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Analysis | Strike Out? Doubts Cast on Israeli Ability to Cripple Iran Atom Efforts

by PAUL MUTTER

19 Apr 2012 18:50Comments
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But no letup in pressure to deny Iran "capability" of building a bomb.

Paul Mutter is a graduate student at the Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute at NYU and a fellow at Truthout, an independent online magazine.
[ analysis ] A report in Jane's Defence Weekly on the ability of the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) to strike Iranian nuclear sites by analysts Scott Johnson and Emily Chorley discusses in detail Israel's aerial, missile, and naval capabilities, as well as the known characteristics of Iranian nuclear sites such as the underground Fordow complex. Fordow is the subject of much diplomatic rancor going into the next round of P5+1 talks in Baghdad, since the United States and Israel are now on the same page in demanding that Iran shut down the subterranean site.

Though the report echoes optimistic points made in earlier analyses from other sources, it illustrates the deep divisions among military experts on the advisability of a solo Israeli strike, in particular the point raised elsewhere by analyst Anthony Cordesman that Israeli leaders are "going to look at the political outcome of what it says and does, not simply measure this in terms of some computer game and what the immediate tactical impact is." That is, Israeli leaders are not so foolish as to base their entire strategy on whether a war will physically set the Iranian nuclear program back two or three or five years.

Recent defense reports have focused on the "technical" aspects of a war, though. As of this week, the Israel Air Force (IAF) is now apparently broadcasting "detailed" attack plans on Israeli news, likely to further keep observers guessing as to Israel's true intentions. Assessing the distances involved, known IAF capabilities, and the defenses of the Iranian facilities, Jane's analysts concluded that a unilateral Israeli action would represent an extremely high-risk undertaking that could successfully hinder, but most likely not destroy, Iran's nuclear capabilities. To achieve more than a temporary halt to Iranian nuclear activities, the Israelis would have to destroy, at minimum, the Natanz, Fordow, Isfahan, and Arak sites, assuming that there are no other sites inside Iran like them.

Without in-flight refueling, none of Israel's F-15 or F-16 fighters, loaded down with missiles and guided bombs, would likely be able to reach targets beyond Arak. With in-flight refueling, the several dozen IAF fighters needed for the operation would be operating at their technical and human limits to reach the nuclear sites and deliver ordinance capable of damaging the "hardened" underground facilities. Israel is known to have such ordinance, but unless "lucky shots" were scored at the onset, it would take multiple hits on each site to put them out of commission even temporarily.

Barring access to airfields closer to Iran's borders, Israeli planes would have to either fly over Iraq and refuel in Iraqi airspace before proceeding into Iranian airspace, or fly a very circumscribed route over Jordanian and Saudi territory, still having to refuel before entering Iranian airspace. Efforts to substitute or complement fighter-bomber operations through the use of Jericho intermediate-range ballistic missiles (IRBMs) or submarine-launched ballistic missiles are not rated as effective alternatives by Jane's since the IDF would likely have to resort to arming these missiles with nuclear warheads to ensure the destruction of key sites in central Iran (it is generally agreed that Israeli leaders would never authorize such actions).

The paths that the IAF might take would necessitate a decision between a small-scale surprise attack and a larger one. A wider attack would probably seek to damage Iran's anti-aircraft sites and the military facilities at Parchin, in order to reduce Iran's retaliatory capabilities. While Iran's missile bases at Tabriz and Iman Ali are thought to be well within Israeli fighters' standard operating range, an unknown number of Iran's newest IRBM, the Shahab-3, can reportedly be shifted around the country on mobile launch platforms, making their destruction by the IAF, or perhaps IDF commandos, a very tall order.

Iran's Shahab-3s are a source of concern for Uzi Rubin, one of the chief architects of Israel's "Arrow" missile interceptor system in the 1990s. That Rubin is speaking out on the subject is significant because in 2008, he seemed much more confident that the system he helped design would afford Israeli airbases significant defensive capabilities against Shahab-3s. It's likely that Rubin, who has focused on the deterrence value of the system rather than its preemptive utility, does not wish to see the interceptor network "degraded" by Iranian conventional weapons, given the likelihood of sustained retaliation from Iran and her allies. And despite his faith in the system, his 2008 report concedes that as the size of the salvos increases (and Iranian missiles become more accurate), the likelihood of multiple Shahabs getting through to hit key targets increases significantly.

The missile expert told Inter Press Service this March that he is not confident that the IDF's new Arrow-3 missile, which has never been used in wartime but may be ready in quantity by 2013, could intercept all of Iran's Shahab-3s. Even with conventional warheads, Rubin warns, these missiles could inflict severe damage on Israeli infrastructure, compromising the IDF's capacity to maintain a prolonged missile defense on all fronts. His concerns stand in stark contrast to reports from the Israeli Defense Ministry and Air Force, which have concluded independently that rocket and missile attacks from any combination of Iran, Hamas and Islamic Jihad in Gaza, and Hezbollah in Lebanon or Syria would cause only a few hundred Israeli casualties -- and not lead to escalation in Gaza, on the Golan Heights, or in southern Lebanon.

