "There is no way to stop Iran anymore except with military action," says one high-ranking officer. "At this point, sanctions will only leave a dent, but they will not stop the program." Not everyone agrees with that assessment. Foreign Ministry officials voice cautious predictions that the sanctions could eventually lead Iran to drop its nuclear ambitions. One proponent of sanctions is Uri Lubrani, an adviser to the defense minister. Lubrani, 80, has been in the Defense Ministry for decades and served as ambassador to the Shah's Iran. He follows events in Iran closely and while he ultimately believes the most effective way to stop the Islamic regime would be by overthrowing the mullahs, he also believes tough sanctions - not like the ones approved by the UN - can be effective. In contrast to the regime led by Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Lubrani claims the people of Iran are interested in "staying a part of the world" and not being cut off as a result of the regime's nuclear program. "It is very late but we still need to try to impose sanctions, since they can be effective," he says in an interview. "There is no reason not to try. Iran is dependent on importing refined fuel. Why don't we cut the amount they get by 90 percent?" A close adviser to Olmert on security and diplomatic issues says that he too believes sanctions could be effective if not in stopping Iran's nuclear program, then at least in delaying it. The official agrees with Lubrani that the Iranian people do not want to turn into a "leper state" like North Korea, which has also come under sanctions since announcing it tested a nuclear device in October. Even if sanctions are escalated and begin to affect Iran's oil production - the country's main source of income - some Israeli experts are doubtful Teheran will completely abandon its nuclear program. Ephraim Asculi, a 40-year veteran of the Atomic Energy Commission and currently an analyst with the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies, wrote recently that Iran would be prepared to follow in North Korea's footsteps. In face of major sanctions and international isolation, he predicted that Teheran would continue with its nuclear program clandestinely. "It will be very difficult for Iran to abandon its nuclear ambitions," Asculi wrote in the center's Tel Aviv Notes in August. "The first [reason] is the need to deter several perceived threats: US armed forces in Afghanistan, Iraq and the Gulf pose a danger from almost every direction; Iraq, though currently incapable of threatening any of its neighbors, could eventually reemerge as a regional force; and Israel is seen as a hostile nuclear-weapons state." US Defense Secretary Robert Gates made the same argument during his Senate confirmation hearing last month. Asked why he thought Iran was pursuing nuclear weapons, Gates responded: "They are surrounded by powers with nuclear weapons - Pakistan to their east, the Russians to the north, the Israelis to the west and us in the Persian Gulf." Asculi also noted internal processes that play a role in Iran's decision to press forward with its plan despite sanctions. "The current Iranian regime has been successful in rallying the nation around its nuclear program, which is perhaps the only policy uniting the population, and undoing this could help hasten its downfall," he wrote. But if the diplomatic track reaches a dead end, it will still be necessary to stop Iran's atomic plan, even at a heavy price. Olmert has said numerous times in public that Iran cannot be allowed to obtain nuclear weapons. He has also said that "Iran has what to be afraid of." ISRAELI MILITARY CAPABILITY While diplomatic efforts have taken center stage over the past year, military commanders have been drawing up the plans that could be used if all else fails. Senior security officials predict that 2007 will be the crucial year of decision on whether to launch a strike. But is Israel even capable of such an attack? A former IAF head claims that Israel has the ability to destroy Iran's nuclear program or at least set it back by several years. The time gained, he says, could be used to work to topple the Islamic regime or follow up the strike with tough sanctions that would make Iran abandon its atomic plans. Not everyone agrees. One former IAF brigadier-general says he is not certain the air force is capable of dealing Iran the powerful blow necessary to delay the program. "If we send the air force there, we run the risk of losing a third of our fleet," he says. "And if we return without fulfilling the mission, then what will we have achieved?" With Iraq, Israel has certainly proven its willpower. In 1981, a formation of eight F-16 fighter jets flew just over 2,000 kilometers and destroyed the Osirak reactor outside Baghdad. According to the former head of the IAF, prime minister Menachem Begin decided - together with the OC Air Force Maj.