Foreign Affairs

How Close Are We To War With Iran?

Since 1979, the Iranian regime has repeatedly threatened Israel and has defied the United Nations in its attempts to sideline Tehran’s nuclear program.  Now, Iran is pre-emptively rejecting President-elect Obama’s “carrot-and-stick” diplomacy, which creates a diplomatic impasse.  

Military action may be the only means to keep Tehran from becoming an atomic power, and Israel appears to be the only nation willing to take such action.

President-elect Obama promises to use a “carrot-and-stick” — economic incentives and sanctions — approach to compell Iran to verifiably abandon its nuclear program.  But Iran’s foreign ministry spokesman Hasan Qashqavi has already declared that Obama’s  “…carrot-and-stick policy has no benefit.  It is unacceptable and failed.”

The West must face facts.  It isn’t going to talk Iran out of its nuclear weapons program.  The regime has likely passed beyond the point of no return.  It has mastered the technology of uranium enrichment.  It has all the tools to build atomic weapons and the ballistic missiles to deliver them.  The only thing lacking is a decision to build a weapon and that may be a fait accompli as well.  

These facts put Israel — Tehran’s much-maligned enemy — in an impossible position.  Iran’s president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has vowed that Israel “will disappear soon,” and Ehud Barak, Israel’s defense minister, is understandably sober about Jerusalem’s options.  “Talks never did, and never will, stop rockets,” said Barak, who is among a growing majority of Israelis ready to take military action to snuff-out Iran’s “existential” threat.

Israel’s calculus is complex, however.  Should it take risky military action or continue to trust the West?  After all, the West still clings to the remote hope that Tehran will bow to diplomacy. To complicate matters, the Obama team is expected to offer a plan to shield Israel from a future Iranian nuclear strike.

The new president plans to offer Israel a guaranteed “nuclear umbrella” against the threat of atomic attack by Iran and declare that an attack on Israel by Tehran would result in a devastating U.S. nuclear response against Iran.

Within this proposal is the thinly-veiled assumption that Obama believes Iran will acquire nuclear arms.  Secretary of State-designate Hillary Clinton raised the “umbrella” idea during her failed campaign for the presidency.  She said that Israel must be given “deterrent backing” and “Iran must know that an attack on Israel will draw a massive response.”  
This could be interpreted as giving Iran the go-ahead to acquire atomic weapons while committing the West to sit on its hands until Iran drops the bomb.  Understandably, people in Jerusalem trust neither the mullahs to abandon their atomic ambitions nor the U.S. to effectively deter Iranian action.  After all, what happens to the “umbrella” insurance policy when Tehran threatens Washington with Armageddon?

The existing scenario leaves Israel with tough questions.  Should it attack Iran’s nuclear program before that regime has atomic weapons — which could be very soon — and if so, what are the risks?  

The good news is that because the Arabs fear Iran’s hegemonic ambitions and what the mullahs might do with an atomic arsenal, they might quietly celebrate an Israeli attack by remaining neutral.  

Last week, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak accused the Islamic Republic of trying to absorb its Muslim neighbors.  He told a Kuwaiti audience that “…the Persians are trying to devour the Arab states.”  Other leaders share that view fearing Persian dominance would redraw alliances across the Middle East.

Kim Howells, Britain’s minister of state, explained that the main threat Iran poses is to the stability of the Middle East.  “I know from my discussions with ministers and commentators from the region,” Howells explained, “that Iran under its present regime possessing a nuclear bomb is a terrifying prospect.  They know already, that Tehran is prepared, whenever and wherever it believes it will gain itself advantage, to meddle in the affairs of Middle Eastern countries.”

There is little doubt the Israeli Air Force (IAF) can destroy a significant part of Iran’s nuclear program.  The IAF has practiced attacks and it has the equipment for the job.  A 2006 study by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Security Studies Program concluded that Israel does possess “…the capability to destroy even well-hardened targets in Iran with some degree of confidence.”

What’s lacking is Jesusalem’s decision  to launch the operation and the necessary air defense codes and intelligence from the U.S. to ensure success.  

If Israel attacks, expect Iran to retaliate by launching ballistic missiles at Israel, unleashing terror proxies, and trying to shutdown the Strait of Hormuz.  

Tehran has recently tripled its arsenal of long-distance Shihab-3 missiles to 100, each capable of striking any point in Israel.  They are well tested and armed with one-ton conventional warheads, but are capable of carrying nuclear warheads.

Israel is prepared to counter those missiles with an early warning system, a sizeable anti-ballistic missile defense (BMD) network and a nationwide alert system to protect the population.

This fall, the U.S. deployed a BMD radar, the AN-TPY-2 (X-Band) to Israel’s Nevatim air base in the Negev desert.  The radar is capable of detecting ballistic missiles in flight, tracking them and plotting an intercept. It has likely been integrated with Israel’s Arrow BMD system which has successfully downed test missiles.

Even though the Jewish state is defensively prepared for the attack, it will counter-punch in proportion to Tehran’s assault.  Israel has a wide range of conventional capabilities but could use nuclear weapons launched by fighters, missiles or its German-built Dolphin submarines equipped with nuclear-tipped cruise missiles.  War with Iran will mean no targets are off limits.

Iran would also use its proxy terror group Hezbollah to attack Israel with rockets as it did in 2006.  Since that war, Hezbollah has replenished its rocket stocks and rebuilt its fortifications.  This time, however, Israel will respond aggressively with overwhelming counter fire and swarms of ground forces throughout Hezbollah’s Southern Lebanon homeland.  

If war breaks out, Tehran will also use its sea-based capabilities to target Israeli vessels and it could attempt to close the Straits of Hormuz in order to punish the U.S. and the entire region. Two-fifths of the world’s oil and 18 percent of global liquefied natural gas passes through that 21 mile-wide channel which is the entrance to the Persian Gulf.

The U.S. Fifth Fleet, permanently stationed in the Gulf, constantly monitors Iranian activity.  It knows that Iran has threatened to close the straits, and the U.S. is determined to keep that from happening. The Israelis therefore hold the card to ensure American participation in the operation.  

Expect Iran to use its anti-ship missiles, naval mines, and small boat swarming tactics to try and defeat much larger vessels.  The biggest unknown is the effectiveness of its naval missiles and torpedoes.  

The Revolutionary Guards have successfully tested the “Hoot,” a high-speed supercavitating rocket-propelled torpedo, which is capable of achieving speeds of up to 225 mph.  This is the most dangerous naval weapon in Tehran’s inventory and could seriously challenge our navy.

Expect that at the last moment, the U.S. will provide the Israelis with air defense codes, targeting intelligence and perhaps even participate in a joint attack.  Participating in the attack would help the U.S. avoid surprises such as an aircraft carrier falling prey to a “Hoot” torpedo or a swarm attack by Iranian boats.  

Israel may persuade the US to help take out the Iranian nuclear menace.  But it would likely succeed even without American help and Tehran’s atomic program will be set back several years.  

The consequences of an Israeli attack likely won’t be crippling to anyone other than the Iranians. On balance, though the risks are great, the risks of failing to attack appear much greater.


Sign Up