A second Jane's report, released this April, discusses in detail the U.S. military's Persian Gulf capabilities. Tim Ripley reports that Western air superiority over Iran, which the United States has been aiming to achieve since 2006 alongside Great Britain and the Gulf Cooperation Council, would likely be guaranteed by the presence of land-based American fighters, in-flight refueling tankers, and early-warning aircraft launched from bases in the UAE, Bahrain, and Qatar. And the fighter complements of two aircraft carriers, cruise missiles stored on several submarines, and a group of B-1B "Lancer" bombers represent a potent threat to Iranian defense facilities and nuclear installations. However, while the Jane's report acknowledges the tremendous damage U.S. forces could inflict, it notes that the political will to order such an attack is not present, and that it is still unlikely that an American-led air campaign would do anything more than retard the program. Notably, the Israeli reporter who seems to have been given exclusive access to the IAF this week commented that in the event of an attack, "the result won't be definitive," in contrast to how past IAF operations against the Iraqi (1981) and Syrian (2007) nuclear programs are commonly presented in arguing for an attack on Iran before 2013.

Indeed, the scale of a possible U.S.-led air campaign has been the subject of intense pressure from within Washington, D.C., including a small but vocal coterie of commentators and retired government officials who think that the Pentagon should expand any such campaign to target Iran's defense infrastructure and leadership, and perhaps its oil and natural gas facilities as well, in the hopes that the resulting carnage will prompt a popular uprising. This is the approach favored by prominent American neoconservatives, and, according to its critics, the Mojahedin-e Khalgh Orgnization (MKO). But like those who argue that Iran's nuclear program can be dealt a fatal blow by the IAF alone, they have so far failed to convince critics of the regime that a new, pro-Western government willing to give up its nuclear ambitions would form from the Green Movement, or MKO, or other actors within Iran.

Skeptics of an attack's success, including some of the most historically hawkish voices on Iran like former Mossad chief Meir Dagan, former Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Admiral Mike Mullen, and former CIA Director Michael Hayden, continue to argue that the end result of a strike on Iran would not be regime collapse or a cessation of the nuclear program, but instead, a successful Iranian drive to obtain a nuclear weapon. They fear a determined, though battered, Iranian leadership and a mobilized, angry public that might be more willing to accept the sort of world censure and economic pain that North Korean elites have forced upon their subjects to develop a crude nuclear stockpile.

Hence, these individuals believe regime change fostered by means short of open warfare should be the objective. Dagan, for instance, secretly told the Bush administration in 2007 that he felt regime change was the only long-term means of resolving the "nuclear question" and curbing Iranian influence in the region, a statement he reiterated in public this year on 60 Minutes. Dagan's 2007 plan, disclosed by WikiLeaks, was broadly similar to the Clinton administration's approach toward Saddam Hussein's Iraq in the 1990s: containment through subversion, sanctions, sabotage, and diplomatic isolation. The only significant difference with respect to Dagan's plan was a refusal on his part -- and apparently, the CIA's as well -- to call for air strikes against suspected nuclear sites.

The fact that Israel and the United States are on the same page regarding the Fordow site suggests that the two countries are not going to back away from this demand next month, or from their insistence that Iran turn over its stockpile of uranium enriched to 19.75 percent. The assertion that Obama is preparing an olive branch in private behind Israel's back, perhaps even to the point of lessening sanctions, sounds too much like an effort to produce a "hot mic" controversy before the conference to undercut a negotiated outcome where Iran makes substantial -- but not "sufficient" -- concessions. Congress has already made it quite clear that its "redlines" are the same as Israel's: Iran cannot be allowed to reach the point where it has the "capability" to build a bomb. House and Senate bills on "redlines" argue, as does Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak, that the United States has little more than a year to take action against Iran -- the window within which Iran supposedly could build a nuclear warhead if it so chose. Much now depends on Tehran's willingness to accept these demands in the coming weeks.

Because Israel has been warning it will take action against suspected Iranian nuclear breakthroughs since 1992, it is as always difficult to determine what information Western leaders are actually acting on. Since 2007, U.S. National Intelligence Estimates, reports from the International Atomic Energy Agency, and Mossad briefs have all, to varying degrees of certainty, maintained that Iran has not been pursuing weaponization since 2003 and that since then, the military and clerical leadership have not reached a consensus on whether or not to revive such efforts. For the most hawkish Israeli and American politicians and Iranian émigrés, though, action should be taken before such a consensus forms.

Even so, all of this debate, even the portrayal of the spring P5+1 talks as an 11th-hour undertaking, may be yet another part of the over-30-year-long American-led effort to eventually force out the leadership that took power in 1979, an effort in which Israel has played a leading role to safeguard its national security and maintain its status as the only (undeclared) nuclear power in the region. It is not clear if Dagan's plan to foment regime change has been maintained or shelved by his replacement at Mossad, Tamir Pardo, but it is at least possible that the real Israeli aim is securing tighter international sanctions on Iran, with a long-term eye on forcing regime change through economic strangulation, even though Iranians have already been subject to more than three decades of sanctions.

Now, though, it is clear that the tensions between Messrs. Obama and Netanyahu have strained such cooperation to the point where military action may in fact be months away should Iran's negotiators fail to satisfy Western demands in the next round of talks, which Israeli leaders are already dismissing as an exercise in futility. Whether this is a sincere dismissal, or a message for Obama or Khamenei to digest ahead of the Baghdad negotiations, remains to be seen.

by the same author | Syrian Ceasefire Takes Effect, But Violence Unlikely to End | Bombs Away: What Will It Take to Avoid War with Iran?

Copyright © 2012 Tehran Bureau

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