-Gen. David Ivry - that the moment the Iraqis put fuel into the reactor, Operation Opera would be given the green light. "The government needs to decide what its red line is," he says. "Once that line is crossed then we need to attack." Israel seems to be preparing for the possibility that it will have to "go it alone" against Iran. A recent escalation in rhetoric seems to indicate that the country is getting ready for such an option. According to the intelligence assessment for 2007, the defense establishment does not foresee the US launching a preemptive strike on Iran's nuclear installations. The Democratic takeover of the US Congress and the Baker-Hamilton report, which calls for dialogue with Iran, led to the prediction that President George W. Bush will not order a military strike. "The entire movement in the US is toward dialogue, not military action," says one high-ranking intelligence official. "Countries are beginning to come to terms with the fact that there will be a nuclear Iran." ISRAEL IS NOT one of those countries. Deputy Defense Minister Ephraim Sneh told The Jerusalem Post in November that sanctions were unlikely to work and that Israel must be prepared to thwart Teheran's drive for nuclear capability "at all costs," even in a preemptive strike. Since then other leaders have added their voices, including Vice Prime Minister Shimon Peres who recently declared: "Iran too can be destroyed." Military Intelligence, however, admits it works under the assumption that it is not aware of all Iran's nuclear sites. According to senior officers, the assumption is that Iran has built secret installations for its covert military program. There are additional complications. While Osirak was a distant target that required expert pilots who could maneuver at low altitude, it was only one facility and was above ground. A number of Iran's nuclear facilities are underground and are heavily fortified, some with steel reinforcements and others with layers of concrete. According to a senior government official involved in security and strategic affairs, the military would need precise intelligence on every facility to be able to choose the most effective weapon. "We would need to know all of the specifications," he says. "Whether the bunker is fortified by steel or concrete and even how thick it is." So how would it be done? According to Jane's Intelligence Review, the IAF can generate more than 300 long-range attack and fighter-cover sorties daily, supported by refueling tankers, electronic warfare, electronic intelligence and airborne warning and control systems planes, while maintaining a strong reserve against intervention by the Arab states. Each attack sortie could include the use of Popeye or GBU-15 standoff missiles, laser or electro-optical guided bombs, and Joint Direct Attack Munition missiles with further protection provided by Samson decoys. Following the war in Lebanon, the IAF has ordered large numbers of JDAMs to refill stocks used against Hizbullah. Israel is also buying 500 US BLU-109 "bunker buster" bombs that are reported to be capable of penetrating the concrete protection around some of Iran's underground facilities, like the enrichment center at Natanz, according to the Daily Telegraph. Israeli fighter jets have carried out other long-range missions in the past including the 1985 2,060-km strike on the Palestine Liberation Organization's headquarters in Tunis in response to the murder of three Israelis on a yacht in Cyprus. Today, the IAF's 25 F-15Is (called "Ra'am" or "Thunder" in Hebrew) based in the Negev, with a combat range of close to 4,400 kilometers, are capable of striking Iran in a nonstop operation like that against Osirak. By the end of the year, the IAF will also finish receiving the remainder of the 102 F-16Is ("Sufa" or "Storm" in Hebrew) it procured in the late 1990s. These too are capable of long-range missions, with a combat radius of closer to 2,200 km., extended by another 1,000 km. if conformal fuel tanks are used. The combat radius on these aircraft could be increased by utilizing the IAF's fleet of B-707 air-to-air refueling tankers that could nurse attack planes as they make the flight to Iran and back. According to foreign media, Israel can also utilize its Jericho 2 missiles, which according to have a range of 1,500 km. and a payload of 1,000 kilograms. The Jericho 2, according to foreign reports, has enhanced accuracy and puts almost every Arab capital, including Teheran, within striking distance. The navy also has three German-made Dolphin-class submarines which, according to foreign reports, may carry surface-to-surface Harpoon missiles capable of delivering a 227-kg. warhead to a range of 130 km. Some foreign reports suggest the subs might be capable of carrying nuclear-armed Popeye Turbo cruise missiles, which would enable second-strike capabilities. Another issue of extreme importance is the route the air force would choose. The quickest and most convenient would be over Jordan and Iraq, but according to Brig.-Gen. (res.) Shlomo Brom of the Jaffee Center, it would be best to fly the longer route over the Indian Ocean with minimal penetration of other states' air space. Asking Jordan or the US for permission prior to the flights could jeopardize the entire mission. "Flying through Jordan without the explicit or implicit permission of the Jordanians would hurt relations with a friendly Arab state," Brom wrote in a recent article in the book Getting Ready for a Nuclear Iran. "Flying over Iraq without coordination with the United States would lead to a clash with US interceptors." In addition to the underground reinforcement at certain nuclear sites, the Iranians have also beefed up their air defenses in preparation for a possible air strike. But the strong air defenses do not protect fixed Iranian targets against standoff precision-guided weapons fired from out of range of the anti-aircraft missiles. According to a high-ranking IAF officer, "The Iranian air force is not a threat to the IAF. None of our neighbors pose an aerial threat that the air force would not be able to deal with." The Iranian Air Force is comprised of MiG-29 squadrons and other planes, some dating back 30 years. Air defense systems, which are currently heavily deployed near the various nuclear sites, feature Russian SA-2, SA-5, SA-6 and shoulder-launched SA-7 missiles, according to the Military Balance prepared by the Jaffee Center. The Iranians also have aged US-made Hawk missiles and have been seeking to purchase the sophisticated S-300P from Russia. "Israel can do it," the former head of the Air Force says. "All you have to do is pick a number of essential targets and destroy them. This way you postpone the process and wait to see what happens." The fallout During this summer's war in Lebanon Maj.-Gen. Amos Yadlin, head of Military Intelligence, warned one night during a press conference at military headquarters in Tel Aviv that Hizbullah sleeper cells abroad, directed and supported by Iran, had been "awakened" and were preparing plans to attack Jewish and Israeli sites. The assumption within Military Intelligence took into account Iran's long-reaching terror arm. Iran is held responsible for the bombing of the Argentine Israelite Mutual Association building in Buenos Aires in 1994 in which 85 people were killed. Hizbullah is also believed to be behind the bombing of the Israeli Embassy in Buenos Aires in 1992 in which 29 people were killed and 242 wounded. "If Israel decides to attack Iran's nuclear installations, it will have to take into account a response in kind," Brom wrote. The Iranians would most probably utilize Hizbullah to ignite the Lebanese border like they did this past summer when 4,000 rockets pounded the North. While Hizbullah refrained from firing long-range Iranian-made Fajr and Zelzal missiles, it would most probably launch the missiles - which can reach south of Tel Aviv - following an attack on Iran. Iran has also developed its own ballistic missile, the Shihab 3, which is said to have a range of 1,330 km. and gives Iran the capability to strike directly at targets in Israel. In mid-December 2005, it was also reported that Iran had acquired 18 BM-25 missiles from North Korea which have a range of 2,500 km. Iran is also said to be in the midst of developing missiles that would be capable of carrying heavier payloads for increased distances: 2,000 km., 2,500 km. and even 4,000 km. No solid evidence of these advanced Shihabs is available, and it is unclear whether the Iranians have moved beyond the initial planning phase. But if they are being developed - and MI believes they are - then they indicate that Iran also has its sights on European countries - possibly even US military bases in Germany, one diplomatic official speculated. While the Shihab is deadly when carrying a conventional warhead - its payload is up to 800 kg. - Brom warned that Israel would also have to take into account Iranian use of chemical weapons. For that purpose, the Arrow 2 anti-ballistic missile defense system, which according to senior IAF officers is capable of intercepting all of Iran's missiles, was developed. "The fallout of a preemptive attack would be painful," admits a high-ranking security official. "But we need to think of the trade-off: A nuclear bomb could destroy the State of Israel." An uncontrollable region In April, following close to two years of work, Dan Meridor presented his report on Israel's defense doctrine to then-defense minister Shaul Mofaz. The report, the first of its kind, made practical recommendations concerning defense strategy: Develop anti-missile systems, upgrade the National Security Council and prepare the IDF for low-intensity conflicts. An additional and no less important recommendation was: under no circumstances to allow Iran to obtain nuclear weapons. According to Meridor's report, success for Iran would set off a race to join the nuclear club throughout the Middle East. "The region," the report states, "would become uncontrollable." That day might not be too far away, With Iran plunging ahead with its program in defiance of the UN and the international community, Egypt, Algeria, Saudi Arabia, Morocco, Tunisia and the United Arab Emirates announced in early November that they intended to begin upgrading their nuclear energy programs. Of the six, the most advanced by far are Egypt and Algeria. Turkey is also reported to be toying with the idea of starting a nuclear program. "To remain a player in the region, these Arab countries will have no choice but to quickly develop nuclear weapons," says a senior government official responsible for formulating strategic policy. The countries that would be most affected by Iranian success, Meridor's report claims, are Saudi Arabia and Egypt, both heavily dependent on American military support and afraid to lose their place of dominance in the region. Saudi Arabia is a leading Sunni power while Iran is a Shiite-dominated country. "The Saudis will not be able to stand by and let their archenemies overtake them militarily," said the official. "Egypt is the same and will want to retain its military superiority in the region." This was actually pointed out three years ago in a report - "Saudi Arabia - a New Player on the Nuclear Scene?" - published in the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies' Notes by Ephraim Asculi, a veteran of the Israeli Atomic Energy Commission. Asculi claimed that a Sunni fear of a Shi'ite nuclear bomb prompted Saudi Arabia to strike a deal with Pakistan under which it would contribute to the Pakistani nuclear project and in return receive a commitment from Islamabad to provide it with a "nuclear umbrella." Saudi Arabia can also launch the weapons; it purchased 36 CSS-2 missiles, with a range of 3,000 kilometers, from China in the late 1980s.